Putting the BIM into building

Building Information Modelling, BIM, B&ES, HVCA

Modern Building Services has teamed up with the Building & Engineering Services Association (formerly the Heating & Ventilating Contractors’ Association) to share the knowledge and thinking of the organisation’s experts on a range of industry concerns and issues.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is here. It’s a bit confusing, but it is going to be pivotal to the way the industry operates in the future, says B&ES President Sue Sharp*.

The emergence of a new generation of intelligent design tools could turn building engineering design on its head and deliver far superior buildings with many long-term benefits for their owners and operators. However, we are still on a steep learning curve.

Recent research carried out on behalf of the Government’s BIM working group suggests that almost everyone in the building engineering sector will be using BIM, to some extent, in five years’ time. Contractors simply can’t afford to be left behind.

BIM should help ensure building occupiers have all the necessary information to maintain the building at a good level of performance and sustain the energy efficiency intended in the original design. Many buildings are being designed well, but changes along the way and problems with the way they are operated negate all the effort put into trying to reduce carbon emissions.

A survey of a thousand professionals, carried out by the software consultancy NBS, found that three quarters of people, who were aware of it, expected to be using BIM by the end of 2012. However, a large number of firms think it is still too expensive to consider at the moment, and there remains some confusion about what it actually is. Many still refer to it as simply ‘3D CAD’.


Almost one-third of construction professionals (31%) said they were using BIM at the end of last year. This is a considerable increase on 2010, when only 13% had adopted it. Only a fifth (21%) said they were unaware of the technology compared to 43% a year earlier.

Most people accept that BIM can deliver cost efficiencies, and, as a result, more clients will insist on it being used on their projects. The Government has stated that BIM must be used on all public-sector projects over £5 million from 2016, which creates a real sense of urgency.

The certainty of Building Information Modelling — Sue Sharp. 

However, the economic situation is confusing things. Almost two-thirds (63%) of the NBS survey said BIM was too expensive to consider at the moment, and nearly half (48%) said they would wait until after the recession. Many contractors will be hesitant to invest in the necessary hardware, software and skills training until they see a clear demand from clients; that is to be expected in these tough economic times.

The Government’s new Construction Strategy concluded that it could cut project costs by 20% by using more modern methods of procurement, with BIM seen as a key contributor to those savings. The fact that the Government is taking the lead as a client and is creating incentives for the industry to invest in the technology and skills required is vital. This will encourage SMEs, and private clients are likely to follow.

BIM is a process involving the structured sharing and co-ordination of digital information about a building project throughout its entire lifecycle — from design through procurement and construction and beyond, into the operation and management stage. It involves the use of 3D design models enriched with data.

The potential benefits of BIM can be summarised as follows.

• Fully integrated projects (and thus better projects).

• Buildings that are fully designed before construction commences.

• Fully co-ordinated cost models and building programmes.

• Increased likelihood of the finished building conforming to the agreed design.

• Significant cost reductions due to improved effectiveness and productivity.

The use of intelligent objects and 3D models allows the design team to have a full working visualisation of the project before work begins.

It also enables better ongoing operation of the building because of the amount of detail contained in each segment of the model and related to each working component. This should unlock major energy savings and prolong system life.

The US industry has been something of a pioneer in the development of BIM, and we can take advantage of the development they have already carried out; let’s not try to reinvent the wheel over here. BIM could also be a great catalyst for increasing the uptake of properly integrated project teams, but it won’t make poor procurement better. We still need to push ahead with reform of the way in which our projects are procured in order to deliver the best results from BIM — or any other design approach for that matter.


By enabling the design team to create a virtual design and fully envisage the construction and operation of a building using a digital prototype, BIM allows the project team to deliver greater cost certainty, minimise mistakes, shorten the project process and reduce risk. It also makes it easier to prove that an ‘alternative’ technology will work and so is worth the investment.

From this visualisation of a piping system, it is easy to appreciate the value of the capabilities of BIM to flag up design clashes and inconsistencies before anyone sets foot on a building site — and long before equipment is ordered and manufactured. AutoCAD, Revit, MEP Suite and Autodesk 3D Max software products were used in this design process. (Image courtesy of Design West Engineering.)

Clients have a much better idea of what they will be getting for their money, thanks to the 3D visualisations, but equally importantly the design team can see how their systems and components fit within the structure. For contractors, this sounds too good to be true because BIM flags up design clashes and inconsistencies before anyone sets foot on a building site — and long before equipment is ordered and manufactured. Too often we end up having to compromise when trying to implement theoretical designs. With BIM the theoretical can be tested and visualised before being turned into reality.

BIM is primarily about managing information, including all relevant information produced at all stages of a building’s life. This makes it much more than a producer of design models. It is also a highly sophisticated, but easily accessible, digital record and living database that allows building owners to track and adjust their building engineering systems at any time. It, therefore, demands a certain rigour and discipline from users, who must be prepared to organise and gather their information in a timely fashion.

Having the right level of information about a project available at the right point in the procurement process is a key element of the Government’s new Construction Strategy because it realises that it makes it possible to make better informed decisions which, in turn, should result in cost savings through reducing material waste; cutting out expensive mistakes and shortening lead times.

The adoption of BIM, from inception to demolition, can only help this process, but to maximise the benefits available, the information must be accessible to all the intended users.

BIM is, in short, the digitisation of the building-engineering-services industry. It creates an unprecedented framework for information sharing that gives us the potential to meet some of our most cherished objectives, including the wider adoption of integrated teams. You cannot create a successful BIM model without the early engagement of specialist contractors who can provide specific technical expertise and data. By the same token, as the BIM culture expands, contractors who are unable to contribute to the process will find themselves on the sidelines.

Client demand — led by the Government, which accounts for 40% of UK construction activity — is growing. Undoubtedly the promise of cost savings is highly attractive, but there is a lot more to BIM than that. Its ability to reduce the need for reworking designs should have a dramatic impact on project quality.

At the moment, there is a sense that BIM is primarily for larger projects and clients with deeper projects, but that will definitely change as it becomes more established. Once the initial investment has been made in the equipment and training, it will be normal for contractors to work this way, and BIM will become second nature.

It’s only a question of when.

*Sue Sharp is due to take office as president of the Building & Engineering Services Association (B&ES) on 19 July 2012.

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