Tuesday, July 3, 2012

How full is your BIM? (Part 1)

Or: How the ambiguous definition of BIM deliverables keeps holding us back!

Blog entry by: Dominik Holzer


Ambiguous interpretation of deliverables is one of the main hindering factors for progress in the uptake of innovative technology and the adoption of BIM in the construction industry. I have been debating the dangers of ill-defined services and in particular the notion of ‘Full BIM’ for a while now across the industry. The feedback I receive about my ‘Full BIM’ criticism reflects on the struggle our industry  is going through: Collaborating parties too often experience a mismatch between their initial expectations and the benefits they ultimately receive when requesting BIM. Others have commented on the ‘hype factor’ when inflated expectations about BIM don’t match up in practice. The point I’m making is slightly different though:  I argue that there exists a lack of differentiation of what constitutes BIM among those offering it as part of their services as well as those requesting it as part of their deliverables.

The evolution of BIM

BIM is multi-facetted and evolving. It was always conceived by its propagators as a multilayered method allowing suppliers, designers, engineers, contractors and facility operators to streamline the flow of information across the entire lifecycle of a project. In practice it did not fulfill this promise initially. Tools available to the industry would predominantly focus on increasing efficiencies within the workflow of individual professions – in particular consultants. One could rightfully argue that early users of BIM tools would do ‘3D rather than BIM’.  Over the past 4-5 years the applications of BIM have continued to change:
  • Coordination of BIMs among collaborating parties across disciplines has become commonplace
  • Architects and Engineers experience stronger convergence between design authoring and analysis
  • Contractors start to experience benefits from BIMs by being able to tender with high-precision and by linking time factors to models for scheduling tasks on site,
  • Sub-contractors continue to explore the automated generation of construction models via knowledge-based systems,
  • QS can now reduce their efforts of quantity takeoff and the association of cost to BIM components
  • Clients can benefit from data drops derived from BIMs and link them to their Facility Management systems. 
Mapping a BIM Spectrum of services associated to the project lifecycle
Overall we experience greater convergence between the various tasks undertaken by the major parties that are involved in the planning, design, construction and operation of facilities. BIM is starting to fulfill its earlier promise of addressing the entire building lifecycle. This is obviously a positive development, but as much as technology has advanced, the means of collaboration and the mentality of collaborators is not changing at the same pace. A holistic understanding about the implications of the transformative factors listed above can rarely be found within project teams, including the client. BIM proponents have started to associate coarse definitions to distinguish various aspects of BIM such as 4D, 5D, 6D and 7D. Still this classification is limited and it remains on a very rudimentary level.

Which BIM are we talking about?

Along with the increased connectedness offered through BIM comes a more differentiated and multilayered spectrum of services associated to what can be achieved by it. In my time as Design Technology Director at BVN, I developed a 28 point ‘BIM Spectrum’ of services the firm could potentially offer associated to their architectural deliverables. ‘Potentially’ being an important word here as the spectrum was conceived as a discussion starter to first determine which out of those 28 points the firm would actually want to focus on. BIM-wash has become common place and those involved with the development of BIM throughout the industry are aware of the dangers of inflated expectations by others. Whereas my list contained 28 points, the US based BIM pioneers around John Tocci’s firm listed up to 150 BIM services they could think of. If we look at the client side, the current issue of Australia’s FM magazine lists 40 distinct tasks associated to Facility Management. How do consultants and the contractor deal with these in a BIM context? If the client wants ‘BIM for FM’ how full does their BIM have to become now? 
A small selection of the 'Full BIM' phantom that goes around in diverse project briefs and consultants' tenders

Ultimately ‘Full BIM’ has no meaning at all. Still, clients (confused about what it all means, but taken by the buzz) increasingly request it within their project briefs.  Given the lack of understanding about what ‘Full BIM’ constitutes among stakeholders involved in the delivery of projects, it makes me wonder if clients use the phrase to check how consultants and contractors react to such a request. Those well informed would probably reject it, aiming to develop a more detailed and targeted list of realistic deliverables with the client that matches their aspiration, the fee and the team’s capability to deliver (plus the option to adjust deliverables over time).  Those less informed (or simply desperate to gain the job) may be tempted to agree to delivering ‘Full BIM’ initially, to then aim at minimising the extent of their BIM services as the project evolves. I would argue that we are likely to experience the latter in most cases. Clients are partly to blame for this development as they appear to be lenient when it comes to the interpretation of what they considered at ‘Full BIM’ in the first place.

The problem with such a development is that the quality of BIM efforts across the industry is likely to stagnate. If we only address a portion of what could be achieved through BIM due to a lack of clear communication, if consultants and contractors rather aim at what they can ‘get away with’ than what could be achieved, if clients don’t bother to engage with the subject matter to understand the benefits, the value-add of BIM in the construction industry will remain mostly untapped.

So, what needs to happen?

Clients are in a key position to ask for (or better: demand) BIM on their projects. Currently they appear to derive their knowledge about it mainly from software developers’ propaganda and from publications that highlight the ROI aspect of BIM. Consultants or the contractors who have gone through a period of implementation and consolidations over the past years have a more realistic view on what can be achieved within their realm. Nevertheless, they currently lack deeper understanding of what the client could get out of BIM on a project to project basis, and also as part of their entire enterprise. What remains to be done now is to communicate and to reach out to various stakeholders in order to increase understanding about BIM. Communication is important not merely for the purpose of marketing one’s capabilities, but to raise the bar of where our industry is going in the uptake of BIM. With BIM becoming ever more encompassing, project teams require clear bullet point lists of BIM deliverables that ideally form part of the contract. This list needs to be adaptable in order to respond to the evolving nature of BIM, and the evolving level of understanding/requirements various stakeholders may hold for its use. 

I also strongly believe that consultants and contractors ought to consider profiling themselves stronger in terms of their specific capabilities when it comes to the use of technology. Instead of agreeing to ‘Full BIM’ it is important to highlight and promote their specific areas of expertise within that realm.
A good starting point would be to cross out ‘Full BIM’ wherever it appears in briefs and contracts and to ask: What do you actually mean by that? instead


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