When I get asked by someone new to BIM to explain what BIM is all about I find myself challenged to give a succinct answer and to choose which tack to take.  The problem is BIM is about a lot of things and a result of a lot of things. Things like continually improving computer capabilities, increasing complexity of the facilities we are building and the number of experts involved, and our expectations of immediate access to information through communication technologies.

Over time I have found a couple of approaches to this question work well for me.  The one I want to share here is about making the link between BIM and Interoperability. A search for “the BIM Curve” will yield repeated examples of a few common graphs. This one illustrates the point I want to make about interoperability and communication quite well. Even if we only naively assume that there are four main participants in a construction project, working one after the other, that means that there are at least three times when project information needs to be communicated from one professional to another. (In reality each information exchange is repeated many times over a project.)

BIM Curve

When things were done using blueprints, the next person in the chain would have to manually interpret and enter any information they need to do their job into their preferred tools (see the red line on the graph). Considering even moderately sized projects might require 100+ detailed blueprints; that is a lot of labour and room for errors. Replace those blueprints with digital plans (PDF) or even CAD drawings (DXF) and still a huge amount of expert human effort is still required to extract quantities, check for clashes, schedule site work or trace linked systems across drawings for maintenance for example.

Dictionary.com defines Interoperability as:

The ability of software and hardware on multiple machines from multiple vendors to communicate.

Interoperability is about capturing and reusing the information already available. Building Information Models are designed to be Interoperable. No re-entering data (and introducing errors), just re-using it. No wasting expert labour on recovering and rediscovering information instead of immediately getting down to the job (see the green line on the graph).

The BIM Curve also implies that the amount of information available will continue to grow and that the final recipient tends to be the Owner. Most construction projects, even many large ones, go from conceptual designs to deliverables in 1-5 years but Owners can easily end up owning a facility for several decades. Making good decisions about how to effectively manage operational life-cycle costs usually requires good information. Owners should care about this because much of the information they could use is often lost along the way in paper or drawing based procurement practices.

By now, I hope you can see how interoperability can make a huge difference in the information kept and available to all the different stakeholders (e.g. architect, engineers, consultants, contractors, subs, owners, operators, facility maintenance, asset managers etc.). And this is not just during construction, but during the entire life-cycle of the constructed facility. Likewise, I hope you can see that interoperability is a fundamental part of making Building Information Modelling what it is today; processes and technology to share and reuse construction information for the benefit of all.

A quick word on Achieving Interoperability

If everyone only ever uses one tool or suite of tools to create, manage, access, manipulate or analyse the information about a facility then interoperability wouldn’t really be an issue. Indeed, larger construction software developers like Autodesk, Trimble, Bentley, etc. make whole suites of applications for multiple different disciplines. Sharing and reusing information within those platforms is generally a simple and robust process.

Nevertheless, all of these companies, and many others, actively support the development of and inclusion in their software open standards for BIM. How do I know this? I see them regularly contributing at meetings of buildingSMART International (bSI), the organisation devoted to developing these standards. Why? Because no one developer has all the pieces. Because construction projects increasingly make use of global expertise using many different tools. Because open standards data will be much more accessible 20-60 years down the road than proprietary formats. Because open standards make it far easier to extend the information flow to include suppliers, manufacturers, and regulators to name a few. Because open standards allow faster development of new tools to serve new niches.

This isn’t to say proprietary formats don’t have some advantages. They will always lead the standards on supported features. They typically transfer information more smoothly between applications within a software suite. They don’t generally require expertise in more than one application to use.

I’ll write a blog about the different ways to share BIM information another time. In the meantime, if your planning and working horizon is only about 5 years out or focussed on one project, hopefully the project can be executed within one platform. If you have a longer term vision or more ambitious projects then perhaps you should consider using open standards based on its own merits relative to your goals.

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