Building Information Modeling, or BIM, is a collaborative modeling technology used for creating and managing project information throughout its entire lifecycle. BIM’s becoming increasingly ubiquitous in the design and construction fields in recent years, offering unprecedented insights into every aspect of a project in progress. BIM allows for a high degree of customization and manipulation, far exceeding the possibilities of a flat 2D drawing or even a more complex 3D model.
BIM allows architects, engineers, contractors, and owners to collaborate as a building comes together. Each stakeholder gets a chance to give feedback, all while improving accuracy throughout construction. It allows designers to watch their vision come to life as owners ensure things are progressing to their exact specifications. Any changes made to the model can be viewed in a virtual environment in real-time, increasing efficiency, improving data accuracy, and reducing time-consuming and costly rework.
BIM also facilitates a smoother contracting process by automatically documenting every change. The impact those changes will have on the project cost can be immediately determined by the software. This eliminates disputes around cost and reduces the chances for miscommunication as the project progresses to near-zero.
The Origins of BIM
Believe it or not, the seeds of the concept that would flourish into BIM in later years were planted more than 50 years ago. Engineer and inventor Douglas Engelbart described a futuristic building process in his 1962 paper, Augmenting Human Intellect.
“The architect next begins to enter a series of specifications and data — a six-inch slab floor, twelve-inch concrete walls eight feet high within the excavation, and so on. When he has finished, the revised scene appears on the screen. A structure is taking shape. He examines it, adjusts it… These lists grow into an evermore-detailed, interlinked structure, which represents the maturing thought behind the actual design.”
Even though it would be years until Engelbart’s vision became a reality, it’s clear what he’s describing is an early concept of what we now know as BIM today.
Fast-forward to the mid-1980s, we see the first BIM software for personal computers, ArchiCAD, released in 1984 for Apple’s Lisa Operating System. It was developed by Hungarian physicist Gábor Bojár using smuggled Apple computers. Bojár’s software was slow to catch on initially, largely due to the technical limitations of the existing computers. However, it saw a major uptick in the late 00s when it was picked up for developing building projects in Europe. According to ArchDaily, ArchiCAD has been used for over a million commercial and residential projects to date.
As computers grew more sophisticated in the decades that followed, we arrived at today’s resource-intensive version of BIM. It might still not be perfect—it still requires substantial computing power. However, it’s well within the capabilities of today’s high-powered PCs and mobile devices. This means every project stakeholder with secure permissions can access the most current project data anyplace with an internet connection.
BIM’s Rapid Rise in Construction
The advent of the internet and cloud computing accelerated the adoption of BIM in construction. It was a real game changer—BIM’s collaborative capabilities were further enhanced by enabling project data to be accessible from anywhere, on virtually any device. Its rise has also coincided with contractors needing to maximize efficiency, faced with ever-shrinking margins and a slim pipeline of young talent stepping up to replace retiring veterans.
Around 30% of the work performed by construction companies is actually rework. Costs for rework can add up to around 5% of the total contract value of a given project, with some estimates putting the figure closer to 9%. Either way, rework is a destroyer of profits, and something to be avoided at all costs.
“One of BIM’s fundamental uses is to build it before you build it, being able to bring all of these models together to make sure they’re not clashing so you can have predictability in the construction phase,” says Dave McCool, a Procore Product Manager with years of experience using BIM.
“Now you can ensure that you don’t miss a block out, you don’t miss a sleeve, you don’t miss these things that end up causing rework. Rework is highly correlated with safety incidents because you’re rushing and you take shortcuts and are more likely to get hurt. So there’s a huge benefit on the construction side to prevent that, catching things, and being proactive.”
BIM allows for a much higher degree of accuracy from before the first ounce of concrete is poured all the way through handover.
“It can be a painful process for multiple people just understanding how things fit together, where they’re supposed to go, and even just counting. If we say, ‘OK, we’re supposed to have five sleeves, we’ve got five sleeves, so go ahead.’ Now you can not only validate those five sleeves, you can validate their location and make sure everything is spot on. It’s a nightmare when you miss one of those things,” McCool said.
The Value BIM Brings to Construction
Some in the construction field may think that BIM is simply an advanced 3D modeling tool, but it’s much more than that. BIM improves accuracy, communication, and collaboration across every project phase, up and down the value chain, for every trade involved in a project. Electrical contractors can use it to see the wiring and junction box placement, plumbers can see the water pipe rough-outs, and window contractors can see the location of every window in the plans. Suppose that at any point, a change is made that impacts another building system. The relevant parties are notified, and so the plans can be adjusted accordingly to iron out the potential clash.
For starters, BIM is not just a piece of software. BIM is a process with many tools and capabilities, many of which reveal themselves once stakeholders see it in action. It provides more than just a better picture of a building under construction as it comes together. It offers insights into how a structure’s core systems will function well before the structure exists. If an unexpected change mid-project would result in a finished building being 10% less energy efficient than planned, the model will know and report that information. It eliminates surprises that, without BIM, would only become known upon completion.
How is BIM Used in Construction?
One major way BIM helps on construction projects is by spotting problems in virtual space before they manifest in the real world. Therefore, stakeholders get ample opportunity to find and correct issues without interruption, and let’s face it, in construction, even seemingly minor issues may result in serious problems later on. McCool recalled an instance where a model was showing a cut-out in the plans that was missing from the structure.
“When they went out in the field, the model was showing this, and they were able to pull it up, do the cut, and realized that the framing or the plumbing was in the right spot. So they could immediately create the RFI, get it resolved, and keep moving,” he said.
“This kind of QA/QC/design review capability really helps project engineers and managers coordinate and collaborate with the designers and the owner more seamlessly and be more proactive.”
BIM also plays a role in prefabrication, another cutting-edge building technology that has seen widespread adoption as construction looks for new ways to improve productivity. Prefabrication has seen construction companies adopt off-site manufacturing processes similar to those pioneered by Toyota in the early 1990s, including Just-in-Time manufacturing and lean manufacturing, both in widespread use today.
“It’s really valuable when it comes to prefabrication that you can coordinate everything so you fabricate it off-site, then just deliver it on site and plug and play. We’ve got this skilled labor shortage, so we’ve had to rethink how we do things, and whether we actually need to build everything on-site,” said McCool.
BIM brings together a vast array of design tools and methods under one umbrella, making each step of the construction process as safe, cost-effective, and efficient as possible. Far more than a sophisticated modeling tool, BIM provides opportunities for collaboration and improves the flow of data and information between stakeholders before, during, and after a project is completed. It allows for a high degree of flexibility in experimenting with design elements before committing to include them in the final build, giving designers a much bigger sandbox to play in while making field workers’ jobs easier.
We’ve already seen BIM’s transformative capabilities starting to take root among forward-thinking construction companies. As technology continues to improve, it is well-positioned to become the must-use technology for the industry going forward.