For 10 years, BIM (Building Information Model) was a buzzword in the construction industry. Just like so many other buzzwords, it’s been so overused that it can mean just about anything. And then some. Or nothing at all. Even the abbreviation, BIM, stands for different things depending on who you ask.
But what is BIM in practice?
“At the core, it’s about building the building before it is built—doing simulations and managing different types of information,” says Petter Bengtsson, CEO of the tech group Zynka. “We usually define it as all information about a building throughout its entire lifecycle.”
Per Bjälnes, digitalization strategist at Tyréns, says that BIM is the actual structure. Just building a 3D model of a building isn’t enough, to his mind.
“BIM is a building information model, where an object is described in a structured way,” he explains. “Data and information about the object are linked together.”
Bjälnes was involved in one of the first major BIM projects in Sweden: Karolinska University Hospital in Solna. When construction began ten years ago, the concept was relatively new and Bjälnes jokes that he had to google the abbreviation to understand what it was about.
During the construction phase, there were 3D models of the project at all levels—from the entire property down to individual floors and even rooms. This made it easy to ensure that each room had the right characteristics and the right equipment. Lighting, climate systems and evacuation areas were simulated throughout the project. In fact, BIM thinking wasn’t just used during production: it’s also used in the day-to-day operations to structure things like transportation and scheduling.
“In the past, BIM was more objectbased; what we did was integrate services like logistics,” Bjälnes says. “We created a basic structure that’s now used throughout the industry.”
Today, BIM is used in the planning phase of many large construction projects. Just like with Karolinska University Hospital in Solna, the concept is used to link 3D models to information about the construction process, to simplify coordination.
Both Petter Bengtsson and Per Bjälnes say that the work is still in its infancy.
“Such a huge number of people are involved in the construction process, often with a very low degree of IT and digitalization maturity,” Bengtsson says.
The construction sector is nowhere near the level of streamlining and productivity growth that the manufacturing sector has seen in recent decades. There’s no common standard for BIM. Bjälnes says that the government needs to put its foot down and state what construction model applies for major procurements. At the same time, the industry itself needs to join forces with major software manufacturers to establish a common path for the future.
“I like to compare it with the advent of 3G, when the whole world needed to use the same phones,” he says. “Something happened then.”
BIM is now where mobile telephony was 15 years ago. Back then, there were different systems depending on where in the world you were. If you traveled to Asia or the United States, you often had to do without a phone for weeks.
“These days that isn’t even an issue; we can use the same phones and apps worldwide,” Bjälnes says. “But we’re not there yet with BIM.”
The expansion of 3G and 4G was a technological revolution that few could have imagined just a year or so before it happened. A world where most of your errands can be done on your phone, no matter where in the world you are. Both Bjälnes and Bengtsson believe a similar advance is just around the corner in the construction and property management sector. If you have information about how the personnel at a workplace uses its facilities, you can adapt the building to the operations instead of the other way around.
“If we as an engineering company get access to more data, we can build smarter and more efficient buildings,” Bjälnes says. “We don’t have to estimate, because we know. We build on knowledge.”
The main part of a building’s life cycle isn’t the construction, it’s all the years it’s in operation. That’s also where the greatest financial and environmental gains can be made through BIM. That’s why property management is the next big field where the BIM model will be applied.
“Construction and property management is the sector that can do the most for the climate with the smallest measures,” Bengtsson says. “An office building might only be 25% utilized.”
There are concrete gains to be made in property management. Having a knowledge database about everything in the building will cut the time it takes to correct problems. By systematically gathering information on how the facilities are used, resources can be put to better use. If we analyze the end-users’ behavior, it’s possible to optimize energy consumption, as well as making more efficient use of the physical space and offering customers more services.
“Currently, it’s difficult for a property owner to find out what parts of the property have the lowest usage statistics. I think few property owners know which of their properties has the poorest operational performance,” says Bengtsson, whose company Zynka is currently building up a database for property owners.
Like the construction sector, the property management industry hasn’t gotten very far in terms of digitalization, but the technology will transform this sector as well. Even now, traditional property owners are being challenged by new players such as WeWork, which offer shared office space to entrepreneurs.
“In the past, property owners didn’t have to think much about how they ran their business. Now they need to ask themselves how to stay relevant ten years down the line. Those with the most knowledge about their building will win in the long run,” Bengtsson asserts.
The greatest challenges for BIM in existing properties are data collection and the lengthy time perspective.
“If you’re going to manage a building for 50 years, you need to manage its digital copy for just as long,” Bengtsson says. “If you look back 50 years ago, you’ll see how hard it is to know what to invest in.”