BIM is undoubtedly an acronym that even neophytes in the field recognize and notice repeatedly in news and publications. Its meaning (Building Information Modeling) gives some clues with respect to the objective of this novel work environment in architecture and civil works, but the clearest form of summarizing it (although not necessarily more accurate) would be to speak of a “virtual twin” of each building, bridge or port built or planned. This mimesis of a future reality is not limited to a digital geometric model but includes all imaginable physical, mechanical, temporal and economic data: a true parallel reality.
The potential of this concept is totally disruptive: the construction of a project is no longer based on the interpretation of its partial graphic representation and decomposed into plans, its annexed written description or a parallel monetary valuation. The enormous and inevitable risk of inconsistencies between abstract and unconnected representations has meant a perennial Achilles heel in the AEC industry (Architecture, Engineering and Construction), and the consequent payment of huge surcharges for unforeseen events which have also meant an additional brake on innovation since only previous experience remained as a certain guarantee for a successful completion.
BIM flows, on the other hand, develop a virtual model in continuity, from the first conceptual sketches to the ‘Facility management’ of the finished building, passing through the definition phase in detail and its actual construction. The virtual model is successively enriched with the necessary data at each moment, allowing energetic, structural or economic simulations that influence the design in early phases, enabling a truly responsible and coherent creative design. The iterative testing of the model prior to its realization greatly limits its level of uncertainty, and additionally opens up a field of evidence-based design improvement.
In reality the BIM concept is not at all new (it has been developing for more than 30 years) so the inevitable question arises regarding the ultimate reason why it coming to light now, or rather, just 10 years ago, in the Anglo-Saxon world and Nordic countries (only 5 in much of the rest of the world, like Spain). There is a temptation to think that it is the mere evolution of software and hardware that has made it possible or feasible both technically and economically. Or that the implementation of regulations by the different countries has been the starting pistol for its real development.
But no, these are not really the primary reasons. Once again, we have to resort to Bill Clinton’s aphorism: “It’s the economy, stupid.” The AEC industry, as one more of the macroeconomic actors, needs to enable a clear future of profit optimization, or in other words, to diminish the already-mentioned uncertainty factor of the business, today only compensated by the cyclical but unpredictable occasional gains of speculative bubbles. It is this security for investments and regular profit returns that will enable us to attract large sums of investment from funds and companies, in direct competition with the innovations in energy, AI or genetics that are the protagonists of our immediate future.
A second pillar for the implementation of BIM flows is undoubtedly its ability to provide, in all its phases, the data needed to support all aspects of sustainability (environmental, energy, economic and social). In buildings, it is simulation in the early stages of design that feeds into the optimization of energy design and facilitates continuous analysis of the life cycle (LCA, CO2 equivalences of materials and processes), while at an urban level it enables modeling and interconnection with the sustainable Smart City of the future.
And what are the problems?
Obviously, the implementation of BIM processes suffers, like any innovation, the traditional reluctance of senior professionals already fully and successfully established in the profession and teaching who, on the one hand, distrust an environment that questions their leadership and from which they do not know how to obtain benefits, and on the other hand, despise (even for a short time) the coarsenesses that persist in the design and project development routines of current BIM software.
As it is an unquestionable handicap, it is other aspects that end up introducing important sticks in the wheels of the implantation process. First of all, it should be noted that the benefits of a virtual model loaded with data are obtained mainly by the last actor in the chain, the facility manager, while the greatest effort in data entry (together with investment in equipment and software) is carried out by the architect or engineer, without this having led to a real increase in fees (few countries, such as Germany’s HOAI, value the BIM development with specific fees).
Secondly, there is the obvious impact of a “chain transmission” of BIM models by all actors: from the architect, contractor, client, regulators to the facility manager, among others. Clearly it is very undesirable for any of them to let others “inherit” their know-how and limit their margin of maneuverability and profit, the basis of their current business. And if, in addition, we add the new responsibility over the “sent” data (the following actors “build” on these) that can give rise to million-dollar claims (supported by Blockchain-type computer evidence), I think we can get a fairly approximate idea of the panorama that needs to be reordered both economically and legally.
And the contribution in terms of education?
In this area the present and future are undoubtedly positive: BIM is a new and valuable resource that, far from attempting to replace already established and valued teaching dynamics, enriches by means of a fully up-to-date and motivating “realistic” virtual environment: on screen, virtual / augmented reality or holograms. Experiential “immersion” (similar to gaming) stimulates the involvement of the student with their own learning, encouraging them to understand, assimilate and integrate partial prior knowledge (conceptual, constructive, spatial, material, etc.) for a coherent whole. The ease with which iterative simulations affect the successive improvement of proposals (in individual or collaborative work) enables a design by truly scientific, interdisciplinary and professional evidence, which links perfectly with innovative resources of parametric design and automated materialization through digital manufacturing (cutters, 3D printers, robotics) both in the classroom and in the immediate constructive reality: without the need for plans, from the virtual model directly to manufacturing.
José Jurado Egea is professor of Architecture in the Grado en Fundamentos de Arquitectura