Building Information Modelling: An introduction

By intouch * posted 28-01-2016 10:18


Building information modelling, or BIM, is increasingly being identified as an important emerging technology, with the potential to streamline processes throughout the constructed facility life-cycle and almost endless applications to assist with asset management.

Globally, markets such as the UK, the US, Hong Kong, Singapore, Scandinavia and Europe have well-entrenched, often Government-mandated BIM usage. However, uptake in Australia to date has largely been in ad-hoc, with a lack of coordinated national direction.

Sustainable Built Environment National Research Centre's BIM research 

The Sustainable Built Environment National Research Centre (SBEnrc) is the successor to the CRC for Construction Innovation. Established in 2010, the SBEnrc aims to be a key research broker between industry, government and research organisations servicing the built environment industry.

Curtin University and SBEnrc Research Associate Adriana Sanchez is part of a team conducting various studies into BIM. In 2014, Sanchez presented the paper BIM for Sustainable Whole-of-life Transport Infrastructure Asset Management at the IPWEA Sustainability in Public Works Conference. In 2015, the team released the results of a study Driving Whole-of-life Efficiencies through BIM and Procurement, which used three Australian exemplar case studies – The Perth Children’s Hospital, the New Generation Rollingstock Depot in Queensland and asset management of the Sydney Opera House – to showcase the benefits, tools and metrics for uptake of BIM. It resulted in the development of the BIM Value tool, created in collaboration with NATSPEC.

Building on that study, SBEnrc is currently working on a new project, titled Whole-of-life Value of Constructed Assets through Digital Technologies. Expected to be completed in 2017, the study focuses on future-proofing asset investment decisions, by developing a practical, online BIM benefits benchmarking system that can be used by industry stakeholders across building and infrastructure. It also aims to provide insight on the potential strategy impacts of disruptive technologies expected to change the way constructed community assets are procured and delivered.

In addition, Sanchez has also helped to author an upcoming book, Delivering Value with BIM: A Whole-of-life Approach, which was edited and authored by a mix of Australian and international academic researchers and industry practitioners from public and private organisations. Delivering Value with BIM will be available from March 2016.

Sanchez spoke to intouch about the benefits, opportunities and current barriers to widespread use of BIM in the Australian construction industry.

So, what is BIM?

Also known as virtual design and construction (VDC) or digital engineering, BIM can be used to facilitate a wide range of tasks and processes across the life-cycle of a building or infrastructure asset. BIM provides a 3D platform to explore the structure of objects and their spatial relationship to each other. There is also the ability to incorporate scheduling of activities during the build phase, known as 4D BIM, and allow for the inclusion of costing, known as 5D BIM. 6D BIM is the linking of attribute data to support asset or facilities management and can include maintenance information, optimum performance levels and the asset’s expected lifespan.

In the paper BIM for Sustainable Whole-of-life Transport Infrastructure Asset Management, the authors define BIM as:

“A set of interacting policies, processes and technologies generating a “methodology to manage the essential building design and project data in digital format throughout the building's lifecycle”. In this sense, BIM can be seen as more than a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility or a collection of defined model uses, workflows, and modelling methods used to achieve specific, repeatable, and reliable information results from the model.
Mature BIM is a socio-technical system that can be used to improve team communication throughout the project life cycle, produce better outcomes, reduce rework, lower risk, provide better predictability of outcomes and improve operation and maintenance of an asset. These are some of the benefits identified by the US infrastructure sector.”

It is just as important to understand what BIM is not, Sanchez says. “A crucial thing when you talk about BIM is that it’s not only one software program” she explains. “It’s the result of a series of software, add-ons, plugins and, importantly, processes, that come together to deliver improved efficiency across a number of tasks, it’s sort of like Lego”.

“If you look at the case studies we did last year (in Driving Whole-of-life Efficiencies through BIM and Procurement), each of them has more than 20 tools and processes that form their BIM strategy, and that help them achieve benefits. Some of those things are processes that are not exclusive to BIM, but ones that are used with BIM, so you maximise their value and effectiveness.”

BIM is not a physical object – it is a process and a way of working. “BIM is not one software program, where you have to go in and get every toy in the trunk,” Sanchez continues. “BIM is a composition of many things, and you can choose to trial little bits and if you do it in a structured way, that’s when you’ll see the most value.”

Sanchez says BIM allows for a collaborative way of working.

“A lot of projects use federated models, so that means that parts of the model are linked but worked on separately and say, once a week, everyone uploads their bits of the models when designing different sections,” Sanchez says. “Then, they’ll have people or a program that integrates them so everyone is working off the most up-to-date version. Once you’re in the field, there are tools that link into your tablet, then you can put in any information into the place where it’s supposed to go. It depends on the tools you have.”

What benefits can BIM provide?

Because BIM can be applied to all stages of a built asset’s life cycle, the benefits can extend from the planning, design, tender and construction process to the management and eventual decommissioning of an asset.

The greatest benefit of BIM is that it provides a “single source of truth”, Sanchez says. She uses the example of various contractors making changes to a building design, to show how using BIM could create greater efficiencies and reduce mistakes.

“Before, you would have a physical copy that people would write their notes around, and then they would have to pass it on to the next person, and often everyone had their own copy with their own notes, and it became difficult to track those changes,” Sanchez says.

“With BIM, the objective is that everyone is accessing the same information, and when they make changes, those changes are transmitted to what everyone else has, so there are no plans stuck in a drawer somewhere.”

In its 2014 review of BIM in the Public Infrastructure Inquiry Report, the Australian Government’s Productivity Commission cited a study from the US Centre for Integrated Facility Engineering. In a review of the adoption of BIM in the United States for 32 major projects, it was found that BIM technology lead to:

  • 7% reduction in project time
  • 10% saving of the contract value through clash detection
  • 40% elimination of unbudgeted change
  • 80% reduction in the time taken to generate a cost estimate, with cost estimation accuracy within 3% 

The Productivity Commission report identified that mature BIM has the potential to create savings by reducing avoidance costs, delay costs, and overlap costs.

The report states:

“Flaws in design documentation can have flow-on effects to the construction phase, with estimates suggesting that between 60 to 90% of project variations during construction are the result of poor design documentation.
Additionally, during construction it has been reported that as much as 30% of the construction cost of complex buildings is made up of costs resulting from coordination errors, ordering of incorrect materials and labour inefficiencies (generated by poor scheduling of activities). BIM has been argued to be a tool to reduce these.”

The report states that BIM also has the potential to change the procurement landscape.

“Along with lowering the potential costs of a project’s design and construction, the information provided by BIM can generate savings during the procurement process. BIM allows any potential tenderer to put forward more accurate costings for infrastructure projects. With the inclusion of both operations and facilities management and decommissioning into BIM, ‘whole of life’ costs can also be considered at the tender stage. This would allow for the least whole of life cost tender to be selected, or at least consideration given to any tradeoff between upfront capital costs and potentially lower life costs.”

Instead of the end-user simply saying ‘I want BIM’, Sanchez says the greatest benefits are derived from setting clear goals.

“What may work better is saying, ‘I want to improve coordination across trades, and this is going to be measured in, for example, number of errors related to coordination problems’,” Sanchez says. “As a client at the start, rather than saying I want 4D for everything, say, ‘I want to improve coordination, how can I do that? And how can BIM help?’.

“Sometimes you don’t need to roll-out BIM uses for the whole project. Sometimes you use some of them with more specific, problematic places. There are some safety modelling applications for example, where you might not need to use it for the whole thing, but it would be helpful in some specific places, resulting in a significant improvement in safety for the whole project.”

How is BIM being used around the world?

The UK, the Netherlands and Nordic countries already require the use of BIM on publicly funded building projects. In the US, the General Services Administration’s actions have had a significant influence on the adoption of BIM. The GSA first established its National 3D-4D BIM Program for buildings in 2003, and by 2007 required spatial program BIMs be the minimum requirements for submission to the Office of Chief Architect. In 2011, the UK Government mandated the use of BIM for all projects by 2016.

In New Zealand, the BIM Acceleration Committee was established in 2014 with a total initial funding of NZ$250,000 over three years. This committee is based on an alliance between government and industry and aims to coordinate efforts across government, industry and research to increase the use of BIM.

However, the Australian experience has been far more ad-hoc, owing to the segmented nature of Australian federation. 
“A lot of people say the Federal Government should mandate BIM like the UK did,” Sanchez says. “The difference is in the UK government centrally procures 30% of the construction industry output. In Australia, the states have such a big chunk of the industry that the Federal Government actually has a relatively small influence. So they could lead the way but without agreement from the states, it’d be hard to get an effective strategy in place”

“In terms of a coordinated approach, having standards that support that and proper skills, Australia is lagging behind, if you compare it to places like the UK, Finland, Sweden and Singapore. Without having a single, coordinating agent, it’s difficult for the industry to know which standard to use and then that also creates a lot of inefficiencies.”

Sanchez says while BIM pilot programs are being rolled out in Australia, there is no nationally-coordinated strategy. 

“It’s happening in Australia in a segregated way,” she explains. “Victoria is doing pilot projects, Queensland and New South Wales are doing a pilot projects. Everyone seems to be taking an incremental approach in Australia. In Queensland transport infrastructure for example, the first pilot project was just electrical lighting on a small street. That’s all they wanted to try – see what the procurement method would be, what the implications for technical specifications would be, etc. Then they said let’s do a double-lane street, and then a bridge. Everyone seems to be developing their own strategy and learning in isolation. In Western Australia, the state government requested BIM for the Perth Children’s Hospital, which is a large undertaking, and then they used that as a learning tool for the new Perth Stadium, which is great! But, wouldn’t it be better if the state agencies would all talk to each other and learn collectively so they can try more things with the same amount of funds? And then come up with a coordinated strategy so the industry knows what to expect and invest accordingly?"

Sanchez says there are some movements toward coordination.

“Everyone is trialling different things which means they are all evolving, but without a coordinated strategy, what happens is they all learn different things,” she says. “If they don’t talk to each other, and if there is no one agent that funnels the lessons learnt, then you are wasting an opportunity to maximise the impact of those learnings, and to leverage off funding that different state agencies have”.

“We, through our research, are trying to include a lot of organisations, to make sure that what we’re doing in the research is coordinated – we’re not doubling up on work, and we’re learning from what everyone else is learning.

“There is the Australian Construction Industry Forum (ACIF) and the Australian Procurement and Construction Council (APCC) BIM summit group – they formed a group that has representatives from some of the most influential industry organisations in Australia and New Zealand, to try to come up with some agreement around a framework for procurement, educational skills. We are a part of that group.

In its report Integrated Project Environments – Leveraging Innovation for Productivity Gain through Industry Transformation, SBEnrc recommended that the Transport and Infrastructure Council, as a body composed of federal, state and territory transport infrastructure stakeholders, was in the ideal position to act as the incubator for a national strategy for using BIM in the transport sector.

“I think the main challenge for Australia as a country though will be to arrive to a coordinated strategy that ensures resources are being used in the most efficient way, productivity goals achieved and information made easily accessible to those who need it,” Sanchez says.

What are the barriers to implementing BIM?

Sanchez lists the initial costs associated with purchasing BIM tools is seen as a major barrier for many organisations.

Studies have shown a number of users report a positive return on investment. In BIM for Sustainable Whole-of-life Transport Infrastructure Asset Management, the authors state:

“A common concern among new adopters, especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs), is the initial cost of implementing BIM and its applicability to small infrastructure projects. A survey carried out in the US found that, due to their shorter duration, small projects present more opportunities to introduce the use of BIM and the smaller size of organisations is advantageous in driving higher levels of implementation. This survey showed that 67% of all BIM users report a positive return on investment (ROI) for BIM use in infrastructure projects and 38% of those firms measuring ROI considered sustainability as an important contribution to higher ROI. In Australia, over half of the firms that focus on infrastructure projects reported over 25% ROI from implementing BIM.”

“The pricing structure of the software development is changing,” Sanchez says. “So now they’re starting to do licenses, and it’s sort of pay as you go. However, there are different views on that. Some people think it will be worse because you’ll have to pay more in the long-term if you are thinking about using the software over the next five to ten years but others think it’ll make it easier to try different tools.”

Sanchez says achieving interoperability with existing systems can also be a challenge. "Clients need to make sure that they are clear on their asset management information needs, so at hand-over they get everything they need in the formats they need it," she says. 

Sanchez says the large amount of information available on BIM can also seem overwhelming.

“There is so much information out there that it is very hard to get your head around it,” she says. “This is why state or national-level coordination would be useful.”

For current projects such as the Perth Children's Hospital, finding local professionals with the skills and experience to use BIM was a challenge. Sanchez says upskilling future and current workforces will be also a challenging aspects to a BIM rollout.

“In the beginning they had a real problem finding people within WA who had experience with BIM,” Sanchez says. “You still have architects graduating without having used BIM. There are a few universities around Australia who have been doing it for a few years, but it’s very patchy.

“As far as the need for up-skilling, it’s not only universities and TAFE but also people who are already in the industry.

“What we’ve seen in our case studies is that you need a lot of alignments between a lot of stakeholders. If only a couple of them are not understanding the protocols and the processes they have to go through, that has a relatively large impact on the benefits you receive, so then you get a lot of rework.”

The collaborative nature of BIM also means that construction industry, traditionally used to working in silos, will likely need to undergo a drastic culture change.

“Some sections are still a little bit reluctant,” Sanchez says. “This happens with every new information technology – there is always people that will go, ‘This is a lot of work to learn how to use it, I don’t really want to, the way I’ve been doing it my whole life works, so why fix something that’s not broken?'. There’s dealing with that culture.

“Everyone has access to the information from other people. There is often a fear of risk sharing – if someone makes a mistake, who pays for it?”

BIM – what is possible?

Because BIM models are achieved through the integration of various software tools, Sanchez says the possibilities for applications within the built environment are almost limitless.

“In the Sydney Opera House for example, one of the next stages they are developing is an interface to security systems, so the idea is if it’s there’s emergency, a tablet can be given to the emergency responders, who can access security footage through the 3D interface, so they can know where people are, what their current situation is, and navigate the building,” Sanchez explains.

“Germany is trialling city-scale models,” she continues. “The Netherlands has talked about having a nation-wide model. It’s not the roads agency working on their own plan and not knowing what the water agency is doing – with BIM you can eventually have a very intricate, comprehensive view of the city.”

Want to explore the possible benefits of BIM?

The SBEnrc/NATSPEC BIM Value tool provides an approach for built environment practitioners seeking to implement BIM across the life-cycle of built environment assets and wanting to understand how BIM will deliver value to their businesses and projects.

A free decision-support tool, BIM Value does not require the use of any personal or project information and can be used for different phases of the asset's life-cycle, from planning to decommission.

For an overview of contracting with BIM, read McCullough Robertson Senior Associate Goran Gelic’s views in BIM: A contractual approach.

You can join the conversation on Ask Your Mates, or tweet @IPWEAintouch.

Images – courtesy of the SBEnrc
1. An example of graphic 4D representation used in the Perth Children's Hospital 
2. The New Generation Rollingstock federated BIM model used for coordination purposes
3. View of the New Generation Rollingstock BIM model, highlighting mechanical, electrical and plumbing elements 
4. A BIM model of the Sydney Opera House.