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How BIM Software Turned Into Plato’s Cave

Ask an AEC professional what BIM software is and chances are, they will name a popular 3D modeling system, and maybe a couple of plug-ins. This is a big problem in our industry. It reminds me of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave – the one where people live facing a blank wall all their lives. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them and think that is reality. But they aren’t accurate representation of the real world- their perception is limited to what they can see. 

For too many people in the construction industry, BIM software has turned into the representation, not the reality of BIM. It’s limiting the value that BIM provides across the entire project lifecycle, and it’s inhibiting innovation. 

I think it’s time for many of us to step out of the BIM software cave.

How BIM Software Turned Into Plato’s Cave

For many in the AEC industry, the concept of BIM is limited to the creation of 3D design models. And if you were to ask a group of AEC professionals which systems they consider to be BIM software solutions, they’d probably name off a list of popular modeling software tools.

While it’s true that these tools have streamlined the design process, they only scratch the surface of what we can achieve with BIM. Beyond design, BIM has the potential to drive significant improvements in productivity, quality, transparency, safety and sustainability by bringing construction stakeholders together throughout the entire lifecycle of a project. But too often AEC professionals aren’t using BIM to its full advantage.

5 Benefits of Using BIM Software Beyond Design

  1. Take the model to the field to improve layout speed and accuracy.
  2. Roundtrip data from the field to increase collaboration and improve decision making.
  3. Develop constructible models to avoid MEP clashes during installation and minimize rework.
  4. Leverage digital as-builts to streamline asset management and maintenance.
  5. Create a connected jobsite using IoT devices and digital twins.

The Reality of BIM Is Information, Not Modeling 

At the root of the problem is a lack of consensus around what BIM is and how it can be applied. For example, depending on the context, BIM can be short for “building information modeling” or “bridge information modeling.” And some might argue the “M” doesn’t stand for “modeling” but for “management.” But regardless of the exact words, BIM is undeniably about much more than design.

BIM can be used to bring together all of the data, including non-graphical information like scheduling, cost, and facility maintenance information, involved in a project. Contractors and suppliers can use the model to improve efficiency and accuracy in their processes.

For example, cost estimating typically involves manual effort, such as counting the number of doors or volumes of concrete a project requires. However, it’s possible for that information to be pulled directly from the model. Realizing these kinds of efficiencies depends on a project’s level of BIM maturity. The higher the level of BIM maturity, the more collaborative the construction process is.

Levels of BIM Maturity

  • Level 0 BIM: Paper-based drawings + zero collaboration
  • Level 1 BIM: 2D construction drawings + some 3D modeling
  • Level 2 BIM: Project teams work in their own 3D model
  • Level 3 BIM: Project teams work with a shared 3D model for more accurate 3D visualization of the entire project, easier collaboration between multiple teams and trades, simplified communication and understanding of design intention, enhanced clash detection, reduced rework and revisions at every stage of the project.
  • Levels 4, 5, and 6 BIM: These may seem a bit buzzword-y, but these levels of BIM simply bring new elements into the information model: time; cost estimations, budget analysis, and budget tracking; energy consumption calculations. 

As the National Institute of Building Sciences points out in its Whole Building Design Guide, a primary goal of BIM is to eliminate the wasteful re-gathering or reformatting of project information. But, when BIM is limited to design professionals, the network of other stakeholders involved in the project end up sharing information manually or recreating models for their own use. To reduce the waste caused by that manual work, we need to expand to higher levels of BIM maturity.

Greater BIM Maturity Means Greater Savings

In the U.K., where the government has mandated that all projects receiving governmental funds meet Level 2 BIM requirements, shifting perceptions about BIM are helping to reduce construction costs. As a result of the mandate, the majority of British AEC stakeholders also perceive BIM to be more than just 3D modeling. The 2020 National BIM Report validates this, finding that a majority of respondents see BIM as a process that follows defined standards. British construction stakeholders are now using the model across a wide array of disciplines, and their perception of BIM has grown to include a broader ecosystem of data sets, processes, and people.

The U.K.’s BIM mandate is estimated to save British taxpayers up to £429 million, more than $600 million USD, every year.

BIM Level 2 Benefits Measurement, PwC

The U.K.’s usage of and success with BIM demonstrates that it’s much more than just a design modeling tool. BIM can be used to streamline workflows and drive process improvements from planning to construction to ongoing management of an asset. When we understand BIM in these terms, we realize that it encompasses much more than the typical design models and the software used to produce them.

Beyond BIM Software: Building a BIM Tech Stack

When we think about BIM software, we also need to expand its definition. Instead of only including point solutions used to produce 3D design models, the scope of BIM software should also encompass technologies that enable better collaboration and more efficient scheduling, budgeting, and planning.

To realize BIM’s full potential, you need integrated solutions (aka a BIM tech stack) that connect construction professionals, technologies, and tools from the field to the office to the shop and back again. A complete BIM tech stack entails a diverse set of technologies, including:

  • Modeling/parametric data management
  • Model coordination and viewers 
  • Model analysis 
  • Detailing 
  • Reality capture
  • Point cloud alignment and viewers
  • Coordination/clash detection
  • Measurement and cost control software
  • File sharing platforms  
  • Project communication systems 
  • Common data environments (CDEs)

It’s likely that your firm already uses some of these tools, but without collaborative processes to support them, there will always be data that must be shared manually — or missed entirely. Maintaining that status quo will severely limit your ability to realize the waste-reducing and productivity-enhancing potential of BIM.

Maximize Your BIM Investment with Tech-Savvy Employees

You can have the most sophisticated BIM tech stack, but technology alone isn’t the answer. The data that technology provides is the real key to unlocking the improvements BIM can deliver. And to make the data your tech stack holds accessible and actionable, you need the right people to support it.

To tap the goldmine of data they have, many firms are seeking out employees who may have traditionally worked in fields outside of the AEC ecosystem. For instance, some AEC stakeholders are employing data scientists and analysts who understand how to parse, analyze, and communicate the story that their data tells.

Younger workers can also help drive more effective technology adoption. According to KPMG, the most innovative construction leaders are already actively using technology to attract Millennials and Gen Z workers. These firms are leveraging younger workers’ natural affinity for efficiency and on-the-spot analyses to help drive the development and adoption of processes that maximize their digital strategy. And by training these digital natives on construction basics like scheduling and estimating, these innovators will also play a key role in shaping the next generation of careers in construction.

To Move Beyond the BIM Cave, We Need OpenBIM Standards

With the right tools in place, and the right people managing and using them, a comprehensive BIM tech stack needs only one more thing to bring it fully to life: a unifying language that enables all of the systems and tools to communicate with one another. When purchasing a new tool for their tech stack, AEC firms shouldn’t have to choose between interoperability and suitability. They should be able to purchase the solutions that fit their needs, budget, and skill sets, without having to worry about how they will integrate with the rest of their tech stack.

OpenBIM is an industry-wide initiative to create standardized processes and non-proprietary data protocols to increase collaboration. The development of OpenBIM standards will allow construction stakeholders to maintain access to a diverse technology marketplace without having to worry about how individual systems and tools integrate with one another.

Learn more about OpenBIM and why it matters here.

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