A Tale of Two Countries: Why the US Won't Follow the UK's Lead on BIM
Emily Pollock posted on May 17, 2018 |
While the U.S. has a set of best-practice BIM standards, the country doesn’t have a UK-style mandate. (Image courtesy of National BIM standard – United States.)
While the U.S. has a set of best-practice BIM standards, the country doesn’t have a UK-style mandate. (Image courtesy of National BIM standard – United States.)

Since the UK’s government implemented their BIM mandate in 2015, there have been no shortage of articles hoping, wishing, or suggesting that the U.S. take up its own mandate. And as BIM grows in popularity, there’s a growing faction in the industry who think that in not setting a mandate, the U.S. is falling behind.

The bad news first: a very different industry and building culture means that the U.S. is unlikely to see a federal BIM mandate any time soon. The good news: that’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

Case Study: The United Kingdom

Companies in the U.S. were early BIM adopters, but early-stage problems slowed the adoption progress. This means that some countries have caught up to or surpassed the U.S. in terms of widespread BIM use or government standardization. 

The UK, often seen as one of the worldwide champions of BIM, is one such country. In 2016, the country implemented a Level 2 BIM mandate for any construction company working on a government project, which meant that all stakeholders involved had to communicate with common CAD file formats. The move was partly driven by the fact that UK firms using BIM realized 15 to 20 percent construction cost savings from 2009 to 2015.

Industry diagram showing different BIM levels: Level 0 BIM use involves 2D drawings only, with almost no collaboration between project members; Level 1 BIM use involves a mixture of 2D and 3D drawings, with minimal collaboration; Level 2 BIM use means project members utilize common file formats that allow for greater collaboration; and Level 3 BIM use (more of an aspiration than a current reality) means almost total collaboration and a single, shared model everyone works off of. (Image courtesy of BIM Plus.)
Industry diagram showing different BIM levels: Level 0 BIM use involves 2D drawings only, with almost no collaboration between project members; Level 1 BIM use involves a mixture of 2D and 3D drawings, with minimal collaboration; Level 2 BIM use means project members utilize common file formats that allow for greater collaboration; and Level 3 BIM use (more of an aspiration than a current reality) means almost total collaboration and a single, shared model everyone works off of. (Image courtesy of BIM Plus.)

So far, the mandate has had mixed success. In the 2017 National BIM Report, the NBS reported that more than half of industry professionals thought the government was failing to enforce the mandate, and a third weren't even sure what they had to do to comply with the mandate. But a slim majority (51 percent) think the government is on the right track with their BIM initiatives, and over three quarters (78 percent) think BIM is where the industry is going. Additionally, industry BIM use had jumped by 8 percent since 2016—the industry's fastest growth in four years. 

So, while not everyone understands the mandate, and not everyone thinks the government is doing enough to enforce it, more and more people are following it.

Facts on the Ground in the U.S.

Mandate or not, BIM is gaining popularity in the United States. Allied Market Research reports that the industry is expected to achieve a compound annual growth rate of 21.6 percent from 2016 to 2022, and earn $11.7 billion during that time. Much of that growth has been driven by the potential for savings, both of time and money, that BIM can make possible. A recent Dodge Data & Analytics survey shows U.S. contractors are seeing an increased ROI from BIM use, including a 5 percent reduction in the final construction costs, a 5 percent increase in the speed of completion, and a 25 percent improvement in labor productivity. The last one is particularly attractive in a field where labor productivity has decreased over the last fifty years. 

But, despite BIM's popularity, there are several factors standing in the way of a government mandate, at least in the short term. The main factor is decentralization. “There isn’t a prescribed structure for [a common set of government practices],” Roger Grant, program director at the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), told ConstructionDive. “We don’t have one agency responsible for all construction like the UK.” 

NIBS is a not-for-profit NGO that works to bring together government, industry, labour, and consumers to help make buildings safer and less expensive. Their National BIM Standard-United States initiative publishes a set of frequently-updated standards on BIM best practices. Their standards have been downloaded across the world, but they still don’t have mainstream buy-in in their home country. According to Grant, it can be difficult to get multiple parties to agree on standards when they've all developed their own.

Which leads to the second factor: many industry players really don't want a BIM mandate. American contractors are more likely to see every project as a distinct challenge, one where a standardized BIM formula wouldn't always be the best fit. "Many are using BIM, and leveraging the values of it in tangible ways," Parallax Team director Aaron Maller told AEC magazine. "What isn’t happening in the U.S. is a country-wide debate, a club-style academic exercise over BIM standards, mandates or requirements, where everyone tries to agree on one ‘hypothetical’ set of standards by which projects will happen.”

According to these thinkers, the U.S. has its own culture of BIM, one that comes from the ground up rather than the top down, and which would be disrupted rather than aided by a government mandate. “The innovation you are seeing is happening in the larger firms that work in multiple offices," Steve Jones, Senior Director of Dodge Data & Analytics told Zigurat in their 2017 report on the state of BIM in the U.S. "They are now getting smart about picking up on what the other offices are doing and you are seeing these ideas go viral. These ideas will get implemented on projects in those offices, which in turn helps them go viral in those markets. When the project finishes, others begin to copy it.  That’s kind of the viral method that happens here as opposed to the UK, where basically a program gets laid out per the standard and people primarily learn how to do it that way.” 

And it’s not just American contractors who believe this model is worth protecting. Some in the UK, disenchanted with government BIM standards, see it as a model to emulate. "That kind of openness is much-needed at a time when digital innovation is moving at a rapid pace," said Rebecca De Cicco, director and founder of British BIM consultancy Digital Node. "The UK could perhaps learn an important lesson from our American cousins in that regard."

From the Bottom Up

The U.S. certainly doesn’t lack a BIM culture. But, in the absence of federal regulation on BIM, the culture has evolved piecemeal, driven by local governments, individual agencies, and even agencies in the private sector.

States and districts are starting to dip their toes into the waters of BIM. In July 2010, Wisconsin became the first state to require all public works with a budget of over $5 million and new public construction with a budget of over $2.5 million to use BIM. And in 2018, the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) set a BIM mandate for its $9.5 billion construction and renovation project across nine of its campuses. Any firm bidding on a contract will need to name a BIM facilitator who will coordinate the BIM workflow, follow shared data server requirements, track projects on the district's BIM website, and submit models to the district for operations and management. 

One of the LACCD's new building projects, the East Los Angeles College Student Success & Retention Building. Reportedly, the district has already saved $12 million on construction because of their new BIM requirements. (Photo courtesy of BuildLACCD.)
One of the LACCD's new building projects, the East Los Angeles College Student Success & Retention Building. Reportedly, the district has already saved $12 million on construction because of their new BIM requirements. (Photo courtesy of BuildLACCD.)

Also leading the way are individual federal government departments. In 2003, the General Services Administration (GSA), the department responsible for centralized procurement for the American federal government, established their National 3D-4D-BIM Program. The program promoted a policy mandating BIM adoption for all PBS projects, a mandate that required model-based design and open-standard facility management data, and encouraged projects to use mature 3D, 4D, and BIM technologies. In fact, the UK modelled its own BIM solution off of the 3D-4D-BIM Program. While less recognizable, other departments like Naval Facilities (NavFac) also have their own BIM requirements for contractors working with them. Individual companies, too, have their own BIM mandates that collaborating contractors must follow.

The U.S. is unlikely to see a BIM mandate any time soon—at the very least, a regulation-shy president means there probably won't be a move toward it in the next two years. But in the absence of federal action on BIM, smaller players are stepping up to set minimum standards. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for both the UK and the U.S. over the next few years.

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