21 February 2017

Update: Since this article was first written, all the content from the NBS National BIM Library has moved across to NBS Source.

What is BIM?

The construction industry is being revolutionised as digital technologies and new working practices change the way spaces and places are designed and built.

Over the past few years this revolution has focussed on Building Information Modelling or BIM for short. BIM is a process with intelligent, 3D models that can be used throughout the life of an asset at its heart.

Digital construction isn't just a new way of seeing how things look via a fancy model, it's a way of collaborating and co-ordinating data from a range of sources to allow for better decision making much earlier than would be the case using more traditional tools and techniques.

BIM’s proponents argue the approach has the potential to deliver significant efficiencies, not to mention cost savings so it’s not hard to see why it’s increasingly becoming the norm when it comes to planning, designing, building and maintaining infrastructure.

Some countries (the UK included) have gone so far to legislate its use on particular projects.

See also: What is BIM? | The digital construction revolution: When will BIM become business as usual? | Making the switch to BIM

Is now the right time to adopt a BIM approach?

Last year's NBS National BIM Survey found that a majority are now aware of and using BIM on at least some of their projects (54%) making now the ideal time to learn the lessons from those who have gone before and piggyback on a raft of useful resources and case studies to plot out your own BIM approach.

Of course you shouldn’t do ‘BIM for BIM’s sake’ and should instead be led by the benefits that BIM can realistically bring to your organisation and that will require a fair bit of research to work out.

You can't buy your approach to BIM 'off the shelf'. Signing up for a software licence for the latest and greatest modelling tool will only get you so far - BIM is a process and not a software tool. Clichéd it may be but the more you invest in it the more you stand to gain.

Isn't BIM too scary, complicated and costly?

While BIM has more than its fair share of seemingly-bamboozling terminology and concepts, the good news is that it actually has a lot more in common with more traditional ways of working that you may at first think. 

While you can't move an organisation to BIM overnight, chances are it won't be as costly, time-consuming or arduous as you may fear.

Where short term investments in software or training are required, you should consider them in the long term view of the efficiencies that BIM can bring down the line.

How do I plan my BIM implementation approach?

You should approach BIM implementation as a project in its own right. As with all successful projects ownership is key and the research/discovery phase crucial.

Designating a small number of BIM 'researchers' will help you scope out the BIM environment and explore how it will change the way you currently work.

Many teams start by looking at technology (and in particular software) but it's easy to get taken in by a marketing-led list of features (that may or may not work straight out of the box). Having conversations with those who've trodden the path before you may be more productive as they should help you find out the real impact on workflows and where the benefits can be most clearly felt.

Real-world feedback is often invaluable in helping you tease out the 'top tips' that can save you immense amounts of time and money and point to potential improvements you might never have otherwise factored into your transition. Moreover, these conversations should help you move on to consider how your company currently approaches its management of information and to ask yourself what digital techniques and tools could do to make this more efficient.

What do I need to consider when exploring a BIM workflow?

Construction is a ‘team sport’ and participants will all approach BIM implementation with a slightly different agenda.

Clients need to be sure that the built asset they’re procuring will meet their expectations and may engage construction professionals somewhere on the scale of knowing exactly what they want to having very few preconceptions. The added complication of what someone thinks they want not being what they actually want or need makes it important to get under the skin of requirements from the off. Requirements should be captured as part of Employers Information Requirements (EIR) and set out what’s required at every stage to properly support the decisions being made on a project.

In a BIM workflow designers must become familiar with how non-graphical specifications and schedules can be linked to graphical components, creating an information model. Next comes the process of exploring how a Common Data Environment (CDE) might be established and at what stages the model might be federated or shared with other project participants. Working in 3D can also bring its own challenges not to mention costs in terms of soft and hardware.

Project managers will need to grapple with Employer's Information Requirements, the BIM Execution Plan (BEP) and data drops to a CDE - essential information underpinning the smooth running of a construction project. When it comes to financial management those in charge of the purse strings will be have much to gain from linking cost data to components to generate estimates.

Main contractors will be expected to establish a BEP and Master Information Delivery Plan (MIDP) and oversee the management of the CDE. All contractors need to consider how they will access and interrogate a myriad of data from a multitude of sources and contribute to the CDE. Understanding what other participants are producing and in what format will be key to this process. What software will you need a full licenced software product to access, what can be read for free via a reader or plug-in tool?

Manufacturers need to consider the information people need about their products, where they expect to find this information and what format(s) are required to allow for smooth integrations. 3D models and BIM objects can make it easier to get specified as can registering with an online library such as the NBS National BIM Library. See also: A manufacturer's guide to BIM object creation

Digital construction isn't just a new way of seeing how things look via a fancy model, it's a way of collaborating and co-ordinating data from a range of sources to allow for better decision making much earlier than would be the case using more traditional tools and techniques

How do I develop and share an organisation's vision for BIM?

The recommendations coming from your research team are key when it comes to formulating an organisational vision for BIM that your employees can rally behind. All levels of a company will need to buy into what is being proposed so be sure to make your communications inspiring and give confidence that BIM is the future.

While a "BIM trial" may enthuse some it hardly shouts of cast-iron long-term commitment to what will become the future of construction and why that's important to Impressive Co Industries. Show how BIM isn't something being 'done unto' the company but instead is something that will deliver clear benefits when it comes to winning new work, streamlining your workflows, aiding collaboration or delivering better projects.

Where should I start on BIM implementation?

Software and hardware will undoubtedly play a part in your workflow and BIM implementation processes. Think about the tasks and project phases you want to tackle first and what will be required to support those and then extrapolate your needs into the future. Exploring the design application(s) and ancillary software (and how these connect and communication with one another) will soon lead to conversations about the necessary hardware and whether everyone needs the same kind of tools and processing power. With these decisions made you have the beginning of a technology roadmap.

As with any change management process you’ll need a high level plan. How are you proposing to alter existing workflows? How will you get staff up to speed with the new process and support them when things go wrong? Will training be a quick blitz or a gradual drip-feed? Establishing BIM champions at various levels of your organisation can be helpful to cascade information and provide a conduit for help and advice.

Considering the documents and templates you will use is crucial. Designed objects will no longer just be graphical and instead will contain a range of information. Being clear as to the standards you’ll use to collate and format this information from the start will prevent problems later on as data is combined. This may seem daunting but there’s a raft of guidance and standards available. For example, the NBS BIM Object Standard will help ensure a consistent core set of information for manufacturer objects. Consider how you can design in your standards through the use of model templates, a shared library of content or parameter files that can be used across your organisation.

Which project should I adopt a BIM approach on first?

Many organisations opt to try out and evolve this BIM approach over a series of pilot projects that fit well with processes being changed. Sometimes one team may take a BIM approach while another team delivers exactly the same project using traditional processes. This approach may suit some disciplines more than others.  While an architectural designer's role on a project may be front-loaded and take place over a few months, an infrastructure firm may be called upon to design and deliver at numerous points over several years and so may not be best suited. The pilot approach can also leave firms with something of an uphill struggle when it finally comes to rolling out the approach more widely when other teams haven't had drip-fed exposure until the date of a 'big switch' to BIM.

How do I build a feedback loop and determine preferred processes?

As your teams start to work on BIM projects it's important to document what happens as workflows change, often by speeding up and front-loading information requirements. Think carefully about how to capture these experiences and feedback to the broader project team to allow process to be better modified to suit your company, particular projects or individual preferences. Areas you’ll need to explore include the ‘level’ of intelligence required for objects within your model, data required to support the whole of an asset’s life-cycle, how and when data is shared.

How do I scale up beyond an initial BIM pilot?

BIM champions will have a key role to play in transitioning the rest of your teams. A staged and step-by-step approach should help avoid any major issues. Bringing in specialist trainers may also be something to consider to augment your in-house efforts. Consider carefully who needs to know what and when. Power users will have different needs to more junior or administrative staff and you should tailor your approach accordingly.

As confidence in your new workflows increases you should start to become confident enough to shout about your new capabilities more widely. Take the time to understand just what you can offer clients in this brave new world and invest time in communicating this to engage with those you currently work with and then think about how this could help win new clients as well. Be careful not to 'over promise' and adopt a carefully phased approach by which, as you master a particular process, you can explore and add new capabilities.

With key processes embedded there are a number of areas you can explore to deliver better, faster or cheaper results. These may include exploring; more automatic changes to cut the time taken to deliver; ways of improving communication and collaboration cutting more from the project and ensuring greater co-ordination reducing errors much earlier in the project, saving both time and money. The 'wow' factor of providing clients with an accurate and detailed model, rich in data, for ongoing facilities management should not be underestimated.

When thinking about what new capabilities to develop next think about the sources of data available to be tapped and what this data might allow you to do, on its own, and when combined with multiple other sources. With this vision you can then explore how to import, combine and export the data, and how to visually represent elements within your model drawing on manufacturer or generic BIM objects or even sketched alternatives.

Wherever your journey takes you it begins with motivation and support. With that support you can stay focussed on your goal even if the plan shifts along the way to deal with realities. The future of digital construction is in your hands - where will it take you today?