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Scott's European headquarters in Switzerland
The architecture office Itten+Brechbühl planned Scott’s European headquarters in Switzerland using BIM. Photo: IttenBrechbühl

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is revolutionising architecture and the construction industry. The use of digital twins that enable interdisciplinary collaboration is advancing topics like digital construction and sustainable buildings – and breaking with familiar ways of working.

By Martina Metzner.

While many sectors now play their various digital instruments with a practised skill, digitisation processes in the construction industry have been slower to find an appreciative audience. Cloud-based working, robotic manufacturing and artificial intelligence are rarely the order of the day, and it remains common to see workers on construction sites painstakingly laying bricks and poring over blueprints. Due to the high proportion of skilled work required, as well as the idiosyncrasy of individual projects, the construction sector has so far failed to develop the kind of fully digitised, linear supply chain that now exists in many industries. In the coming years, Building Information Modelling – or BIM for short – is going to change all that.

Both a tool and a method

So what is BIM? Put simply, it’s a system in which all the physical and functional data for a construction project is combined in a shared 3D model – from the original design to the scaffolding and building services through to the materials used and any further expansions. This digital twin of the building serves to unite the planning, communication and overall construction processes for the different construction crews working on the project, ultimately allowing buildings to be erected more quickly, at a lower cost and with greater precision. BIM can support the management of the building once it is in use – and to cap it all off, the method can also contribute to sustainability.

As is often the case with new technologies, the introduction of BIM will be accompanied by heated debate. Many of the obstacles are not technical, but result from cultural attitudes within the industry. The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said, “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” It is anticipated that BIM will usher in a paradigm shift. As it is simultaneously both a tool and a method, BIM really does have the power to transform the entire construction industry and its associated working methods and systems. And ultimately, while it may be controversial to say so, the buildings it produces will necessarily also be different. The prospect of a completely digital construction process, culminating in buildings that are assembled by digital means, appears to be drawing ever closer. Already, many highly in-demand modules for wooden buildings are prefabricated to meet individual specifications by digitally controlled CNC cutters and robots. All that’s needed when they are delivered to the construction site is to install them – which can be done in record time.

A paradigm shift for construction

Public infrastructure projects in Germany run via BIM since 2020
Since 2020, public infrastructure projects in Germany must be planned and executed in BIM. Photo: Deutsche Bahn

While the use of BIM in countries such as the US, the UK and the Netherlands, as well as in Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, Finland, Norway and city-states like Singapore, is significantly more advanced than elsewhere, Germany has begun opening up to the technology in recent years. According to the “Digitalisierungsindex Mittelstand 2020/2021”, a review of digitisation in German SMEs carried out by techconsult for Deutsche Telekom, 15 per cent of the construction companies surveyed use BIM. The following becomes apparent when looking at the individual players: most large general contractors, as well as a majority of the larger civil engineering firms, have been working with BIM for a number of years already. Changes are also afoot in the field of architecture. A few years ago, BIM was being adopted primarily by larger – and predominantly international – firms. Now, more medium-sized companies are making the switch.

In Germany, the major Berlin Airport and Elbphilharmonie projects – both marked by planning issues and soaring costs – were responsible for driving the debate forward. Since then, the German government has been heavily promoting BIM, publishing guidelines for digital planning in 2014 and a step-by-step plan for public infrastructure and building construction projects using the method in 2015. Similarly, BIM became a requirement for infrastructure construction measures such as roads, bridges and rail transport in 2020. A new national centre of excellence for BIM was established the same year. In the future, BIM will increasingly be a requirement not only for large, public construction projects, but also for smaller ones – whether for public or private clients. While there are as yet no universal guidelines or standards for BIM in Germany, these are to be expected in the future.

Schematic of the Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg
So far, BIM has mainly been used for large-scale projects such as the Elbphilharmonie. Photo: HOCHTIEF/ViconGmbH

Working together with OpenBIM

What are the advantages of working with this method? BIM enables the creation of a digital 3D model containing all the relevant information for a construction project, with which everything – from the position of the power supply lines to the type of flooring to the drill holes for the light switches – can be centrally managed. But it’s much more than just a piece of software. Above all, it makes cooperation on the project collaborative and interdisciplinary. It allows trades such as building services to be included much earlier in the design process and make it possible to transmit the current status of the project to the client. Ideally, and in accordance with openBIM principles, a BIM coordinator will also collate the 3D building models – such as the architectural, structural and building services models – in the cloud via vendor-neutral IFC interfaces. This way, all parties involved can be provided with the same information at the same time. As a result, changes can be implemented more quickly; for example, if the size of the windows is increased, the position of the wiring and the building massing will be adjusted automatically, without the cumbersome need to exchange and alter multiple CAD plans.

Kaldewei provides BIM data for its products
Many manufacturers have provided BIM data for their products in recent years. Kaldewei is one of them. Photo: Kaldewei
JUNG provides BIM data of its products
JUNG also provides BIM data for its products. Photo: JUNG

BIM in application: Stuttgart 21 and The Cradle

One of the best-known examples of BIM is the Stuttgart 21 station redevelopment, which is already considered a masterpiece of architectural engineering. The advantages of BIM planning become particularly apparent when considering the 28 unique chalice-shaped supports that buttress the shell roof of the underground station, which was designed by ingenhoven architects and structurally engineered by Werner Sobek AG. In order to derive the individual curvatures of each of the 11,000 rebars used in every chalice, 450 3D plans were synthesised into a single BIM model. Using mobile devices, construction workers can even use the BIM model on-site to identify the correct position for the iron reinforcements.

BIM was used to help plan the complex construction of the chalice supports in Stuttgart’s new railway station.
BIM was used to help plan the complex construction of the chalice supports in Stuttgart’s new railway station. Photo: Deutsche Bahn
11,000 reinforcements of the cup supports were determined with BIM
BIM was used to precisely determine the position and shape of the 11,000 rebars used in each of S21’s chalice supports. Photo: Werner Sobek AG

The Cradle (website in German), a project currently being completed in Düsseldorf by INTERBODEN in collaboration with HPP Architects, Drees & Sommer, Cradle to Cradle and Madaster, demonstrates that BIM is suitable for sustainable construction projects as well as technically challenging ones. The Cradle focuses on recyclability, centring the complete life cycle of the building up to and including its potential demolition in the future. In order to support this, the BIM includes a materials certificate listing component numbers for all the materials and products used. This will make it possible to analyse what materials have been used – and whether they can be reused or recycled – throughout the entire service life of the building. Ultimately, this will allow key figures, such as the building’s total grey energy or commercial salvage value, to be calculatedn.

All components of The Cradle have been deposited in BIM.
All materials and products of the new building The Cradle were deposited in BIM. Photo: Interboden/ HPP Architects

Opportunities for the construction industry

Transitioning to BIM comes with a range of challenges. These result, for example, from new ways of working and new scopes of services. While architects’ design, approval and implementation planning phases were previously clearly separated from one another, these processes overlap when using BIM. However, these difficulties are offset by opportunities: architects, tradespeople, clients and manufacturers are able to work together on an equal footing and learn from one another. There is still a fear that SMEs, from smaller firms and skilled trades businesses to medium-sized suppliers, won’t be able to adapt to this new way of working. However, it is clear that younger generations of workers expect to use of these kinds of digital planning tools and methods as a matter of course.

Implementing BIM will certainly take some work – especially for smaller companies that are already established. However, given the dynamic development of the construction industry and challenges such as resource conservation, climate protection and increasing urbanisation, the transition will be worth it. When BIM is implemented in a way that allows buildings to be constructed more quickly, cheaply and fairly, whilst also raising the construction quality and enables them to be built, managed and used far more sustainably, it becomes an offer too good to refuse. Using BIM only for cost control significantly undersells its potential. At the same time, it is clear that completely digitising the construction industry is not a panacea; rather, it is necessary to decide what method is most suited to each project on a case-by-case basis.

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