Talk about information technology in construction today and conversations will often turn to building information modelling (BIM). With the government now making BIM mandatory on public sector projects from 2016, with some private sector clients likely to follow suit, Paul Wilkinson says the industry is rapidly learning that BIM is more than just 3D design.

BIM augments the graphical representation of an object – a door, wall, floor or window, for example – with details of its colour, cost, material, etc, and its functional relationship with other components. As well as drawings, a model therefore also helps design teams produce specifications, schedules, cost reports and – looking longer-term – FM information. The model can also be used to show how a building will be constructe (time, so 4D), how much it will cost (5D), its energy efficiency, etc (nD).

Model-based design also involves changes to how buildings are designed, procured, constructed and managed, and so will affect every member of the supply chain, including the finishing sector. Knowledge of BIM will be vital for many companies to stay in business.

Collaboration will also be obligatory. As jointly-developed construction designs and processes pose new questions about contracts, data ownership, liability, and commercial sensitivity, the UK government has working parties examining these issues, and others.

In some respects, the construction sector is following a path already beaten by the aerospace and automotive industries. Computer-driven design and manufacture created more certainty about what was required and when; processes became progressively leaner, with greater precision, less waste, shorter supply chains and more just-in-time delivery.

Off-site fabrication and modularisation demonstrate that construction is already changing, and some BIM commentators see this trend accelerating. Former Bovis Lend Lease man Ray Crotty, for example, has predicted that seamless BIM data “will help unify the industry’s supply chains, freeing construction from its craft origins, transforming it into a modern, sophisticated branch of the manufacturing industry.”

BIM is therefore likely to herald a new era of integrated collaborative working, with IT a key driver, and the specialist finishes sector may have little choice but to adapt to this brave new world.