Building information modeling (BIM) is a buzzword in the AEC industry, but is it hype or substantive? First, one must understand that BIM is not just 3-D. BIM is a virtual simulation of the construction and performance of a building prior to the physical construction. Academia raves about the potential impact in reducing waste and optimizing value, but BIM has been around for years. Is it just theory? No. BIM is very real and everyone needs to prepare for the eminent technological revolution facing the construction industry.

The term BIM was first coined by Autodesk, makers of a leading BIM design tool, Revit Architecture, and AutoCad. The technology originally was created to improve the production of documentation for architects. Changes to the design that previously required the modification of each instance affected, potentially hundreds of files, now are reduced to changing a single model. The plans are plotted by simply arranging "camera" angles around the 3-D geometry.

But it is the "I" in BIM that will have a substantial impact on the industry. A building information model is 3-D geometry tied to a database such that the model can contain much more than just visual information. For example, the lines that represent a concrete column are grouped and "know" that they represent an object. Object data can be stored such as the psi of concrete, quantity of concrete and rebar, location of construction joints, cost information (4-D), and scheduling related data (5-D).

For many contractors, clash detection is the low hanging fruit and entry point to BIM. Programs such as Navisworks and Solibri allow the user to import models from different trades into a single environment and automatically show all collisions (i.e., where the ductwork intersects the fire protection system). Clash detection enhances the level of coordination and allows contractors to perform substantially more prefabrication and less onsite adjustments.

The capability beyond clash detection is where it really gets interesting. If the model knows the quantities and types of materials, can it estimate costs? Indirectly, yes. Today, many contractors are using bridging technologies, such as Innovaya and QTO, to pull the quantities from the model into Microsoft Excel or their estimating system. This does not mean that estimators will be displaced by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, experienced estimators who understand the technology will become more valuable because they can spend their time on the analytical side, not in counting parts. The technology can provide the construction industry with the data, but it still requires knowledge to be leveraged.

Other capabilities are potential game changers for architects, owners, and contractors alike. Imagine a data-rich, manufacturer-specific model. Accurate predictions can be made for energy performance, carbon footprint, building code compliance, operating costs, and construction costs. Automatic generation of specs, shop drawings, and even computer-aided manufacturing also are possible. Problems caused by not having the latest set of plans can become a thing of the past. Imagine that everyone has access to the model over the Internet, not an outdated, printed copy of the plans. Contractors can even access the BIM in the field with handheld computers and software, such as the technology offered by Vela Systems. Imagine a renovation project in the future when you are provided an as-built BIM detailing every system behind the drywall, masonry, and concrete.

There is little doubt that this will change the way construction is delivered, but there are some hurdles to clear before the industry will experience many of the true benefits. Recent surveys have shown that approximately 40% of the ENR top 400 contractors are using BIM on more than 10% of their work. Most contractors are creating their own models because (1) the architect is not sharing or doesn't have a model, or (2) they can't use or do not trust the data coming from the architect's model (i.e., slabs with no construction joints, incomplete models, etc.). The traditional responsibilities of the contractor and architect can become blurred easily and new delivery models, such as Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), are emerging. There are certainly technical challenges to overcome, as well as compatibility between the different software applications and standards for how BIM objects are modeled and organized. Industry organizations such as the AGC BIMForum, the American Institute of Architects, and the buildingSMART alliance work to define the standards and identify the best practices as the technology evolves. The technical issues will be solved over time as more adopt the technology and other technical challenges surface.

The economy also is having an effect on the adoption of the technology, but not in the direction that you might think. With an influx in competition, many contractors are leveraging the technology as a differentiator. Economic slowdowns historically have had a positive impact on efficiency due to strategic decision making, as opposed to the more tactical nature of the business during busy times. Contractors looking to learn more and implement BIM into their business can start with education through various trade associations. The Associated General Contractors of America, Associated Builders and Contractors, The American Society of Plumbing Engineers, Construction Management Association of America, and the Design-Build Institute of America all offer classes and/or Webinar informational sessions on the topic of BIM.

The bottom line is that this technology is not going away. Every owner, general contractor, consultant, engineer, designer, supplier, and subcontractor need to be aware of the eminent impact on their business. There will be a disruptive effect on the industry as a whole creating many new opportunities and creating a need for change. Companies not in touch with these technological changes risk being overtaken by competitors.

Andy O'Nan is the director of marketing and new business for Beck Technology Ltd., a BIM software development and consultancy company.