BIM – is it just marketing fluff?

Everyone seems to be talking about BIM so it seemed the perfect topic for my first blog.  BIM, or so I naively thought, was a fairly new concept, with various technological solutions being promoted that would fulfill all our BIM needs.  When I started to research the topic in more detail and discuss it with colleagues in the industry, the overwhelming response I received was that BIM, often under some other term, has been in use for 25 years, or even more.  It was Charles (Chuck) Eastman at Georgia Institute of Technology in the US that first introduced the concept of BIM back in the late 70s. It is not a new concept at all so why all the recent marketing activity and noise about BIM?

Well first of all what does the abbreviation BIM stand for?  According to Wikipedia, BIM or Building Information Modelling is the process of generating and managing building data during its life cycle.  And that’s important; it’s actually a process, not a suite of slick software applications or design drawings. Typically BIM is a 3D representation of a building, made up of individual building components that contain specific information about themselves.  BIM components are intelligent objects and a component in the model may know its location, dimensions, material, manufacturer, fire rating, efficiency rating and carbon footprint.  Introducing time, such as component delivery dates to site, adds a 4D element to BIM and allows 4D sequencing.  This provides a more intuitive interface to test the accuracy of build sequences and helps evaluate interdependencies of components and clash detection.  Add component costs and BIM becomes 5D.

BIM changes the way we work and companies that adopt the process benefit from its streamlined approach and collaboration.  Today contractors face many challenges as project designs are increasingly complex and have more demanding schedules.  Contractors must find ways to increase productivity and reduce or eliminate rework.  Mistakes are costly and can affect multiple trades, delay the start of other tasks and require design changes.  These complex designs come from architects and it’s surprising to find that more often than not the architect’s documents cannot be used for construction.  It’s perhaps a misconception that the architect prepares the documents and gives them to the contractor, and the contractor takes them and builds the building from the information contained therein.  This is seldom the case.  Indeed construction documents are at best adequate but significant additional information is frequently required.  Should Architects be held more responsible for quality documents or is it in fact the client?  Should the client contractually define collaboration approaches for projects to ensure data and information is widely available to all involved?

It seems to be that the multitude of differing ideas about BIM and its usage have hindered the construction industry in developing a strategic approach to how best implement the process,  deliver cost savings and enhance deliverables.  A number of organizations, committees and centres of excellence are attempting to address this such as; buildingSMART, Construction Project Information Committee (CPIC), Construction Opportunities for Mobile IT (COMIT) and the recently launched BIM Academy, it is through this collaborative approach that BIM is gathering momentum.

Collaboration in integrated project delivery requires an environment of trust and respect between clients, architects, designers, structural engineers, building services engineers, manufacturers and contractors.  BIM has the potential to break down the walls of project delivery by merging the roles between designers, contractors and other professions.  This collaborative approach of extensive information sharing increases the ability to alter design due to accurate pre-construction modelling rather than the substantially more costly changes during the construction phase.

So BIM is ideal for design and build projects but with an increasing importance placed on reusing existing buildings and redeveloping brownfield sites BIM can equally be used for this adaptive reuse of buildings. Most existing buildings do not have detailed design or as-built drawings and 3D models but as the need to reuse buildings grows then so does the opportunity for BIM.  Technologies such as laser scanning can produce accurate 3D models very quickly and this as-built data can be introduced into the BIM process for redesign, visualizations and virtual reality walkthroughs.  Other surveying technologies such as the Trimble LM80 Layout Manager running on a pocket sized Windows mobile device, enable contractors (Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbers, Engineers, etc.) to take BIM data into the field and work with live design data ensuring that the latest design is always on site.  As-built data can be wirelessly transferred back to the office providing real time project management tools.  It is this digital technology and move away from paper site plans that will help drive BIM into mainstream use.

As the use of BIM grows then the benefits to the whole industry will become clear.  Those early adopters already embracing the collaborative approach are paving the way for BIM to become the critical tool of the design and construction process as well as a valuable asset for facilities management.   Recent UK government initiatives announced by Paul Morrell, the Government’s Chief Construction Advisor, recommend “fully collaborative BIM  …as a minimum by 2016″. The Strategy Paper from the BIM Industry Working Group indicates that BIM is here to stay, so if we can continue with the marketing ‘fluff’ about BIM then awareness will grow and we should all soon reap the rewards.

*The Strategy Paper for the Government Construction Client Group from the BIM Industry Working Group is available to download.