Collaborative Design

Understanding BIM: The BIM-Hub perspective

BIM-Hub is an international collaborative design project supported by the UK Higher Education Academy (HEA) and it involves final year students of two universities in the UK and one in Canada.

I became a co-investigator in BIM-Hub project when my good friend and colleague, Dr Robby Soetanto came to consult me about the use of BIM servers in the proposal he was working on. I ended up selling him a different, (if not radical) idea about design data storage/retrieval/utilisation, which is a subject for a different blog post, but for now, it suffices to say, we did use any servers at all. First, I had to convince him to look under the hood at what BIM implied and entailed and specifically, what was supposed to be achieved by a so-called BIM server. It is important to capture the essence of the narrative that ensued between us, using more text and graphics as you will see below.

It can be argued that Building information modelling (BIM) did not exactly start as a specific process or technology with the sorts of clear cut objectives as we know it today. As a method of working which is distinctly different from over-the-wall process (Fig.1) the use of BIM evolved over time based on two factors: (a) the need for better working relationships amongst stakeholders in a world whose resources are dwindling as its climate is changing; and (b) the availability of information and communications technology (ICT) systems whose capabilities and potential have continued to increase ‘exponentially’. The underlying aim of BIM is to foster greater collaboration firstly, by the efficient creation/production of building data within each discipline and secondly, the effective deployment and utilisation of such data across multi-disciplinary boundaries throughout a building’s life-cycle. Or something like that.


Fig. 1 – Over the wall process of building design

BIM has evidently conglomerated many available digital technologies with new ways of thinking and working. This has made BIM rather difficult to define and almost impossible to predict, in terms of its future capabilities and applications. So, what exactly is BIM? Well, the answer depends on who you ask. According to the BIM Task Group (2013) BIM is “such a wide open subject with interpretations differing throughout the supply chain that we could have spent a year just trying to define BIM”. The multiple definitions or understandings of BIM have been sampled below.

“A BIM is a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility. As such it serves as a shared knowledge resource for information about a facility forming a reliable basis for decisions during its lifecycle from inception onward” (National BIM Standards, USA).

“A Building Information Model (BIM) is a rich information model, consisting of potentially multiple data sources, elements of which can be shared across all stakeholders and be maintained across the life of a building from inception to recycling (cradle to cradle). This integrated format offers significant benefits, such as cost reductions, entire carbon impact analysis, early clash identification, compliance checking, better project management and simpler procurement to name a few” (National Building Specifications, 2013).

“BIM is the first truly global digital construction technology and will soon be deployed in every country in the world. It is a ‘game changer’ and we need to recognise that it is here to stay – but in common with all innovation this presents both risk and opportunity (Patrick MacLeamy – Chief Executive Officer of HOK).

“A scenario that would deliver an environment whereby the Government client would have an estate that was “smarter and better” equipped to face a low carbon economy, with associated reductions in delivery and operational costs and in carbon emissions” (BIM Industry Working Group, 2011).

“BIM is essentially value creating collaboration through the entire life-cycle of an asset, underpinned by the creation, collation and exchange of shared 3D models and intelligent, structured data attached to them” (UK BIM Task Group, 2013).

According to the UK BIM Task Group, (2013) it is ‘often easier to say what BIM isn’t than to attempt to capture its entire essence. Nevertheless, from the above definitions, it is apparent that digital content is central. Interestingly too, some definitions above seem to refer to BIM as verb (i.e. building information modelling) while others refer to BIM as a noun (i.e. a building information model). This differences are important and reflect how BIM has been perceived over the years and how it is applied today by various stakeholders.

In my opinion, a definition of BIM that seems to capture the various perspectives is: Building information modelling (BIM) is a process that leverages on revolutionary technology used in the design, analysis, construction and management of buildings (Hardin, 2009). In retrospect, I think any definition of BIM that focuses on its procedural aspects (as sometimes happens) without the concurrent referral to use of digital technology, is incomplete at best, or misleading at worst because even over-the-wall is a process too! Albeit, not a very good one. Whether you refer to the use industry foundation classes (IFCs), Revit Servers, or you focus on the organisational or behavioral issues of communication and implementation, BIM has moved us away from paper-based process of sharing information, to a new world of digital technology. Today, we have BIM used in innovative ways through data capture with 3D scanners (yes, that is BIM too) and it seems, the old-fashioned cardboard models (which architects like me were trained to produce in the early 90s) are giving way to 3D printed models of virtual 3D models!

Anyway, not having a clear cut definition of BIM has become one of the challenges of dealing with students from two continents (UK and Canada) and three universities (Loughborough, Coventry and Ryerson). It was necessary to be willing to accommodate divergent views of BIM as the BIM-Hub project evolved.

To help create a common platform, the key words for BIM that appear in its many definitions are ‘process’ and ‘digital technology’. As a collaborative process, we established that BIM uses ICT for generation, storage, retrieval and sharing of content (data) related to buildings and this can occur throughout (or at specific phases) of their lifecycle. This digital technology can be used at Level 0, 1, 2 or 3, as explained by the BIM maturity diagram. In summary, Level 1 BIM refers to use of 2D CAD and some 3D (and some of our students were unfortunately, stuck at this level). Level 2 BIM is when data (e.g. 3D parametric models) are created by specific disciplines and shared or aggregated (by a BIM coordinator) in a central repository using common data environments or model servers. As of the time of writing, Level 2 BIM is mandatory for all UK government projects, while Level 3 BIM is still in its infancy both in concept and expectations. Level would probably rely on centralised real-time modelling and sharing of data.

The use of digital technology in particular, sets BIM aside from other traditional process of working (e.g. over the wall), however, there are interoprability and data exchange issues that continue to trouble the adoption and utilisation of BIM in the construction industry. It would appear that when software developers say ‘we support interoperability’ what they actually mean is ‘adopt our line of products and everything will work just fine’.

As opposed to other concepts that have emerged in the last 10 – 15 years like Lean Construction and Sustainability, BIM is different in the sense that it has its own unique/dedicated technology (hence you hear of BIM software); its own policy (e.g. all UK government projects must be procured via BIM as from 2016) and its own processes. The procedural aspect of BIM rely on technical standards like industry foundation classes (IFCs); common data environments (CDEs); as well as on cultural and organisational factors which shape how people create and share data. BIM-Hub, as a project, seeks to explore in part, anwers to how data can be created and shared amongst international students.

References and recommended reading

BIM Industry Working Group, (2011) BIM: Management for value, cost and carbon reduction. Available at: (retrieved Oct. 2013)

Hardin, B. (2009) BIM and Construction Management: Proven Tools, Methods and Workflows. Wiley Publishing, Indiana.

National Building Specifications, (2013) What BIM is and how it is used, (retrieved April 2013).

National BIM Standards, USA).

The technology for BIM collaboration between international students

The BIM process is heavily reliant on sharing of data seamlessly across the disciplines and the supply chain. At the collaborative design stage for instance, building design data can be hosted in a centralised location often referred to as BIM servers or model collaboration servers (MCS). These servers are often IFC-compliant and there are three potential configurations (Fig. 2).

Fig. 1 - Different configurations for BIM servers showing (a) single BIM models, (b) single BIM models that are then aggregated and (c) co-created BIM models (Source: Jorgensen, et al. 2008)

Fig. 1 – Different configurations for BIM servers showing (a) single BIM models, (b) single BIM models that are then aggregated and (c) co-created BIM models (Source: Jorgensen, et al. 2008)

The first configuration of BIM servers can better used in scenarios when ‘Lonely BIM’ is applied (RIBA, 2012). In many instances, a typical cloud-based server would suffice for this purpose.

The second configuration (Fig. 1b) probably best describes existing attempts at Level 2 BIM, where each discipline produces its data (or model) which is later aggregated (or federated) by a ‘BIM Coordinator’ who would probably use a common data environment system e.g. (4BIM) or a BIM coordinating and auditing tool like Solibri Model Checker. It is possible to achieve Level 2 BIM using common platforms like Autodesk Revit servers or with Graphisoft BIM servers. The third configuration (Fig. 1c) is closer to the current thoughts on how Level 3 BIM could function.

At Level 2, BIM can be said to enhance a phenomenon called ‘situational awareness’ (Cannon-bowers, et al. (1995) amongst AEC designers. The situational awareness theory is a relatively new one which is defined by Endsley (1995a) as “the ability to perceive and understand the aspects of an environment (e.g. events, information, people and actions) while bounded by a common volume of space and time and crucially, being able to perceive the near future status of a project or task. The situational awareness theory can therefore be helpful to the sorts of dynamic decision-making processes that are experienced in the AEC industry, especially at the design stage (Fig. 2).

Situational awareness as applies to dynamic decision-making processes (Source: Endsley, 1995b)

Fig. 2 – The situational awareness concept as applied to dynamic decision-making processes (Source: Endsley, 1995b)

When (or if) the situational situation awareness is implied as a key goal of the BIM process, then audio-visual feedback can be available on demand. And when the sharing of data is done in real-time (e.g. at Level 3) during the co-creation process, the situational awareness can be aid to be ‘shared’. In other words, BIM at Level 3 is arguably aimed at shared situation awareness (SSA). So while ‘situational awareness’ could be an existing reality, shared situational awareness can bring added dimensions of real-time binding by ‘same volume of space and time’ amongst designers. Now when such designers are geographically dispersed, then multi-cultural input which affects technical outcomes(Larsson, 2003) could lead to designs of much higher quality.

In BIM-Hub, the prohibitive costs and the technical hassles of implementation were not attributes that endeared us to a BIM server. An opportunity arose, based on some pilot study (yet to be published) for collaboration amongst students to occur in real-time, using remote desktop services (RDS). Specifically, we utilised GoToMeeting as a collaboration tool. Essentially, each group of students were given a unique GoToMeeting account with which they not only communicated audio-visually, but also shared their desktops, (i.e. the applications running on them) and granted keyboard and mouse control to team members.

References and suggested readings

Cannon-Bowers J., Tannenbaum S., Salas E. and Volpe C. (1995). Defining competencies and establishing team training requirements. In R. A. Guzzo & E. Salas (Eds.), Team effectiveness and decision making in organisations, 333 – 380, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Endsley M.R. (1995a) Measurement of situation awareness in dynamic systems, Human Factors, Vol. 37, No. 1, 65–84

Endsley, M.R. (1995b). Toward a theory of situation awareness in dynamic systems, Human Factors, Vol. 37, No. 1, 32–64.

RIBA (2012) The BIM overlay to the RIBA Outline Plan of Work, available online at: , [accessed 12 March 2013].