The Water Cube at the Beijing Olympic park by night

+ Some in the industry argue that building information modelling (BIM) should be used to enable radical innovation, while others feel its main goal should be standardisation.

Freed from an obsession with standardisation for efficiency, building information modelling (BIM) enables radical innovation. But differences of opinion in the industry are handicapping its potential.

There are two camps in the BIM debate: those who believe the tool should be used to enable a standardised design process and those who believe it should be used to enable radical innovation. It’s time for the two BIM camps to start working together again – because when they don’t get along, they obstruct each other.

The standardisers love structure and protocol. Infrastructure UK, the owner of government assets, is in this camp. It has identified BIM as a methodology that can help deliver the huge savings they have to find while still meeting the needs of the nation. I know many of my Arup colleagues working on infrastructure projects also share this aspiration for BIM, as do the professional institutions.

The innovators include bodies such as the UK government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Singaporean government. And many of my building design colleagues are in this camp too. They are interested in the potential the tool offers for radical innovation. BIM makes it possible for them to test their design intent virtually – enabling them to push the boundaries further than they otherwise could.

The standardisers often argue that BIM is the only opportunity we have to impose structure on an unstructured industry. Imagine you’re designing a school building and a bridge and that the two designs use a steel beam. Standardisers would argue that you need a rigid classification so you can compare things like the relative cost or carbon footprint of the beams.

But agreeing any industry-wide classification is a monstrously difficult task and is unnecessary when computation can do the same thing with unstructured data. I agree with RIBA Enterprises’ chief executive Richard Waterhouse, who said that classifications are for humans, not machines.

Unlike the standardisers, the innovators want to be free to develop new definitions and new measurements all the time, because this will lead to new solutions. For example, if you were to measure all buildings only by cost then they would all look pretty similar. Whereas if you measure them by, say cost and carbon, their form is likely to change substantially: think of Stanford’s Energy & Environment building for example, and compare it with a contemporary spec’ office building.

By imposing a single way of doing things through BIM you risk stifling innovation. You risk becoming more efficient at something that is less and less relevant to society and its needs.

That would be a shame because, to date, BIM has certainly enabled the industry to do things that would have been impractical before. For example, BIM is behind the Water Cube of the Beijing Olympics which arguably couldn’t have been created without it and even enabled digital ‘post-occupancy’ evaluation pre-construction at Admiralty Station in Hong Kong.

What’s the answer? I believe that both camps should be patient, inclusive and co-operative. They should look for synergies. And they should respect and promote each other’s practice, as the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Conversely, I believe that focussing on one or the other view might mean the naysayers that don’t want the status quo to change will get their way.