BIM – what, why, how?

BIM is mistakenly thought to be a collection of software products.  The truth is that it is a state of mind and should flow out a change of culture within the construction industry.  For centuries building has been a unique process where the finished article is the prototype.  The concept in other industries has been to make a lot of mock-ups and eventually get the production model right.  The construction industry conversely has, at best, stumbled across processes and persuades itself that the finished result is the best it can be.  The problem is compounded by the fact that each process in the design follows along in single file with each succeeding discipline ‘inheriting’ the mistakes of its predecessors.  A mere change to collaborative working with all disciplines proceeding on a broad front is not the whole answer to the need to adopt BIM but it is the part of the process best suited to innovative software developments.  The true definition of BIM resides in the second letter of the acronym.  “I” is for information.  Information in all its forms, graphic, textual, parametric.  Most importantly it is the component of the design and construction process which should outlive the project and be of paramount value to the project during its conception, design, construction, and maintenance.

So why BIM?  Increasingly it is just not good enough to say that a project is value for money and that it satisfies the terms of a brief.  These things need to be justifiable to a wide range of interested parties.  These include the originators, the designers, the funders, the constructors and the maintainers.  The originators need to know that the project delivers to them what they specified.  The designers need to be secure that they have understood their clients and have produced information to others in a logical and cost effective form.  The constructors need to be sure their preferred methods of construction are incorporated so both sides of the contractual arrangement can be satisfied that best value for money is achieved.  Lastly the maintainers of the project need to be satisfied they have all the information they need to look after the investment for the rest of its life which can be as much as 20 – 30  times the period that all the other disciplines were involved.  To attain each of these goals requires a level of collaboration among professionals and industry hitherto unreachable.  Brave attempts have been made in the past but often only affecting a minority of players.  For BIM to succeed effective collaboration is essential and only possible with a limited number of software solutions.  For software providers the challenge is to provide a fluid communication channel and ally it with sound sharing technology.

There is a lot of noise surrounding the whole BIM debate.  Companies are necessarily concerned that competitors do not steal a march on them by being left behind.  Many wonder if they are in the potential BIM market place at all.  How big are these projects going to be?  In short there will be a big marketing push to ensure that the major players are shown to be capable and it is in this slightly frenzied frame of mind that mistakes will be made – costly ones.  There is a small number of players out there who are already involved in BIM – not many of whom doing projects in the private sector.  It is they who are already defining the way forward and needless to say governments listen to what they are saying.  They may just miss the point that to set up a workable BIM system requires of the order of £100k.  What that means is that there is a break point below which at present it does not make sense to pursue BIM.  Who knows where that break point is.  How many software providers are thinking about all of this and whether it could be directed toward single house building.  Before the sad demise of the HIPs (Housing Information Packs) system in the UK all the data required for this useful document could have been gleaned from a BIM system.

And finally how.  The truth is that everybody already knows how to achieve the goals of BIM – in theory!  We all need to work together.  We all need to advance on a broad front.  We need to record all the data on a project and have it to hand at every stage of a project.  So why has it not happened.  Many of the interested parties are hovering and waiting for the killer app to solve their requirements.  The UK government has published a BIM road map which demands that all government sponsored projects fall into line by 2016.  Details are defined in:-

Strategy Paper for the Government Construction Client Group From the BIM Industry Working Group – March 2011

The UK government expects “…all suppliers of construction services to HMG to have reached the ability to deliver information of at least that of Level 2 …”  

The assumed method of satisfying this objective is the adoption of a central 3D model containing a rich dataset of graphical and non-graphical data.  The aspiration is to keep the model up to date and to have it easily interrogated by anyone interested.  Good plan if you can do it.  Several things provide an equally rich set of stumbling blocks.  In the short term and until internet speeds match internal LAN speeds how do all the parties’ IT resources communicate.  This will improve in time but in 5 years?  Probably not.  Who owns the model if it sits centrally?  Many professions’ professional indemnity insurers are biding their time on this on.  The truth is that no one yet understands fully the risks.  How is each profession’s contribution safely insulated from those around him?  These questions need to be answered soon because until they are no one can sensibly progress on the main issues of how we cope with a huge diversity of input material and guarantee a sensible amalgamation of outputs.

The popular misconception is that providing you subscribe to the right software you are home and dry.  Wrong!  The whole point of collaboration and the storage of data is that by its nature the data is varied.  There will be CAD files of at least 6 different formats, there will text and spreadsheets from the big providers, there will be portable formats and a host of others.  Nothing even gets off the ground unless you can cope with the challenge of interoperability with ease.  The idea that all data exchange can only happen using a limited range of formats is ridiculous.  Any sensible introducer of BIM into an organisation will have to think long and hard as to whether even a capable 3D construction modelling product is enough on its own.  Will it for example seamlessly connect with another provider’s database management software?  Is it a good idea for BIM owners to insist on one set of software products only to play ball with him?  Will that 3D system talk seamlessly to other 3D software.  Will the output from parametric modelling systems be seamlessly absorbed into other software products.  Better have a good answer to all of this before you spend a lot of money!

The answer to all of these concerns is to have an open mind.  Do not be seduced by the killer app.  It does not exist.  Be open to the open system world.  Collaboration is about accepting other peoples’ differences and riding with it.  As soon as we all start fighting over it the whole initiative dies.

David Warr RIBA
Academic Consultant
Bentley Systems