Building Information Modeling: What’s Ahead for Contractors

Some are referring to building information modeling, or "BIM," as "revolutionary" to the construction
industry. This may be hype. The technology that Building Information Modeling relies upon is not new, as it has been used in the manufacturing industry for product design since the 1980s. BIM will, however, precipitate meaningful change in the construction industry as it becomes more commonly used as a method of project delivery.

Some are referring to building information modeling, or “BIM,” as “revolutionary” to the construction
industry. This may be hype. The technology that Building Information Modeling relies upon is not new, as it has been used in the manufacturing industry for product design since the 1980s. BIM will, however, precipitate meaningful change in the construction industry as it becomes more commonly used as a method of project delivery.

This article will introduce in simple terms the BIM technology, highlight the key human ingredient to the successful use of BIM, point out some of its advantages while also noting some obstacles in practice to its implementation, and provide some general ideas on how those in the construction
industry can better protect themselves from assuming greater risk through their participation in projects that use a building information modeling process.

What is BIM?

When using BIM, project participants — owners, developers, designers, contractors and subcontractors — change the way they work with one another, theoretically making a shift from working sequentially in their own core competencies to a more collaborative approach on the front end of a project. The promise of BIM is alluring, but it is important not to permit its allure to distract from the fact that in many ways BIM involves a continuation of current industry practices, the risks of which the parties already understand and deal with every day. Certainly, BIM enhances the collaborative effort. Over the past 10 to 15 years, however, there has already been a strong trend toward greater collaboration among the project participants, as contractors and subcontractors have increasingly provided preconstruction services, such as constructability reviews, budgeting
advice and value engineering, to aid in the design process of a project. Unless a firm already possesses more than one competency, such as design-build, greater collaboration during the design phase, whether through BIM or preconstruction services, can result in an unintentional shifting of the traditional risk allocations among owners, developers, designers, contractors and subcontractors, despite efforts to stay within their core competencies.

If the traditional risk allocations are maintained, the collaborative effort that goes into BIM will allow the project stakeholders to make better decisions during the design of the project that will affect both the time and cost of construction, and the long-term use of the project, including financial performance, maintenance requirements, energy efficiency, sustainability and operations decisions. Both public and private owners have demanded that project participants use BIM, but the ultimate success of BIM will depend greatly upon whether the project participants buy into the collaborative effort required to make BIM function to its full potential.

The Technology

It is worth taking a quick look at the technology underlying BIM. Compare building information modeling to the current method of building, which is often termed the “paper centric” approach to construction. Conventional design and construction typically rely on drawings and specifications, whether in hard copy or electronic form, to depict design intent and the construction materials, methods and management needed to build projects. There are, however, major limitations to using drawings and specifications to depict three-dimensional buildings. Chuck Eastman, Director of the AEC Integration Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has succinctly noted two of those limitations. First, using drawings requires multiple views to depict a three-dimensional building in adequate detail for construction, making the drawings redundant and thus susceptible to errors. Second, these drawings, commonly known as contract documents, are not interpretable by computers.

To understand building information modeling, focus on the word “information.” The BIM technology has at its core a digital database that can be used to create a three-dimensional model of the building, but the real power of BIM’s technology lies in its ability to capture massive amounts of data about a building in one location accessible to the various project participants simultaneously. In addition, the technology automatically coordinates changes made to one component of the building model that affect separate, but related, components, which allows for an iterative analysis of design changes.

Undoubtedly, however, owners have become enamored with BIM technology because it permits information about the building to be captured and manipulated prior to the start of construction. The ability to model a building in 3-D, which is linked to a content-rich database containing information about cost, schedule, materials, spatial relationships, furnishings, procurement, work sequence, site logistics and other types of information, all of which can be tweaked and reconfigured in a time- and cost-efficient manner, makes BIM irresistible to owners. Owners often believe that these same functional capabilities benefit the design and contracting parties to a project as well, which is in some ways true. Before construction starts, the model can be used for clash detection within the design, substitution of materials and equipment, value engineering, construction detailing, estimate checking, and efficient execution and the coordination of design and construction. It bears repeating: all of this can happen before the first bucket of dirt has been turned on the site.

Challenges Presented by Bim

Those technological advantages, by themselves, certainly sound “revolutionary.” As a means of project delivery, and not just a technology tool, the key ingredient for successful BIM implementation is collaboration.1

But collapsing the fragmented process of design, estimating, scheduling, bid packaging, buyout, shop drawing review and revision, procurement and execution into the design phase of the project requires that architects, engineers, construction managers, contractors and subcontractors all come together in a collaborative effort as never before.

These various parties have always been well advised to play it safe and do only that required by their particular scope. Designers are told to avoid specifying the means and methods of construction, and contractors are told to avoid taking on design responsibilities. Yet to have a successful use of BIM, these same parties now have to join hands, trust each other and collaborate, often in a condensed period of time. It has been said of BIM that its successful implementation will be 10 percent technology and 90 percent sociology. The balance here becomes very delicate: how are these firms with different skills going to work together without taking the risk of being held liable for the work, or the specialty, of another party?

Advantages of BIM for Project Owners

Owners reap numerous benefits from the BIM process, including, among others, the following:
– creation of numerous design alternatives, instantly showing the effect on cost, aesthetics and building lifecycle issues in a way that would normally be prohibited by time and cost constraints under the paper-centric approach to reviewing design intent.
– reduction in the time and cost for preparing budgets, schedule, design coordination and submittals.
– reduction of errors, inconsistencies and coordination problems with design for which the owner is typically held responsible.
potential for highlighting design omission.
– facilitating the retrieval of accurate information by field level personnel.
– providing owner’s facilities personnel and subsequent contractor firms with accurate, readily accessible as-built data for more cost-efficient maintenance and less costly building repairs and upgrades.

Real-World Obstacles

Again, the collaborative effort will be required primarily of the design and construction firms; and while that is a worthwhile goal, the business realities behind the conventional methods of delivering projects will not change overnight, presenting BIM proponents with numerous challenges:
– Contractors, and their subcontractors, will want owners and designers to warrant the accuracy of the BIM design, or “product”; owners and designers will be reluctant to take responsibility for those results, particularly to the extent the results were achieved through a collaborative process.
– Contractors, and their subcontractors, may not buy a schedule that is generated by the information found in a building information model, rather than by field-coordinating the available flow of labor, equipment and materials.
– Contractors, and their subcontractors, could be left with a false sense of security as to lead times, estimates and the absence of conflicts without manually checking assumptions contained in the building information model.
– Contractors, and their subcontractors, may not provide accurate proprietary information, including estimated production rates and actual costs, out of a real or perceived concern that this information may be used to reduce their profit margins on changes or contingencies or to create unfair competition.
– Owners and architects may include in building information models assumptions regarding means, methods and sequencing of the work that are different from what is actually used by the field personnel on the project.
– Many contracting and subcontracting firms do not have the massive reserves of data necessary to provide reliable information for the building information model on a particular project during the design phase of the project, particularly as that information relates to estimating and productivity.

Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way

Despite these risks and pitfalls, owners are pushing ahead, requiring that their designers and contractors be BIM capable, even if the added risks and unknowns of using BIM have not been fully addressed in their contracts. In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has publicly stated that it is aware that BIM forces the parties into uncharted territory with respect to compensation, risk allocation, etc., but nevertheless it has begun to adopt BIM solutions as requirements on certain projects. The largest building owner in the country, the General Services Administration, mandated effective for fiscal 2007 that new buildings designed through its Public Building Service use building information modeling in the design stage.2

Keep in mind, however, that with few exceptions, the key ingredient for successful BIM solutions — “collaboration” — leaves a lot of room for shifting the blame in the event that a BIM project does not go as planned.

In particular, the project participants need to be sure that the contracts they sign spell out clearly the difference between their role in the building information process and those parts of the design and construction process for which they accept responsibility. For example, contractors may agree to provide recommendations and information in connection with the building information model in their capacity as construction professionals, and not as design professionals, disclaiming any responsibility for design adequacy, completeness or coordination. Contractors may also agree to load pricing data in the building information model with the disclaimer that the contractor does not warrant the accuracy of the BIM-generated prices, and that the actual cost of construction will be determined by competitive bids. Contractors may also include contingencies in their pricing to account for uncertainty in the BIM process.

Owners have a lot of reasons to push the implementation of BIM. It makes buildings better performing assets. Others in the construction industry may lose their enthusiasm with BIM, however, if it results in their unfairly accepting liability for the results of the BIM. BIM is a not just new technology, but in many respects a new method of project delivery, even though some of the attributes of BIM have been used for years. While the use of BIM should be encouraged, it should also be approached with thoughtfulness and with care given to avoid non-traditional allocations of risk.


  1. Although other methods of integrated delivery, such as design-build, have been successfully
    implemented on numerous different types of projects, only a BIM approach will cause a type
    of “collapse” in the fragmentation of design development and construction. 
  2. Michael Hardy, GSA Mandates Building Information Modeling, Federal Computer Week,
    Nov. 20, 2006, at 45. 
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