BIM: Is it holding back digital construction?

The original text was published on July 16, 2018 at

The government’s 2016 mandate brought BIM to the fore, yet many remain confused about its true meaning as leading figures ask whether it’s obscuring the need to digitise the industry. Lucy Alderson investigates.

“What is BIM?” asks IFS global director for construction Kenny Ingram, repeating my words back to me. “That’s a very good question.”

Mr Ingram could not have captured the mood any better.

In 2011, the government announced that all central government projects must be BIM (building information modelling) Level 2 compliant, with it being mandated from April 2016. But seven years on from that announcement, many in the industry remain unsure of what BIM is – and what firms need to do in order to be compliant, as revealed in a survey by specification services provider NBS.

Its national BIM survey for 2018 looked into whether the government’s mandate had been successful and whether the industry was increasing its adoption. The findings revealed that only 58 per cent of industry respondents were confident in their BIM knowledge and capability. Around 41 per cent said they were still unclear on what they needed to do to comply with the mandate.

While different interpretations persist, contractors could find themselves in legal hot water. This confusion about BIM is presenting difficulties for the industry, which begs the question: has the mandate proved more of a hindrance than a help?

Why the confusion?

Mr Ingram says the concept of BIM may be too complex for people working in non-technical positions to understand, which is the main reason behind the confusion over what exactly BIM is.

“There’s some really smart technology being used, but if you speak to a commercial director or finance director, it’s kind of lost on them”

Kenny Ingram, IFS

He says engineers, designers and architects within companies are the ones pushing the agenda. But outside of these roles, BIM remains unclear to most.

It is often misunderstood as being a 3D design software tool, when in fact it is more like an initiative to move the industry into a “data-driven world from a document-driven world,” Mr Ingram says. “There’s some really smart technology being used, but if you speak to a commercial director or finance director, it’s kind of lost on them and they don’t know what it is. That’s part of the problem […] BIM has been made too complicated.”

ISG head of BIM Mark Norton says the technology’s roots in CAD (computer-aided design) could explain why many people mistake BIM for being just a 3D design tool.

When the industry moved towards designing buildings using computers instead of pencil and paper, BIM was associated with this move from 2D to 3D design. However, this misunderstanding is one of the largest obstacles the industry needs to overcome if it is to fully adopt and utilise BIM, Mr Norton argues.

To tackle the confusion, Lendlease has undergone a “big shift” over the past two years in its approach to BIM, according to head of design and technical Lucy Homer. She says “BIM speak” is discouraged to ensure the subject matter is conveyed in a way the entire business can understand.

“Historically, BIM has been led by technical specialists,” Ms Homer says. “But what we’re doing is using the starting point of understanding what the business needs and using the technical specialists to show us the best way this can be done.”

‘A bomb waiting to go off’

Confusion around BIM suggests there is ambiguity in the way the subject matter can be interpreted. This could have legal implications that construction firms should look out for, warns Gowling WLG construction and engineering team senior associate Sarah Rock.

Last summer, Ms Rock, alongside Engie senior legal counsel and BIM specialist May Winfield, noticed that building contracts increasingly contained clauses that projects needed be delivered to BIM Level 2 – with no further guidance on what this meant. Ms Rock and Ms Winfield were also seeing a rise in legal disputes over contractual obligations towards BIM.

“The first question we asked was: give us your definition of BIM Level 2. Everyone gave a different response”

Sarah Rock, Gowling WLG

“We said, ‘That’s a bomb waiting to go off’,” Ms Rock recalls. “BIM means different things to people, and we wondered if arguments had been had over this yet.”

Ms Rock and Ms Winfield conducted further research into the trend, surveying 158 people and conducting 44 face-to-face interviews with clients, consultants and contractors to better understand the main pressure points that could potentially lead to adjudications. “The first question we asked each of our 44 interviewees was: give us your definition of BIM Level 2,” Ms Rock explains. “Everyone gave a different response – sometimes vastly different.”

Ms Rock says the different interpretations of BIM represent an important issue, given the growth in related contract clauses and the potential for clients and contractors to take conflicting positions on what’s required and – ultimately – what’s delivered.

The industry is lacking a standardised definition, but this can be overcome as long as companies recognise the problem and ensure all parties on a project hold the same interpretation of what BIM means.

Is BIM a barrier to technology?

Since the government mandated BIM, construction firms have been focusing on adopting and integrating it into their business.

But with contractors working on tight margins, has investment in developing other innovations – such as drones and artificial intelligence – fallen by the wayside?

“I’m reluctant to say BIM is a barrier,” Ms Rock says. “But you could say BIM is restrictive, as it focuses on one area of digitising construction […] at the expense of other technologies, probably because of the mandate.”

Ms Rock does not think this means the mandate has been a failure. “If there had not been an initial push on BIM, would we be as far down the line with it as we are now?” She adds that a solution could be to rename BIM as “digital construction” for two reasons: to make it simpler for the industry to get behind it, and to encourage firms to develop other innovations outside the scope of BIM.

“We’ve invented these complicated acronyms and different words, and I’m not sure who actually understands it”

Kenny Ingram, IFS

For Mr Ingram, BIM is its own worst enemy. If the mandate had not used the term ‘BIM’ and instead asked contractors to use data in project processes as part of a move towards digital construction, he believes greater understanding and uptake would have resulted.

“This [BIM mandate] is really about making the industry more efficient and changing the way we work – [otherwise] it will be under threat from competition outside the UK or from other industries,” he says. “But we’ve invented these complicated acronyms and different words, and I’m not sure who actually understands it.”

Because of this, one of the biggest challenges is trying to educate the industry about BIM, Mr Ingram argues.

Client benefits

Although BIM can be problematic at points, ISG’s Mr Norton insists that its benefits outweigh these challenges – especially for clients.

He points out how the processes provide a substantial amount of digital information about the project that can be handed over to the client once the building or asset has been completed.

Clients can use this data – and update it themselves – to run the asset more efficiently. For example, if an air conditioning unit failed in a client’s building, they could access the BIM data to see which model is needed to replace the faulty product. Furthermore, clients could update the database if any changes are made to their asset to make sure all information is accurate.

Data collected by BIM processes can also provide transparency in terms of monitoring the quality of build. “The beauty of BIM is that it produces complete clarity,” Mr Norton says. “You get an audit trail of everything, from cradle to grave, on every project.”

“You’ve got to get in and get your hands dirty if you want to see the benefits”

Mark Norton, ISG

He says BIM could be a useful tool in establishing who is accountable when building quality falls short – an issue that has been put under the microscope following the Grenfell tragedy.

Morgan Sindall design management and head of BIM Lee Ramsay agrees. “You can see how BIM could help in making sure information is accurate, being checked and being recorded,” he says. “I can see that this kind of record-keeping of information [through BIM] is essential.”

He adds that Morgan Sindall has seen a significant increase in demand for BIM from higher education clients, which can see the benefits of having accurate data about their asset and which also have the money to invest in this technology on their projects.

BIM is what you make of it

There is no doubt the subject of BIM has left many people in the industry scratching their heads.

But for Mr Norton, BIM is what you make of it. “You’ve got to get in and get your hands dirty if you want to see the benefits,” he says. “People should be more open-minded and try things out. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work – but I think people will be suitably surprised about the benefits.”

Mr Ingram says BIM needs to be part of a broader digital agenda for the industry. However, pushing the industry to digitise will be a tough challenge for a sector that is set in its ways, he argues. “I think everyone agrees that having a data-driven digital world is the way we should be going. The industry needs to make a decision to change, and that starts with senior management in companies.”

If the industry does not change, Mr Ingram believes it will come under threat from new entrants to the market, including international construction firms and companies from different industries – such as manufacturers looking towards modular construction.

“These new entrants will turn construction on its head and change traditional ways of working,” he predicts. “And there might be a few casualties because of this in the future. That’s a risk.”

BIM: 4 top legal tips

Gowling WLG construction and engineering team senior associate Sarah Rock sets out four top legal tips for contractors to ensure BIM confusion doesn’t lead to adjudication.

Make sure BIM means the same to all parties: Figure out what BIM means for that particular project and make sure that is defined clearly in all contracts and appointments. Everybody should have the same understanding of what is being used on the project and what the deliverables are.

Who is accountable for what: Understand who is responsible for delivering what in terms of BIM, and make sure this is co-ordinated effectively.

Engage clients: There is a document – the Employers Information Requirement – that can set out what the client wants from the BIM model. Completing that document properly is a good way for the client to set out what they require and what they expect to be delivered.

Legal loopholes: Legal teams should review BIM technical documents to make sure no obligations are slipping through inadvertently that ought to be in contracts.