How BIM Facilitates Complex Design and What Glaziers Should Know

By Jordan Scott

It’s no secret that 3D modeling has transformed the design and construction industries, streamlining the way information is shared among architects, general contractors and specialty trade contractors such as glaziers. Software programs such as BIM 360, Grasshopper, Revit and Rhino are facilitating the construction of highly complex building facades. Some projects even have 3D modeling requirements.

While some contract glaziers use this software regularly, not everyone does. And while 3D modeling isn’t necessary for all glazing projects, the industry increasingly is moving in that direction. Some industry professionals say if glazing contractors don’t get involved in building information modeling (BIM) soon, they could get left behind.

Design Reality

Architects can use 3D modeling software to create complex geometries. However, it’s important for the design team to have an understanding of constructability and repeatability. Jaydon Serbousek, design department manager for Permasteelisa North America of Windsor, Conn., says it’s important to study the geometry and find aspects of the design that can be repeated to make the façade easier and more cost effective to fabricate and install.

For example, Permasteelisa was involved in a project that appears to have a twisting façade. Srinidhi Murali, building information designer for Permasteelisa, explains that the design of the first ten floors is repeated to create this effect.

“It involves mixing and matching unique designs to create something that looks brilliant,” she says.

Permasteelisa project design manager Emily Carr recommends that, if possible, a glazing contractor get access to the design team’s 3D models early on to be able to understand the design intent and assist in making the design achievable.

Improved Workflow

Glazing contractors also can utilize 3D modeling software internally to better coordinate with other trades or to collaborate with architects early on. Some companies, such as Permasteelisa, include 3D models in their submittals.

“It’s not always a contractual requirement but you want to make sure you’re getting the most benefit out of the process,” says Carr. “Subcontractors need to take a more active role to see the benefits fully.”

Murali explains that it can be harrowing to overlay drawings from other trades to find design clashes. BIM software makes it easier to coordinate with other trades and ensure that everyone has the same information.

“You might find something in 3D that you didn’t see previously in 2D,” she says.

Carr explains that, while not as much of a problem as it was ten years ago, there are occasions where other subcontractors don’t have access to 3D modeling. It is usually the general contractor’s responsibility to identify design clashes, but Permasteelisa reviews the 3D models of adjacent trades as well as 2D contract drawings when necessary to bring any issues to light as early as possible.

Lisa Rammig, director for London-based Eckersley O‘Callaghan & Partners (EOC), says 3D modeling software helps her company better understand a project’s materials both from a geometrical and analytical standpoint. This understanding facilitates increasingly complex façade design.

However, there can be challenges when using BIM technology. Rammig’s company has run into some complexities when deciding how much detail to include in a model. If there’s too much detail it can be difficult to compute. EOC typically works around this by having two different sets of information. One set goes into the overall architectural model that is quantifying components of a façade. That information can be used for pricing and the contractor’s general understanding such as the mullion sizes, the amount of glass, the types of materials, etc.

“The other side includes 3D information or details that are important for more complex façade geometries to be able to build and understand them,” says Rammig. “We tend to have 3D models of interfaces and details to understand and design both areas. But this isn’t translated in its entire complexity into the larger BIM model. But it could be used by contractors to develop their details.”

Rammig explains that, long term, she’d like to see 3D modeling used more like a product than a prototype. This could allow facades to be customized using software based on a catalogue of components.

“This would make the whole process easier for those involved,” she says.

Fabrication Benefits

While BIM has many benefits for glazing contractors, it also can be a useful tool for fabricators. Joan Tarrús, marketing director for Barcelona-based Cricursa, says his company uses BIM fi les to control fabrication for large complex projects. This can be especially useful for the projects involving complex curved glass geometries.

“From our point of view, managing a project of this scale and complexity would be extremely difficult without the capabilities BIM offers. I’d compare it to the jump ahead we did when we moved from blueprints to CAD,” he says.

Tarrús explains that the transition has involved a large investment of time and testing to integrate the BIM fi les Cricursa receives from clients into its pre-production workflows. However, BIM allows the company to receive all the necessary design information for a project’s façade in a single file rather than multiple documents in different file formats.

“[We] extract essential information directly from this file for each and every unit in the order. This allows us to detect custom variations to each individual unit, for example, composition changes or if a unit contains stepped edges,” says Tarrús. “[We] automate the technical development workflows by programming the typical computer operations to produce our fabrication fi les and documentation. This reduces errors and also allows us to automate updates for any revisions to the client order.”

The company also can use BIM to produce order summaries for commercial proposals and order confirmations, production planning and scheduling, packing lists, etc.

“Being in a niche market within architecture and glass, we cannot work with a typical BIM format as you would find in Revit. Whereas Revit would call standard building elements, material and member sizes, we are working with a customized/programmed format in Rhino and Grasshopper,” explains Tarrús, who adds that completing complex orders without 3D modeling would require “an army of people with low salaries to be competitive with modern systems.”

Previously, the Cricursa team would have to organize a conference call with other members of the project team to get the specific parameters or three specific panels. Tarrús says that now the company can go into the 3D model and check. The process works both ways.

“We can put the glass information into the software so the client can get the information by themselves to check whether a panel is within the expected tolerances,” he says. “The amount of information is incredible and immediate.”

Advice for Glaziers

For those interested in implementing BIM software into their company, Murali recommends starting with Navisworks Freedom to view other 3D models for free. “It’s a powerful tool that can incorporate any model,” she says, adding that it’s an intuitive and easy software to use if a glazier wants to speak more fluently with architects.

She recommends glaziers then become familiar with Rhino. Revit is a useful tool if a glazing subcontractor plans to do its own in-house modeling.

“We barely used to use Revit but now we use it to get our elevations started early … We now use Grasshopper to study building geometry, which allows us to share information with the architect to optimize the project,” adds Serbousek.

Rammig recommends that glazing contractors focus on what’s beneficial and useful for their own processes, not just the BIM requirements they may be trying to meet.

“Something good to keep in mind is how the use of a particular 3D software helps translate their design information into fabrication information,” she explains. “There is the potential to use these tools for product development … But you can’t go from zero to 100. First start with things that help facilitate the fabrication and design process in house.”

She also adds that since many contractors involved in a project will be using 3D models, working with BIM can prevent information from being lost in the translation process from 3D modeling to 2D drawings and then back again.

Serbousek explains that the information gleaned from 3D modeling can help glazing contractors educate the design team about what works and what doesn’t to make a design more economical. This is becoming vital on larger projects.

“My message for the contract glazing industry is: Get involved in BIM or get left behind. It’s been that way for a while but it’s going to get more important as architects design more complex projects,” he says.

“Those companies that don’t get into these systems will be out of the market very soon,” adds Tarrús. “It’s not that  they’d disappear, but they wouldn’t be able to get close to this market of big buildings and construction, in addition to the complex projects. If you don’t get in you’ll be out of the market of big offices or commercial buildings.”

Jordan Scott is an assistant editor for USGlass magazine. She can be reached at

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