How BIM is impacting the construction industry

Construction industry
How BIM is impacting the construction industry

For a while now, we’ve heard some variation of the idea that “the future of the construction industry is digital.” It’s an interesting concept, particularly in a profession that very much exists within the physical world, but more and more, we’re seeing the addition of digital tools and processes. Here at Countfire, we represent this evolution for electrical estimators and contracting businesses. BIM (Building Information Modelling) is a digital technology that is packing a punch both here in the UK, and overseas. Let’s take a closer look at the impact:

What is BIM?

BIM is an acronym for Building Information Modelling, which is a process for creating and managing information on construction projects, across the entire project lifecycle. Finding a cohesive definition is a bit tricky, with many different versions out there. Talk to any project manager or subcontractor and you’ll find that BIM means different things to different people, depending on what they use it for. In general, it allows collaborative building design with a coherent system of computer models, rather than separate sets of drawings. The BIM process manages physical and functional information, or is a marriage between technology and a set of work processes. BIM information consists of everything that goes into constructing and maintaining a building through its life cycle, and will include construction programming, cost and facilities management data. The following definition comes from a UK government paper: “Building Information Modelling (BIM) is a collaborative way of working, underpinned by the digital technologies which unlock more efficient methods of designing, creating and maintaining our assets. BIM embeds key product and asset data and a 3 dimensional computer model that can be used for effective management of information throughout a project lifecycle – from earliest concept through to operation.” BIM’s role as a “shared knowledge resource,” allowing project members to collaborate, share information, and make decisions across the whole lifecycle of the project is a huge part of its appeal. Consider this from the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research: “As part of the construction process, a wide range of documents need to be shared between clients, designers and developers, including drawings and schedules. Traditionally, this information has been exchanged using paper (or electronic paper). BIM provides a shared data environment which allows all the stakeholders in a project to collaborate and share information. BIM allows key product data to be embedded within 3D images that can be used for project management, with potential gains in efficiency.” Here in the UK, we also identify different levels for BIM within a company, as outlined in the diagram from Bim Plus below:

BIM impacting construction industry

How is BIM impacting the construction industry?

Here in the UK, government policy is playing a major role in how BIM is adopted and the number of companies adopting it. Anyone who wants to contract on government construction projects needs to be at BIM level two as of April 2016. The government’s push for modernisation in the construction industry has seen the UK take the lead in global efforts: “With the construction industry being one of the last major sectors to commence its digital journey, the successful delivery of the UK Government Construction Strategy (GCS) Level 2 BIM programme now sees the UK take on a global leadership role and represents an internationally unparalleled achievement on the journey towards the digitisation of our built environment.” (Source) The mandate requires public construction project stakeholders – architects, contractors or suppliers – to be able to exchange project data through a common file format. The NBS National BIM Report 2017 found that 62% of practices were aware of and using BIM in at least some of their projects every year. Over time, this is trending upward, as is the overall number who know what BIM is. This time, just 3% were neither aware nor using it.

BIM impacting construction industry

Smaller practices were less likely to be using BIM than larger ones, often due to a perception that BIM is more suited to larger projects. Even then, 48% of smaller practices had adopted BIM, suggesting that it is useful for less-complex projects too.

Advantages of BIM

BIM presents a number of opportunities and advantages for the construction industry. Primarily, it brings together all information about a building in one place, making it possible for anyone to access that information, for any purpose. This makes it easy to integrate different aspects of a design more efficiently. BIM advantages include:

  • BIM has powerful onscreen modelling capabilities, making it great for 3D modeling. Designs can be viewed from any angle, details can be zoomed in and out of, and people can easily see the bigger picture.
  • BIM software can be used to virtually ‘trial’ potentially difficult construction projects, meaning that any problems can be resolved in the virtual environment, preventing costly reworkings on site.
  • Models can be used to generate schedules of items required for the project (much like counting take-offs), whereas previously, a manual count would have been required.
  • Very complex information can be embedded in models. For example; “When you click on a window in the 3D model, it gives you loads of parameters – height, width, fire ratings, warranties…same with a wall: the paint finish, how many coats, its acoustic rating, whether it’s timber framed – any information you want.” (Source)
  • Transparency and collaboration is promoted among stakeholders. They each have a much better view of the entire lifecycle of the project.
  • It’s easier to identify design errors early on and reduce or rectify them. This means there is less costly rework once the project gets underway.
  • Design clashes can be reduced, saving on overall construction costs and the time taken to complete the project.
  • “Efficiency improvements for maintenance and operation companies. By having historical design data instantly available upto 15% can be saved on maintenance time and sometimes may remove the need for costly site visits.” (Source)

The bottom line for BIM, and why the UK government set it as a standard, is to achieve better efficiencies during construction projects. Where architects, contractors and subcontractors have often been siloed previously, BIM aims to open up better transparency. It is not without its challenges, however:

Challenges with BIM

BIM has still at this stage, only been a requirement for government contracts for a couple of years. Many experts are seeing challenges or potential roadblocks with implementation, including the following:

  • Some in the construction industry still are suspicious of, or outright reject technological innovation: “Negative perceptions have… led to many innovative approaches to construction design and construction processes immediately being considered as high risk… terminology such as ‘modern methods of construction or ‘prefabrication’ are often viewed with suspicion.” (Source)
  • “Companies that do want to innovate find that the necessary finance is too expensive and/or difficult to access, that the approach to risk and insurance of works deters innovation and that some of the Government support available to the industry is not sufficiently visible.” (Source)
  • Business and legal barriers present a challenge. Some of these include; lack of standards; a lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities; a lack of clients/market demands; ambiguity in data ownership and legal risks; and high investment cost and low incentives.
  • Companies may be resistant to change as a whole, and lack the knowledge, skills, or training in the technology.

Andy Boutle, chair of BIM Regions East, identified a number of issues that he feels limits the efficiencies sought by the implementation of BIM. Some of these include:

  • Not all UK central government departments are BIM Level 2 ready. “Therefore, it appears there is little or no policing/governance of this mandate, which sends a mixed message to the supply chain.”
  • Some key documents (such as EIRs) become “tick the standards” exercises, meaning that opportunities are missed for better project delivery.
  • “Procurement routes and contracts currently don’t lend themselves to the collaborative, integrated team environment required for BIM Level 2. (The CIC BIM Protocol helps to address intellectual property and the information manager appointment, but is more of a temporary fix than a solution).  Blame culture is still apparent and in force despite the advent of innovative contracts such as Integrated Project Insurance.”
  • “A good proportion of the supply chain still struggles with BIM Level 1 (BS 1192:2007) that provides the core information management foundations for Level 2. (In hindsight should there have been a BIM Level 1 mandate!?)”

Final thoughts

Trying to pin down what BIM actually means is challenging, but a good place to start is with the UK government mandate. If you’re working on projects for central government, it has been a requirement since April 2016. BIM is overall a good theory in terms of efficiencies and is being more widely accepted by the construction industry as time goes on. It still faces some significant challenges however, which are impeding widespread upskilling to Level 2. There’s a target that by 2020, Level 2 will be “business as usual.” The goal after that is to move to Level 3. It seems that there is still significant work to be done...