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What is BIM washing? Is all BIM the same?

By David Gray

What you need to understand about BIM to make the most out of the opportunities

The modern construction industry is all aflutter about BIM. Every top software vendor has rolled out their own BIM software solution, new BIM dedicated conferences have sprouted up in major cities and dozens of countries now require BIM for certain projects. We all seem set to blast off into the new digital future of construction.

But, is it that simple? Does everyone mean the same thing when they say ‘BIM’? The short answer is no. Although most things labelled BIM do represent improvements over the digital and analogue status quo, there is a lot of distance between what BIM has become and what it was initially envisioned to be. If you want to look past marketing and actually understand the functional differences that will translate into real outcomes during design, construction and structural maintenance, then you must learn about BIM washing and the ‘levels of BIM.’

BIM washing explained using the UK BIM mandate: BIM Levels 0-3

Simply put, BIM washing is the application of the term BIM to a wider range of technology and processes than BIM was initially intended to describe. BIM has various regional terms ranging from PTNM in France to ӦNORM in Austria. There are subtleties to them all, and like BIM, many suffer from terminological creep.

In 2016, the UK BIM Level 2 mandate came into force, creating a set of standards that must be met for all publicly funded construction projects. This also created a number of regulatory ‘BIM’ definitions that together create a perfect template for describing how the label ‘BIM’ gets misused.   

Within this framework, BIM Level 0 is applied to any computer-aided design (CAD) software. CAD has been around for decades and effectively represent the traditional digital method of approaching design.

BIM Level 1 is applied to ‘object-oriented’ CADs. Again, this is a set of technological tools that have been around since the 1990s. These are simply CAD models with added functional and asset information included within the design. Broadly speaking, they are the current standard practice tools used within digital design.

BIM Level 2 introduces limited requirements that improve cooperation and cross-team coordination, but it broadly leaves the technology unchanged. A common data environment (CDE) needs to be created and all CAD programs used need to be capable of exporting in standard file formats such as COBie and IFC.

Everything described here is BIM washing. There are process improvements included in BIM Level 2, but BIM Level 0 and 1 are simply traditional CAD now graced with a new acronym. Even BIM Level 2 is a far cry from the changes that created the term BIM in the first place. Those are relegated to the still undefined BIM Level 3 category.

Where did the term BIM come from anyway?

In 2002, Autodesk popularised the term ‘Building Information Modeling’ to a wide audience in a white paper to define their strategy towards the building industry for their products. This detailed a new approach to construction that abandons graphics-first design software in favour of database-first technology that creates a ‘single source-of-truth’ dataset capable of being shared by all elements of the design and construction teams. This was further aided by Autodesk’s acquisition of the parametric modelling software package Revit in the same year.

However, it is important to note that the creation of the BIM phrase was not an immaculate conception on Autodesk’s part. It came on the back of the development of previous phrasings used throughout the 1990s in architectural academic research.

The technology and ideas go back even further. Most directly, BIM owes its object-oriented information modelling formulation to the product modelling ideas developed for manufacturing engineering. This was a natural evolution of some of the ideals set out in the MIT technical reports on early CAD development around 1960. The initial concepts of product modelling were developed across the late 1980s with the rise of Computer Integrated Manufacture (CIM).

Product modelling is a central part of product development in manufacturing and serves as a repository of all data about a product to serve various activities in the product’s lifecycle by homogenising “islands of information” that existed — a definition which bears a strong similarity with the current BIM descriptions.

Single source of truth, database-first design technologically enabled processes exists across design, manufacturing and construction. But, as we have seen, a far greater number of approaches to digital design and construction are now called BIM.        

Why Database-First Design Is Critical To True BIM

Database-first design is a crucial part of ‘true BIM’ because it provides you with a single-source-of-truth. This is where most of the benefits of BIM lie. Instead of having to store information in many different datasets, a team only needs to access one. This makes coordination across and between teams much easier.  

For example, imagine a new house is being constructed. The project manager will need to coordinate with architects, structural engineers, contractors and interior designers to ensure that a structurally sound outcome is achieved that also fits the client’s design expectations. Different information is relevant to each specialist within this team, and each will want to use their own formats for assessing the data.

With database-first design, everyone can see the same plans in the formats that they’re used to working on without having to create duplicate files. There’s no need to continually edit and convert files — it’s all there and updated in real time.

This enables the easy experimentation with many different design elements and materials. Simulators can be deployed to test structural components and all of this can be cross-checked by specialists to ensure it’s corrected. Any changes that are made will be automatically propagated across all files in all formats because all of the formats and files are simply different representations of the same data. 3D models can even be easily created to show clients intuitive representations of the project.  

In essence, a database-first design delivers ultimate flexibility and quality control by centralising data by diversifying the ways in which it can be accessed. It enables more creative designs by letting people access the information and then produce the graphical information. Not only that, the ability to run tests and include structural engineers through the design process enables teams to push the limits of structural and material possibilities without risking safety.

Critical to quality assurance, this approach also leads to the reduction of errors and improves clash detection. More people have access to the data, decreasing the likelihood that faulty designs make it through to the end of the process. The central storage point for all of the data makes it easy to deploy tools like clash detection software, and the fact that all elements of the team have access to all of the data means that there is a decreased likelihood that something like placing piping and electrical work in the same place happens in the first place.

The Future Of BIM: Scan-To-BIM

What does the future hold for BIM? One way in which all types of BIM technology and processes are being augmented is through the use of terrestrial laser scanners and point clouds to bring BIM models in direct touch with real physical space.

Laser scan surveys are either used to inform the foundations on which a BIM-enabled model is built or cross-check stages of construction with planning. Both of these abilities further improve quality assurance. The ability to cross-check production with design can also be applied to prefabricated components and is even accelerating the adoption of experimental design techniques such as 3D printing.   

Another great way you can use this technology is by creating post hoc BIM schematics for older buildings to help with maintenance or renovations. Working with old buildings always poses a problem for architects as existing schematics are usually old and not digital. This can slow down designers or create accuracy/compliance issues. Point clouds deliver an easy solution for the application of modern BIM processes, wherever and whenever they are needed.

The_Ultimate_Guide To BIM  

Fundamentally, the application of scan-to-BIM technology within a BIM-enabled environment simply further improve confidence when planning designs, reduces errors, and increases efficiency across the board for all team members.

Summary: Knowledge and the right partnerships are critical to BIM and scan-to-BIM success

If your team wants to unlock the real potential of BIM, then you must ensure you’re using the correct technology and processes. That means understanding BIM washing and accessing database-first design technology. Just as critically, however, you need to make sure that the team with which you are working updates their processes to align with the technological capabilities. Although BIM is sometimes considered a technology or software, it is really a collaborative process enabled by technology. Building a team that understands all of those possibilities and can see past BIM washed labels is critical to delivering outcomes using BIM.   

The same goes for point clouds. If you want to take advantage of scan-to-BIM, then you need to find survey partners that have access to modern point cloud survey technologies. Part of the accelerated adoption of point cloud technology within construction has to do with increased efficiencies offered by cutting edge, multistage, vector-based processing software. This is reducing the time spent creating a survey by as much as 80% — allowing for the cost-effective deployment of the technology in a much wider array of circumstances.

In all cases, remember that you need to look past labels and investigate the technology and processes actually being deployed. That starts with understanding the technology. BIM washing is real, and teams that understand the subtleties hidden under the label BIM are those that will be able to use BIM to actually develop and maintain a competitive advantage in a dynamic marketplace.    

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