Nigel Davies: Getting BIM under remote control

Nigel Davies, director of Evolve Consultancy, offers some advice to those suddenly faced with a prolonged period of working from home.

If you aren’t already working from home, you’re one of the ever-dwindling minority. This last week has seen a huge change in the way businesses operate, and there has been very little time for anyone to prepare for it. Most businesses have had remote working capabilities for a while, but certainly not on this scale.

There’s a big difference between the odd person signing in on a laptop from MIPIM to every single one of your team needing pretty much full-time access to project data. There’s an even bigger difference between needing to access email remotely or edit a spreadsheet to opening and editing large models.

Let’s put the technology aside for a minute and first consider the practicalities of working from home. I’ve been doing this two to three days a week for more than 16 years and I have learned what works for me and what doesn’t over that time.

At first it might seem like a great new adventure (no boss looking over your shoulder – yay! Working in your underpants if you feel like it – yay!), but give it a week or so, once the kids are fighting and the dog won’t get off your lap, and things can get challenging. Mental health is very important at all times, but it’s going to be even more so now.

Simple things can make all the difference

Don’t lie around in bed. Stick as closely as possible to your usual morning routine. Weekends are for lying in. If you can, get out for a run or a cycle ride before work to replace your commute. You probably weren’t running (unless you were late), but even a leisurely walk to work is (was) exercise.

Working from home allows you to be more flexible, but try to separate your work and relaxation time. Don’t work on late into the evening, just because that’s what you’ve always done. You’re going to need to change habits, so change them for the better.

If you don’t have a spare room, make sure you have somewhere you can call your own. I used to have a desk in my bedroom, but I always mentally prepared for work by simply shutting the door. Door closed = office; door open = bedroom.– Nigel Davies, Evolve Consultancy

I’m lucky in that I have a purpose-built office away from the house. It’s not glamourous, but it’s a separate space. If you don’t have that try to set aside a room. If you don’t have a spare room, make sure you have somewhere you can call your own. I used to have a desk in my bedroom, but I always mentally prepared for work by simply shutting the door. Door closed = office; door open = bedroom. I always close my laptop down at night, so, again, mentally I’m switched off too.

Then there’s the technology and how to successfully “BIM” from the comfort of your sofa.

Once you’ve got connected (be it VPN, Remote Desktop or VDI) before you start, you need to check you have the right software installed. Even in the most advanced set-up it’s possible that the wrong version is installed or is missing altogether. If you have to log a service ticket for this, bear in mind that your IT team are going to be feeling the pressure this week too. They are people too, with their own drastic changes and families to worry about, so treat them respectfully.

If you have to install software on your own machine, always be prepared for longer download and installation times than you might have been in the office – broadband speed will undoubtedly have an impact on your working – unless you’re on fibre, in which case it might be faster.

As noted above, IT is going to be dependent on your company’s chosen solution, and external data (others’ reference models, information and links) is going to be harder to control.

The internal model, though, you can do something about. The general health of your model(s) is probably going to have the most effect when working remotely. You know when you’re in the office moaning that “opening this damned model is slower than my granny’s Morris Minor”? We’re all going to have to take a little more responsibility in trying to optimise models to keep them working as quickly as possible. Here’s some things to check:

  • File size. Break models down into the smallest components you can. Whether that’s file-based referencing, or workset-based approaches, you’re always going to get better results with less information to load. Remove any links/references that you simply don’t need. That 700MB survey might have been important three months ago, but is it really necessary now? Get rid of anything you’re not sure of. You can always reload it later if you need it.
  • Purging/compressing. A culture of constant model review, optimisation and remodelling (if necessary) will make the most improvement. In Revit, set up a regime of compacting and replacing the central, checking and removing constraints, family optimisation or replacement. In Bentley products, turn on Compress Files On Exit, use Cached Dynamic Views, optimise cells, and review your datasets for unnecessary content.
  • Too much detail. It is commonplace, especially in architecture, to over-detail for aesthetic, rather than contract, purposes. Just because you can model it as it looks, it doesn’t mean you should. Wherever possible, a model should contain the minimum visual data necessary to produce the output.

It is also well worth considering cloud-based working. If your company has access to Autodesk BIM 360 or Bentley ProjectWise you might want to consider migrating. While it might not necessarily improve performance, it does mean the model(s) are fully accessible anywhere, with or without a remote connection.

There are many things we can do to improve operations while working from home. Hopefully this brief article will give you some considerations for improving your remote modelling. But above all, the one thing that will make the most difference is picking up the phone and talking to people. If we can do that, working together as a team, we stand the best chance of getting through this.

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