BIM is the word on everybody’s lips - but do we really know what it is? David Light says we won’t make the most of building information modelling until we start asking the right questions

You cannot pick up an architectural or construction magazine these days without reading about building information modelling. Since Paul Morrell, chief construction adviser to the government, highlighted the need for a renewed focus on efficiency, BIM has been on everybody’s lips as the answer to this long-standing problem. But haven’t we been here before? Both the Egan report and the Latham report before it pointed to the efficiencies that integration and collaboration could bring to our fractured industry. Although there have been improvements, they haven’t been widespread. So why are things different this time around?

The world has changed. The economic downturn has forced firms to find new ways of working. Meanwhile, the technology available to us has advanced tremendously

In short, the world has changed. The economic downturn has forced firms to find new ways of working. Meanwhile, the technology available to us has advanced tremendously. We now have the tools to revolutionise our industry; BIM will change the way we work, the way we interact and ultimately the way we respond to our clients. But how many of us truly understand BIM?

I recently attended Ramboll’s “evolutionary design” presentation at the Building Centre in London. Ramboll showcased some amazing work, much of which was created using customised scripts and software programs generated to resolve complex structural and facade issues. Of particular interest were their plans for the future and to integrate BIM into their workflows which, to my surprise, brought a groan from the audience. Having seen the use of parametric scripts to generate complex forms to rationalise designs, I struggled to see why this was not considered part of the BIM workflow. It’s a model and it contains information which is associated with a building form. So, like a dog with a bone, I did some digging. What I discovered is that people automatically - and only - associate BIM with software. But, in fact, BIM is not a box you can pick up and buy off the shelf.

First and foremost BIM is a collaborative approach, combined with using the latest technology to deliver a model or a series of models. Increasingly I am starting to think that the acronym VDC (virtual design and construction) is potentially a better definition.

We are using a virtual environment to construct and test our designs well before the building gets anywhere near a site. You can form find, test for sustainability requirements and extract valuable data for downstream uses. In essence we are virtually prototyping a building, connecting the latest technology to allow the reuse and flow of information and data for the design, construction, management and operation of the facility. I see it as a series of systems, which through inter-operability allows data to be exchanged in a collaborative manner.

Often I find that clients can appreciate easily the efficiencies that this collaboration and virtual prototyping can create. So why can’t we? Debate within the industry continues to focus on the cost of implementing BIM. Yes, there is a cost, but there was a cost when we shifted from the drawing board to CAD; funny how people conveniently forget about that. It doesn’t matter if you use products like Rhino, Revit, GC, Autocad, or scripts, what’s more important is that we use data throughout the design life cycle and collaborate, each time increasing the richness of the data at the appropriate stages.

Ultimately it is no longer a question of choosing to implement BIM or not. Virtual environments for designing building forms are here to stay. We’re already seeing more and more clients looking to use BIM, and if the government does follow Morrell’s plan to adopt BIM, the floodgates will no doubt open, driving adoption across the private sector. But what I suspect we will see is the creation of a two-tier industry: those that use BIM and those that do not.

Early adopters are already finding ever more innovative ways to use this system. For them the question is not, “do we adopt BIM”; it’s “what new data can we use to offer ever more sophisticated client solutions” or “how do we push the boundaries to be even better at what we do?” As they say, the times they are a’changin … and it’s time our conversations changed too.

David Light is a Revit specialist at HOK