In 2004 the US Department of Commerce, Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report examining the productivity of various industries. The graph here (adopted from research by Paul Teicholz at CIFE - Stanford) shows that while productivity for workers in almost all other industries increased by over 200% since 1964, the construction industry's productivity has fallen to about 80% over the same stretch of time. Most researchers agree that the two primary causes of this decline are the increasing complexity of buildings and the inherent fragmentation of the industry.
While increasing complexity of building projects is a given, fragmentation can be addressed. Fragmentation in the construction industry leads to the silo-ing of information, uncoordinated construction documents, the inevitable introduction of errors and omissions due to redundant efforts and a generally adversarial relationship between the team members tasked with the conception and construction of building projects. This manifests itself as waste. The Construction Specifiers Institute (CSI) estimates that there is as much as 57% non-value-added effort in the current business models used in the industry. For an industry that represents as much as $1.2 trillion yearly, that works out to be more than $500 billion in waste.
Solving the fragmentation problem is the most important issue facing the building industry today. There are two solutions. The first solution is to vertically integrate businesses involved in the design and construction of buildings into large single-source corporations the way the agriculture industry has. The second is for the many entities involved in the design and construction of buildings to learn to play nice together. The latter solution will certainly bring more value to owners as diverse teams are more likely to innovate and create better built solutions. But they need tools to work this way.
Building Information Modeling has gained momentum as a key tool for improving team collaboration by providing teams with detailed and accurate information authored by the team members most qualified to provide it. Additionally, BIM processes provide more accurate data about the building much earlier in the project where design changes cost less to make and have the greatest effect on the project. The graph here developed by Patrick McLeamy illustrates the amount of effort applied to building design projects at various stages and how those efforts relate to cost and impact. Line 4 represents the preferred design process where the majority of design work is completed in the early phases of the project where the cost of changes is low and ability to impact the cost and function of the final product is high. The traditional design workflows will not discover many design challenges until the Construction Document Phase (or worse, in the field during construction!)
Adopting BIM workflows forces issues of constructability and performance into the early phases because the building model is conceived in 3, 4 or 5 dimensions. The best performing design can be settled on in Schematic Design and all subsequent effort is directed towards refining that design rather than figuring it out. The art of BIM lies in managing and leveraging the model and database to provide information to all team members. The efficiencies gained through BIM come from designing the way information is gathered, stored and communicated in the Building Information Model. BIM allows teams to do many things they could never do before. However, each new capability requires planning and collaboration to achieve. Failure to plan for future use of the BIM leads to re-work and subsequent loss of productivity when attempting to implement that use. Having an experienced BIM professional at the table can help manage expectations and efforts.
So, how does it work? ...or how is it supposed to work? Well, most companies believe that they buy a software package, install it on their computers, learn what clicking the buttons does, and they are doing Building Information Modeling. Unfortunately, if it were that easy, we would not have the problems with productivity in our industry that we do. At the heart of BIM is a database. Traditionally designers have boxes and file drawers filled with data about the design they are pursuing, the products they intend to use and the existing conditions. Building information is not new to architecture, engineering or construction and there is a lot of it. Think about the O&M manuals that get dumped on the owner at the close of a job. While one gifted designer may be capable of keeping all that data organized in her mind, the majority of them and the people they work with can not. So this pile of data is organized into a virtual model of the building. You can envision a library made of books that are shaped like their subjects.
In fact, much of the intellegence behind good management of BIM is the same intellegence you would expect in a librarian. When we fill a drawer with correspondence, cut-sheets, code research, shop drawings, samples, details, etc., we are hoarding data. Data is the lowest and rawest form of ideas. It is unconnected and out of context. When we begin to adopt Building Information Modeling, we are attempting to take that data and organize it into information. This is a minimum requirement of BIM and that is why there is so much conversation about the "I" in BIM. Information is a step up on the ideas continuum and leads ultimately to knowledge because a Building Information Modeler is able to query the information gathered and analyze it. Through analysis and the knowledge acquired with it, we arrive at wisdom and can make the right decisions about the data we have collected.
When we adopt BIM we are moving up the food chain of ideas from repositories of building information to knowledgeable consumers of it. Instead of fragmented two-dimensional drawings and file drawers full of paper, we have an organized collection of information and we can stop wasting our time with the task of making and deciphering abstract maps of buildings and spend more time on the valuable tasks of creating better buildings.