Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a concept reaching near ubiquity in the construction industry, with organizations like the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)promoting the use of BIM for Infrastructure and BIM for Bridges to their member agencies. While the concept of BIM - the representation of a physical asset through a digital, information-rich model that’s available to all project stakeholders - is far from new, many of the technologies that support a strong BIM foundation are still lagging behind in adoption, especially in the infrastructure world. The recent Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) encourages the use of BIM, and FHWA continues to recommend technologies and processes that support BIM for infrastructure through their Every Day Counts initiatives. Organizations are slowly catching up to the benefits of deploying a BIM process, but there’s still much to learn and understand. In this four part series, we’re going to take a deeper dive into BIM for Infrastructure as we examine:
Part 1: The history and evolution of BIM
Part 2: How BIM both empowers and requires collaboration across departments and organizations
Part 3: Challenges facing BIM adoption
Part 4: Understanding the role of data governance in a BIM-driven world
In this first piece, we’re turning back the clock to look at the origins of BIM - how it began as a conceptual framework and evolved into the essential practice it’s seen as today.
Where did BIM originate?
There are two ways to think about the origin of BIM - the philosophy behind it, and the technology that supports it. BIM is one of the rare practices where the technology to support it actually preceded the conceptual framework. In 1957, Dr. Patrick J. Hanratty partnered with IBM to create PRONTO, the first computer-aided design (CAD) program. You can’t have BIM without CAD, and thus the first digital models were born. Just six years later, Ivan Sutherland introduced Sketchpad, one of the first design systems that leveraged a graphical interface. Now planners and designers could create entirely digital drawings and plans, and the technological foundation for BIM was laid.
While no one can pinpoint the exact instance that BIM was introduced as a concept, many will point to a 1975 article titled “The Use of Computers Instead of Drawings in Building Design,” which quite concisely lays out the vision for a BIM process. In it, the author, architect Charles M. Eastman lays out his vision of a system that joins together distinct geometric objects in a single project, with the ability to view these objects from multiple perspectives. He even lays out the need for linking these drawings to a database of components used in the project, described as a “Building Description System.” As he describes what the ideal digital representation of a building may look like, he includes points such as:
It would incorporate three-dimensional information in an easy-to-read format
It would accept changes easily and provide automatic checking for spatial conflicts
It would be portable and reproducible and facilitate numerical analysis
What was entirely conceptual in 1975 almost reads like marketing bullet points for the BIM software of today.
As is common in construction, Eastman’s article didn’t exactly light a fire under the industry, but gave shape and focus to the slow march of progress. Technology beat philosophy to the punch once again, and CAD software with built-in databases to support BIM functionality were developed in the early 1980s. A few years later, the term “building model” was introduced, with “Building Information Model” following it up in 1992. The idea, just to sum it up here, combined Eastman’s database concept with the available design technologies to describe the following process: a collaborative work method for structuring, managing, and using 3D models, data, and information about transportation assets throughout their lifecycle.
Now, you’re probably thinking - “okay, the ideas and technology are in place, next is widespread adoption, right?” Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. Multiple decades later, BIM still hasn’t hit the critical mass that it should have years ago in the United States.
We’ll talk more about the challenges facing BIM adoption later in the series, but suffice to say, the US is lagging behind when it comes to implementing BIM technology. Part of this is due to governance - countries like the UK have instituted national BIM guidelines, while the US has not - and part of it is due to software interoperability, though some would suggest those go hand–in-hand. Various organizations like buildingSMART and the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) have made it a priority to apply British BIM regulations to US standards. At Infotech, we’re focused on incorporating Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) into our software solutions, so the data captured during the bidding and construction phases of a project can easily be shared with other divisions for operations and maintenance.
How has BIM evolved?
Today, the biggest change to our understanding of BIM is the wide-ranging availability and complexity of data. Most BIM software will share similar components; 3D renderings when applicable, feature-specific taxonomy, and a programming environment to create model components. Users can take three-dimensional cross-sections of a model to visualize different components and view data like material types, supplier, etc. For some jobs, like a simple resurfacing, the 3D model may not even be relevant - but the BIM process of connecting and sharing digital data is still applicable. The challenge, as mentioned above, is getting the data from various software tools that may not be interoperable. How does BIM software incorporate rover data? Can it only incorporate data from one rover manufacturer? What about data captured by drones, or processed through AI? These are the questions facing the BIM world today. If the industry is embracing advanced technology and hardware, but collecting the data produced in disparate systems, then they aren’t getting the advantage of using those tools in the first place.
In the infrastructure world specifically, one of the largest shifts was simply getting the industry to think about BIM for horizontal construction projects. This conversation has produced terms like “Civil Information Modeling,” or the more popular “BIM for infrastructure/BIMfi,” that aim to be more specific to project type, but it’s all the same concept that Eastman laid out in his 1975 article. As mentioned earlier, FHWA has put out a number of resources to promote sharing of electronic data throughout a project’s lifecycle. Most interestingly, they define four key components that are necessary for a successful BIM strategy:
Policies and processes
Tools and technology
People and skills
Data and standards
In the next part of this series, we’ll dive deeper into those four components and discuss the common theme that runs through each one: a dire need for collaboration. If you’re interested in learning more about how Infotech helps organizations execute BIM strategies with tools for capturing construction project data in flexible formats, don’t hesitate to contact us or browse our solutions.