BIM in North America: Benefits, Objections, & Outlook

5 minute read

Building information modeling (BIM) is a "digital representation of a physical building or infrastructure asset". A collaborative way of working underpinned by digital technologies, BIM facilitates design, construction, and operation processes and helps you make better decisions.

While new advances in BIM are constantly making headlines, the technology itself is hardly new—having been introduced in the 1980s.

What began as a 2D application, BIM has added capabilities for 3D, 4D, and now 5D. Here’s how it works:

- 3D refers to the three spatial dimensions

- 4D—the fourth dimension—is time so you can see how much of the project is complete on certain dates

- 5D—the fifth dimension (in the BIM world)—is money. (In physics, the fifth dimension describes the effects of electromagnetism and gravity.)

What’s really cool about 5D BIM is it allows you to move along the project’s timeline and see your project’s cash flow for any point in time during the project.

While BIM is mandated in the public sector in the UK, use of BIM on construction projects has slowly been gaining ground in the United States. Some BIM enthusiasts want state governments —and even the federal government—to impose BIM mandates on government contracts.

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Without a mandate, it is unclear whether BIM will organically gain traction in the U.S. The 2021 JBKnowledge ConTech Report found the number of companies NOT bidding on projects involving BIM continues to hover between 25% to 30% of the firms in their survey.

Let’s dig into the pros and cons of BIM to understand where BIM adoption could be headed.

BIM Provides Rich Project Data

One of the most common misconceptions surrounding BIM is that it is just 3D models.

While it does involve creating a visual representation of an asset, BIM is a lot more than models. Instead, it is about working collaboratively with teams across the project to create a digital dataset.

BIM brings together a whole host of project information—graphical data, structured non-graphical data, and documentation—to gain valuable insights, make better decisions, and reduce risk on a project.

In fact, the benefits of BIM are manifold.

- It creates an easily shareable model of the project with people who need to see it (and have the necessary software).

- With it, you can design electronic blueprints and other building instructions. You can’t achieve this by using a physical 3D model.

- You are more likely to catch errors in the design, especially during the pre-construction process. This is the least costly time to find an issue as you will more easily spot differences between the plan and conditions in the field.

- With it, you can create instructions for heavy equipment, such as an excavator or loader. Coupled with the necessary hardware, the equipment can be run without an operator.

- By using 4D, you can compare your project’s progress to the expected progress mapped out in the model. This helps you to determine what aspects of the project are ahead or behind schedule.

- By using 5D, companies can make smarter decisions with their money. Now, they’ll know when money is coming in and going out and what their expected cash flow is for the entire project.

- Models can be passed onto the owner of an asset after construction is complete. Rich with information, the model will be useful to the owner when it comes to maintenance and repair of the asset, as well as any future construction on the property.


Understanding the Standards Behind BIM

When working with BIM, following standardized and set processes is critical. Without it, you will never gain in-depth project information and reap the full benefits of using BIM.

As stated by BSI—UK national standards body—the ISO 19650 standard is “an international standard for managing information over the whole lifecycle of a built asset using building information modeling (BIM).”

The ISO 19650 standards was developed to outline the recommended collaborative processes for effectively managing information for all types of assets in the Built Environment—building, infrastructure, and the systems and components throughout the asset lifecycle.

The framework sets out guidelines for ensuring the right information is shared with the right people at the right time. It also outlines the responsibilities and ownership of project information.

Ultimately, it is the gold standard when working with BIM.

Many organizations in North America have realized this, and ISO 19650 accreditation is becoming more common.

As more organizations begin to adopt BIM in North America, ISO 19650 may move from an individual-based accreditation or certification to a state-wide mandate. This would help create the consistent approach necessary to reap BIMs full rewards.

Overcoming Common Objections to BIM

Many firms in the AEC sector will object to using BIM on all or some of their projects. Even companies who use BIM, can be picky about on which projects to use it. Some objections are more grounded than others.

Even though BIM saves money by preventing mistakes before they occur, many firms either avoid bidding on BIM projects all together or outsource their BIM projects because they don’t have the staffing expertise, according to the JBKnowledge ConTech Report.

Similar to the objections thrown out against adopting any new tech tool, here are some of the typical objections to BIM:

- The capital cost is too high.

- Training staff will be too cumbersome.

- I don’t have time to research it.

- The technology or product isn’t reliable.

- The technology or product is hard to use or is complicated.

- The subcontractors on the project won’t use it.

- The client doesn’t want it.

- It’s an OK technology or product, but not for this project, because of x, y and z.

The last two objections do have some merit.

Ultimately, contractors must sell their services to clients who want the best value for their dollar. If the client doesn’t see the benefit in using BIM, that is a large amount of money to convince the client to pay you for something they don’t understand or want.

Also, contractors working on projects of a limited scope and size benefit very little by using BIM on those projects. If these projects are your bread and butter, you won’t likely embrace BIM any time soon.

What qualities of a project make them well-suited or not well-suited to using BIM? There is a lot of debate to this question. BIM proponents say most projects would benefit from BIM, whereas others argue it is a niche technology.

Asite_Blog_BIM_in_North_America_Benefits,_Objections_Outlook_Model_TabletWill the U.S. Lean into a BIM Mandate?

Technically, the U.S. already has BIM mandates going back to 2006 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mandated the use of BIM on contractors. Three years later, the State of Wisconsin mandated all public works projects worth more than $5 million must use BIM and the Texas Facilities Commission mandated BIM be used on all public projects. And, in 2018, the Los Angeles Community College Districts (LACCD) mandated BIM be used on major projects.

With only one state and a few government entities embracing a BIM mandate in the last decade and a half, there doesn’t appear to be a groundswell of support for a mandate. There is also no single agency in the federal government in a position to mandate BIM for all public projects in the U.S.

That is not to say the current administration hasn’t shown it is willing to impose industry-wide mandates (think COVID vaccine). Plus, the recently passed $1 trillion U.S. Infrastructure Bill calls for $20 million to be invested every five years—$100 million—to accelerate the deployment of advanced digital construction management systems.

Meanwhile, many other countries have BIM national mandates or are in the process of developing them. Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden were some of the first to mandate. Italy, Spain, and Malaysia have BIM mandates for projects of a minimum dollar figure. Canada and Australia are working on one.

The United Kingdom has been the leader in BIM. First introduced in 2011, their BIM mandate for all government contracts went into effect in 2016.

The United Kingdom has one central organization of expertise for all its infrastructure assets—the infrastructure and projects authority. By comparison, the U.S. has many different governing bodies issuing contracts for infrastructure assets, making a national mandate much less likely to happen.

With all of the benefits BIM provides, even if a BIM mandate isn’t on the horizon in the U.S., companies that choose to ignore it may be doing so at their own peril. With nearly 69% of the JBKnowledge survey participants using BIM for coordination and clash detection, BIM is clearly not a passing fad.

Want to discover more about how BIM can improve your projects? Take the next step


Nathan Medcalf writes about technology, heavy equipment, and construction for numerous clients and has been published in more than 30 trade publications since 2006.

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