How BIM is revolutionizing the construction industry

Building Information Modeling, the broad term for the use of digital models in construction, is once again at the forefront of industry news as, next year, the United Kingdom  despite a few bumps  will begin requiring all public works contractors to be "BIM-ready." Affected U.K. contractors must comply with the technical requirements of Level 2 BIM  a basic, collaborative level, which allows all parties on a project to exchange information via common file formats. U.K. government officials hope this move will allow them to see more efficiencies in all stages of the construction project life cycle.

Is the United States moving in the same direction? BIM is popping up in design offices and job sites across the country, but what exactly does the future hold for BIM in the U.S.?

"There is definitely a requirement from U.S. government agencies to implement BIM throughout the lifecycle of their projects," said Dareen Salama, BIM Manager and Assistant Project Controls Manager at STV, Inc., a large commercial construction firm, and co-chair of the emerging technologies committee at the Construction Management Association of America. "However, unlike the U.K., we have not seen a unified requirement."

According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, federal agencies such as the General Services Administration, Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Veterans Affairs, and Smithsonian Institution have already begun to require BIM at some level.

However, Allen Preger, vice president of global accounts at Newforma, a project information management software company, said U.S. government agencies are currently too fragmented to implement it on as wide a scale as the U.K., where, he said, "Everything goes through London."

Still, there’s no doubt BIM is on the rise in the U.S. According to a McGraw Hill Construction 2014 Smart Market Report, BIM adoption by contractors in North America expanded from 17% in 2007 to more than 70% in 2012.

Benefits of BIM

That’s no surprise, as experts have said BIM provides tangible business benefits, no matter the level of implementation.

"Even if you only use BIM for your company’s models, you’ll reduce errors and complete project models in less time," said Greg Wesner, AEC industry engineer at Panzura, a hybrid cloud company.

Salama, along with Amir Tasbihi, senior BIM specialist at STV and also a member of CMAA’s emerging technologies committee, said that BIM provides more consistent, more accurate and less time-consuming project document generation. In addition, BIM users can expect better collaboration and coordination among the different parties involved in a project. "It has the potential to make all parties smarter," Salama said.

Matt Wheelis, senior construction industry manager at Autodesk, creator of the computer-aided drafting software AutoCAD, also extolled the benefits of coordination and collaboration on a project and said, "One of the advantages of a coordinated model is it's not necessarily a singular model. It's a coordinated set of representations that provide the right information to each party at the right time."

While BIM tools provide endless possibilities for collaboration, Preger added that to fully realize the potential of BIM, the project team, including the client, must be fully committed to its collaborative and transparent project delivery processes.

Learning curve

However, as with any new technology, there is a learning curve, and BIM implementation is not without its challenges.

Salama and Tasbihi said that getting potential users to think of BIM as a process rather than a piece of software is a common problem. They said project managers at various levels continue to think of BIM as a separate function of the business that they can hire out to external providers. "For BIM to be successful," Tasbihi said, "there has to be a drastic change to the construction industry's mindset."

Another issue, according to Salama and Tasbihi, is the difference in quality among BIM models — the result of a lack of validation and quality management tools in the industry. "Most companies have started working in BIM at different levels," Salama said, "but the quality of the generated models and data is still not optimum."

Collaboration — a vital element — can also be difficult to achieve, according to Wesner. "The big question is where you put the data so it’s both responsive and available to users," he said. "The first instinct for many BIM managers is to centralize it, but that makes file access painfully slow for remote users."

Adopting any new technology can be overwhelming, and BIM is no exception, which is why most experts agree that a gradual implementation can generally lessen the growing pains associated with such a change in long-established construction project management practices. This slow introduction can help keep new users from throwing up their hands and going back to the old ways of doing things out of sheer frustration.

"Jump in too deep," Wesner said, "and you’ll definitely get overwhelmed."

He suggested that companies start with in-house building modeling, share those models within the company, and then make the move to collaboration with outside firms.

Salama and Tasbihi consider BIM more of a cultural shift than a technology shift, and both said the successful implementation of BIM requires buy-in from upper management, a spirit of collaboration, and realistic expectations of continuous improvement rather than a quick, full implementation. Experimenting with a small project, they said, could serve as a testing ground for a company’s BIM solution, as well as a way for a company to develop its BIM capabilities.

So what does the future hold for BIM in the U.S.? According to Salama and Tasbihi, BIM is no longer a question of "if." The issues around BIM’s future, they said, will focus on improving quality, integration, collaboration and analysis of the information BIM generates.

In the future, Wesner said, "BIM will be about more than just working efficiently within a single discipline, such as architecture. It will be about how we leverage intelligence in the model across functions for analysis that will help us do things like size other products and systems within the building faster and more accurately."

Improving the labor shortage

In addition, according to some BIM experts, the technology might be able to play a significant part in addressing the skilled labor shortage plaguing the construction industry.  

Wheelis said Autodesk is incorporating gaming technology into its BIM solutions, and this could go a long way in enticing younger people into the industry.

"Everything we can do to make these jobs more attractive to the next generation of workers is a service we do the industry," he said.

Tasbihi and Salama also agreed that younger workers could see BIM as an exciting opportunity to use new technology in a field that allows them to build "real things in the world."

However, at the end of the day, when a company is deciding on how many resources it wants to invest in BIM, Wheelis said it should take a look inward.

"There's value for their business in the application of BIM. They don't have to only look to what the owner requires or what the owner wants," he said. "They need to look at what their core competencies are, where they want to make improvements and where technologies can help them do that."