What does BIM mean for structural engineers?

PAS 1192-2 defines BIM as:
 “...the process for designing, constructing or operating a building or infrastructure asset using electronic, object oriented information.”

This could be regarded as a 'top level' definition as it applies, in the most general way, to the task of building anything. It applies across all disciplines involved in the process - but what does it mean to structural engineers?

Structural engineers are a part of the wider construction process but the general principal of the definition still holds. The industry still has a somewhat nebulous idea of what BIM is in practice. It is possibly helpful to take the two key ideas - integration and coordination - and promote them to the forefront of the process. These must be considered ahead of any consideration of specifics such as software, hardware or particular technique - areas where it is all too easy to become fixated.

The construction industry has long functioned under conditions which result in waste and, in some cases, poor quality. The causes are many and varied (some inherent in the technology prevailing at any particular time) but a key issue is that of coordination. Better-coordinated projects should produce better results in terms of quality, efficiency and sustainability.

The UK government has identified this as part of a key strategy to save a significant proportion of construction costs on its construction contracts. It has therefore mandated the use of Level 2 BIM by 2016 on all government construction contracts.

 “In May 2011 the UK Government published the Construction Strategy mandating the use of Level 2, 3D Collaborative BIM on all central government construction projects by 2016 irrespective of project value. Our hypothesis is that Government as a client can derive significant improvements in cost, value and carbon performance through the use of open sharable asset information. This strategy will involve all members of the supply chain that are involved in Government Projects, not just Tier 1 players. “

David Philp, Head of BIM Implementation, Cabinet Office

Various organizations are (or are in the process of) establishing definitions and frameworks for what it they consider BIM to be and how it is implemented. It might be imagined that where the government leads others will follow, but the breadth of the government's requirements (particularly Level 2 BIM and collaborative working) may not be essential in other sectors and procurement routes. Indeed, it has been said that it is not currently possible or practicable to operate 'Level 2 BIM' across the industry with the current state of the art in software and hardware technologies. This may be somewhat of a generalisation; however, standards and documentation are still being debated and written, so an engineer may need help in choosing a route to implementation with minimal risk of obsolescence or redundancy.

Specifically, the structural engineer will typically contribute part of 'the BIM' in collaboration with other disciplines, who will also contribute their part.  Within the structural engineer's domain this data, which comprises the model, or BIM, will typically be in the form of: 
  1. Geometrical structural models, possibly as an integrated part of a wider building models
  2. Calculations and analytical/Finite Element models
  3. Specifications and other documentation 
The software and hardware used in achieving this is largely incidental and there are various products in the marketplace that promote their own solutions. Certainly, understanding and mastery of such software presents a real challenge, and it is extremely useful for geometric visualization and coordination, but it is not BIM in the widest sense.

This web site will hope to extract the fundamentals from the somewhat bewildering and daunting mass of information, some of which is rather embryonic or nebulous. It will aim to do so in a way that will help the practitioner make decisions about the establishment of a system for using BIM in the real world. It is hoped that particular effort can be directed to SMEs, which represent a significant proportion of the membership but are less likely to benefit from access to the expert IT support of larger organizations.

The material here cannot be prescriptive and is not intended to represent a standard or a code of practice. It will remain at the level of guidance and a reflection of the experience of others who have gone before. 
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