On-Site Magazine

The road to BIM



Building Information Modeling (BIM) software has been in the construction industry for approximately a decade. However, while its potential impact is unprecedented, adoption has been surprisingly slow.

While many contractors are enthusiastic about the concept, the road to BIM implementation is littered with carnage—firms who had no idea what they were getting into. The challenge is that BIM changes everything about construction documents—what they are, how they are used and how they are created.

“People thought they were buying software, and they weren’t,” explains Josh Oakley, founder of Atlanta-based BIM consulting firm ANGL, LLC. “They were buying change. And this is a traditional industry that doesn’t like change.”

Many firms that start on the BIM path are contractors that are only doing so because owners are demanding it. “The main motivation is winning work,” says Oakley. “Most of our clients come to us because they have a big interview, or they’re going after a big job, and have to show BIM capability.”


Canadian owners are less inclined to force the issue, according to Michael Rotolo, technology consultant for Vaughan, Ont.-based SolidCAD, a software reseller and consultancy. “I tell my clients we’re 10 years behind Europe, and five years behind the US, and in Ontario, we’re three years behind Vancouver.”

There are still relatively few vendors. Revit, the BIM offering from AutoDesk, is the most familiar in Canadian firms. Sketch Up, formerly from Google and now sold by Trimble Navigation Ltd., and Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD are also popular.

For prospective adopters, there’s good news and bad news. On one hand, the technology entry bar is not high—many of the early adopters, according to Rotolo, were smaller firms that wanted to gain an early advantage over their larger peers.

The rub is that adoption calls for fundamental reinvention of many job functions in the construction industry.

Here are four reasons why BIM is a big deal for contractors:

1. BIM redefines the construction document. A BIM file is a data-rich model that contains both graphic components used to generate 2D or 3D images, plus a rich store of non-graphic information not found in conventional drawings. A file, therefore contains all details about the structure, and location/capabilities of all building systems. If a last-minute structural change is required, contractors can quickly alter the model without interfering with utilities.

Drawings, either 2D or 3D, are really subsets of something much larger. “The value is the information behind all that. Visualization is only part of it,” says Oakley.

2. BIM changes how construction documents are used. The rich store of information in BIM files makes life easier for anybody for whose work is governed by drawings, including estimators, schedulers, supervisors, and facility managers.

“The construction industry is now re-thinking what to do with these models,” says Rotolo. “Originally it was for initial design, and perhaps creating construction documentation. But now they’re seeing that it can be used for estimation, procurement, scheduling, and also to create more accurate as builts of the facility when the hand off is given to the owner later on.”

There is also some movement towards I-BIM, or infrastructure Building Information Modeling. In Canada adoption has been slow, but the TTC subway extension between Black Creek Pioneer Village Station and Finch Station, is a good example of a major infrastructure project that recently used BIM throughout the entire construction process.

3. BIM changes how construction documents are created. Many expect that creating BIM documents will be similar to CAD. This couldn’t be further from the truth. “People say we’re just going from CAD to BIM,” says Oakley. “I would argue that it’s nothing like

that. With CAD, you’re just digitizing lines, which is really the same thing as a drawing. With BIM, we’re making a transition from lines to a database.”

Familiarity with software like AutoCAD can actually be a hindrance to acquiring BIM skills. “It is easier for me to teach a non-AutoCAD person Revit than it is to teach an AutoCAD person, because they haven’t acquired the wrong habits.”

BIM is designed to create quick, rough models that are then revised to include all the specifics.

For example, a designer might start with a “dumb looking” wall, and then revise it to include thicknesses, materials, and other details. Instead of drawing with the software, the designer actually instructs the computer to draw—a departure from the hands-on mindset of creating drawings.

This could change how design firms operate. “There used to be two distinct divisions, the designer and the CAD operator,” says Rotolo. “With BIM, those are the same person.”

The other challenge is that a BIM document is capable of containing information that designers haven’t provided in the past. “The caveat here is that the designers are not thinking with regard to quantities for estimation, so they’ll build the model to a point that’s to their needs, and it may not include all the details required for a construction management firm to consume,” says Rotolo.

4. BIM changes business relationships. A data-rich BIM model is a valuable asset that can lead to more accurate estimates, smoother jobsite management, and a seamless handoff to facilities managers and building owners. The question is: who does the work to gather that information?

“Now, there’s a big argument out there,” says Rotolo. “The companies that are getting into Revit say the owner and construction manager aren’t paying them enough to make the model perfect.”

To address this, some design firms are providing the addition of materials, quantities, and other details as a value-added, chargeable service.


The road to BIM is no walk in the park. Firms considering it need to think not how they’re going to learn a new software, but how they’re going to change the way they run their company.

Here are some tips for getting started:

  • Decide how you are going to use the information that BIM documents contain. This could vary considerably according to your size, line of business, and desired relationship with other businesses.
  • Gather information about the various BIM options, with a view to what matches your needs most closely. Find a trusted peer in your industry who has experience with BIM.
  • Get executive level support. This is not just technology adoption, but a major business decision.
  • Be transparent. This is not something that you should be downplaying to avoid stirring the waters. This is a big deal, period.
  • Seeing is believing. People only get a real understanding of BIM when they’ve experienced its capabilities, so pilots are essential for discovering what the impact will be in your construction firm.
  • Be prepared for the long haul. Oakley recommends allowing 18 to 24 months in most cases.
  • Undersell and over deliver.  Don’t hype the possibilities—this is going to take more effort than most people expect, and the transition will not be painless.

BIM, even after 10 years, is not about to happen overnight. 2D drawings are still the legal standard, but many of Canada’s leading construction firms have embraced BIM, such as PCL, EllisDon, Aecon, Graham Group and Bird Construction to name a few. Robolo feels the question is not if, but when the rest of the industry adopts BIM.

“I feel that in the next five to 10 years, all new construction will incorporate many BI
M processes,” he says.


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