15 August 2017

The construction industry is on a mission. A mission to get better project outcomes. A mission fuelled by better communication and sharing of information. 

Through better understanding, comes better coordination, analysis and overall performance. An improved process should mean less risk, less cost, less duplication, less abortive effort, fewer delays, variations and disputes - and, as a succession of Government reports (Hello Latham, Egan and Government Construction Strategy!) have been quick to point out, the construction industry has something of a reputation when it comes to inefficiency.

At the heart of this step change is 'better' information used to deliver 'better' buildings, more quickly and cheaply. And, as with any process of change, it's people, process and technology that must be considered to bring about the transformation.

In our answer to the question 'What is BIM?' we suggest that:

BIM or Building Information Modelling is a process for creating and managing information on a construction project across the project lifecycle.

Yet this definition almost seems a level removed from the idea of transformation affected by people, process and technology. It's seemingly more to do with the nitty gritty of developing and sharing data across the lifecycle of a project.

So, in the space of a few paragraphs, we have surfaced two interpretations of the label. One as a descriptor for transformation and one for an output derived from a workflow.

Let's unpick each of those in turn...

BIM means transformation of the construction industry

Other industries have had to grapple with what the digital revolution means before construction - just consider the music industry where physical media has been usurped by internet downloads and then again by subscription services in a relatively short space of time. In recent years construction has had to explore what its own digitally-fuelled transformation will look like. For many this transformation is given the label BIM.

Through BIM, the UK construction industry is undergoing its very own digital revolution. BIM is a way of working. BIM is information modelling and information management in a team environment, with all team members working to the same standards as one another. BIM creates value from the combined efforts of people, process and technology.

BIM is a key output of a construction project

One of the key outputs of a BIM workflow is a Building Information Model or BIM - in effect a digital description of every aspect of the built asset. This model draws on information assembled collaboratively and updated at key stages of a project. Currently, for most, this model is federated (drawn from a combination of shared models) but the industry is striving to work collaboratively on one model to reap optimal efficiency benefits and to make better decisions at earlier points in the project timeline.

So, are there any problems with these interpretations of the label?

As a label for transformation...

BIM doesn't really sell the depth and breadth of change that's actually being driven across people and process and technology. The label makes you think of the production of a model, perhaps created digitally, perhaps not. And creating models seems steps removed from driving operational change across teams, companies and disciplines. It also fails to convey the work done on standards, process and tools to underpin changed ways of working or why change might be necessary in the first place.

As a label for a data-driven model...

Arguably the term BIM is more successful here but what if your model isn't of a building at all? As RICS point out, BIM applies to all built assets not just  'buildings'? The importance of data is recognised in the 'I' for information but it's not immediately clear if we're talking a graphical interpretation derived from data or some kind of schema for organising information.

One label. Many many meanings. How did we get here?

The term Building Information Modelling has been around for decades. The broader concept of developing models to represent structures digitally and spatially has been around longer than that. So what we think these terms mean today is likely to have shifted over time and may be viewed differently depending on where in a long chain of collaborators you site. Indeed, such is the breadth of disciplines involved in construction projects that a whole raft of similar terms soon come out of the woodwork - 'Building Information Management Models' from facility managers/operators, 'Town Information Modelling' from urban planners... Throw in a smattering of 'digital construction' or 'virtual design and construction' and it's clear there's no one size fits-all definition to be had. 

The 2011 Government Construction Strategy set out a plan for the digitisation of construction and labelled this "BIM Level 2". The conceptualisation of BIM levels proved helpful in showing that there were staging gates in a BIM journey and thus various levels of BIM maturity. This approach meant you didn't have to know exactly what BIM Level 3, 4 or 5 might mean, and could instead focus your transformational efforts on what was possible and appropriate. In the intervening years we've fleshed out BIM Level 2 with standards and specifications and are starting to deliver projects with greater BIM sophistication. But by kicking some of the things BIM might be into later stage gates we've arguably exacerbated the problem of nailing exactly what BIM is because the future is still evolving. The staged approach also suggests that processes may well change as details of subsequent levels crystalise.

If not BIM, then what?

So, if there's problems with a common understanding of BIM, what might the alternatives be?

Laing O'Rourke favour the term digital engineering, a digital prototyping process driven by data that unlocks information and insight ensuring efficient delivery and operation. Christopher Northwood explains more in this article on Laing O'Rourke's approach to digital engineering from back in 2013. It seems Skanska, Atkins and the like are also proponents.

Dace Campbell suggests, in a blog post entitled 'Building Information Modeling: What's in a name?', that definitions of building, information and modelling are so similar (describing the way we give meaningful expression or shape to a concept or value) that there is significant redundancy and need for clarity. He goes on to put the case for upgrading what we understand by 'model'. 

We should probably also throw into the mix the Digital Built Britain 'brand'. The programme of work will round off development of BIM Level 2 standards and explore what Level 3 really looks like and how it will work in practice as the move towards greater digital collaboration steps up a gear. It also takes a broader focus looking at the impact the Internet of Things, augmented and virtual realities might have and at issues of cyber security and what opportunities for trade and growth may be possible overseas. The fact that the programme isn't just called 'BIM Level 3' is likely to be useful - galvanising a broad range of organisations and experts around solidifying process around a very broad agenda seems sensible.

Does a term really matter?

The fact that the BIM label is applied, interchangeably, to refer to both transformation and models obviously has the potential to create confusion and doesn't really tell the whole story about how and why construction is being transformed. For an industry with more than its fair share of jargon, to introduce a new set obviously has the potential to bamboozle, however hard we might try to simplify (see our Periodic Table of BIM). 

The 2017 NBS National BIM Report paints an encouraging picture - BIM awareness is near-universal at 97%. BIM adoption is up. Those who have not adopted BIM intend to. The UK is well placed to have BIM as the most common project design environment within the next five years. And those efficiency savings? 70% agree that cost benefits will be realised, 60% believe we'll see time efficiencies too.

While the report doesn't seek to gauge understanding around any one interpretation of what BIM is (or might be) the very fact that there is awareness of change going on across the industry is encouraging. To this end, the term BIM has undoubtedly been useful in galvanising thoughts and activities and communicating these across disciplines and beyond. 

Searches for the term 'BIM' via Google show a pleasing upward trajectory that would suggest a hunger for information and a concept that, in recognition or curiosity at least, is growing and heading towards maturity.

So what do you think? Has BIM served us well or caused us problems? Do we we need a new term and, if so, what should we use? Should we just get on and do "it", whatever we mean by "it"? We'd love to hear your thoughts on our social media channels. Tell us #ifnotBIM then what?

What to read next...

BIM Levels explained
Definitions for levels of BIM maturity from Level 0, through Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 and beyond.

Bamboozled by BIM?
Find BIM daunting, confusing and seemingly overly-complicated? Don't worry. Ralph Montague cuts through the jargon and gets back to key principles. It's BIM de-mystified.