BIM for Design vs BIM for Operations.


From BIM Journal. Click Here to Read Issue 5

For a unique perspective at the interface of ‘BIM for designer’ vs ‘BIM for operator’ here is Derek Lawrence (Associate Director, Arup) with some pertinent points and wise words.

In 2014, I felt that it was time to take my new-build design experience and repurpose it - by working for a commercial real estate services company. The mindset being that I was looking forward to continually improving the quality of the existing built environment for myself and others. A sensible and achievable goal perhaps, given that 80% of buildings that are here now are still expected to be around in 2050, the least we can do is look after them.

Armed with a good knowledge of digital design and Building Information Modelling I anticipated riding into this new sector like a knight in digital armour, ready to slay the perceived inefficiencies of the many existing workflows.  I was due for a wake-up call.

In the two years that I worked for this company, frequently talking to their end users and owner/operators, I continually faced resistance to embracing BIM for operations. Whatsmore, it was primarily for one or two reasons:

A. What is BIM?

Try as I might I could not articulate BIM in a way that was meaningful to either cohort. Indeed, having spent time with people in the new-build design environment who spoke the language of BIM day in day out, I had forgotten how much knowledge was required to get from ‘never heard of it’ to ‘of course, this is BIM Level 2’. This was even before we got to the killer second reason:

B. How will it make me more money?

Once a building is operational the money spent on it is carefully scrutinised.  As such, in the commercial real estate world, the return on investment is king.  What is the return on investing in BIM?  Where are the case studies that support the value of BIM?  I failed to find any compelling ones that I could reliably use.

Now although this all sounds pretty glum, hope was drawn from the fact that most clients agreed that having better information about their assets was important.  They were confident that better data would lead to better operational decisions.  With this in mind I returned to my BIM training ground at Arup, with the objective of making BIM useful in operations.

So why aren’t more organisations using BIM in their building operational phase?  Through discussion with designer, operators and owners of property I have distilled their concerns into the five points below:

  1. BIM – The clue is not in the name.
    Taking a new concept/workflow and wrapping it up in an acronym is not helpful.  Building Information Modelling tends to lead the uninitiated into thinking that it is all about 3D modelling.  This is not as surprise given that many BIM related presentations start with a 3D visual.  After that, if you want to engage with BIM it appears that your first task is to learn the acronyms (OIRs, EIRs, AIRs, PIMs and AIMs) as well as new software.  This is where ‘BIM for operations’ abruptly stops for many.

  1. Awesome... or overcomplicated?
    I asked willing participants; when you see a hugely detailed 3D model spinning around on screen, do your feel excited or intimidated? And the answer is very much dependent on the audience.  Generally, the design world is firmly in the ‘awesome’ camp, while the operational counterparts see over complication. 

    Consequently, to many, it feels like excited designers are creating hugely complicated information models and handing them over to operations without an instruction manual.  I love instruction manuals but I also adore things that are intuitive.  BIM, in its current form at least, ticks neither box.

  1. Technology fan auto-enrolment
    Workflows that heavily reliant on technology are not enjoyed by everyone. Now at this point it is easy to start making links between age and technology uptake.  As a child of the ZX Spectrum fuelled 1980s I am a technology fan, but this is not true for my entire generation.  My 75-year-old mother is a self-proclaimed technophobe that did not make use of computers during her entire working career, nowadays however, shecommunicates with me on WhatsApp - complete with sharing panoramas of the hotels that she visits. 

    With a confusing level of technology engagement out there, it is important for our BIM story to engage the masses and simply the enthusiasts.  My observation is that BIM is being used in operations certainly, but only by the enthusiast that want it to work.  Many others feel like BIM is ‘being done to them’ and as such, BIM has to be useful for all levels of technical ability in order for it to become commonplace.

  1. Plug and play BIM
    The PAS suit of documents that help to define the workflows and processes around BIM are well written and have rightly become the industry fall-back position when seeking clarification around BIM acronyms and processes.  With soon to be six documents in the suite, I feel that there is a newcomer’s fear when it comes to ‘just starting BIM’ as it may feel that people are breaking traditional conventions or best practice. Accordingly, this ‘plug and play’ or ‘let’s just start’ approach is not something that all people feel happy doing.

    Uncertainty is another way of describing this and, not surprisingly, it can lead to people simply not implementing BIM at all.

  1. Designer vs Operator
    Designer: Why are we talking about lift movements of bins when we haven’t decided on the building orientation yet?

    Operator: Have you ever operated a building? How am I going to access those lights when they break?

    A mutual disregard for designing and operating points of view remain.  In order for BIM to be successful, designers and operators need to get into each other’s mindsets.  BIM will help with this, but without engagement between the two camps, designers (not deliberately, I am assured) will continue to deliver new build BIM that leaves operators without a suitable way in which to make use of the information therein.

Now many of the above points are drawn from new-build BIM observations, whereas if we talk about BIM for existing buildings then it gets even more complex.  I have heard BIM being defined as ‘Better Information Management’ a number of times at different conferences.  Admittedly, these were at conferences for operators that deliberately forced the focus of BIM away from 3D models.

Accordingly, when BIM is mentioned we should think much more about the Information bit rather than the Modelling.  As such, for BIM to be truly successful in operations, a number of things need to improve:

  1. AIRs – Asset Information Requirements
    Do you know what asset information you need to operate your building? As a person with a foot in the design world I always hoped that this information would be easier to get than it actually is.  The key to AIRs is just to start to list them.  This can then be evolved and grow over time, so don’t wait for a comprehensive list to form.

  1. What does my existing building BIM look like?
    It doesn’t have to be a 3D Revit Model.  Your current BIM (you do have one) may look like an excel spreadsheet with a list of assets on it.  Finding a level of visual presentation to enhance communicating and maintaining asset information is important. If we get this right, the uptake of BIM in operations will increase.

  1. Where is my data?
    If your asset data helps you make valuable decisions, that value needs protecting.  The data needs to be stored in a highly available secure manner with good levels of access control.  If strategy changes and you need to move data to other platforms, then this should possible without data loss.

Does your one piece of software really deliver everything?  Does the system that holds your data have an API (Application Programming Interface) which allows data to be used by other software? It is unlikely that you will find one piece of software that does everything.  By way of example, the Computer Aided Facilities Management (CAFM) software that does your reporting and asset tracking may not be the best tool for visualising data on site, or reporting live utilisation info.  All of these systems store data and making sure that the data can be moved and updated dynamically will be key to keeping the data current.  Old or incorrect data only generates uncertainty, which can affect people’s willingness to engage, plus it also inherits its own upkeep.

How are Arup approaching BIM for operations?  In our new-build BIM projects we are keen to address the ‘what data is important for you’ question very early in the design process.  As such, working with clients to create their Asset Information Requirements (AIRs) is fundamental to this.  Handover / user acceptance and soft landings have a part to play in making sure we don’t deliver something that is unusable at project completion.  Use of intuitive visualisation tools that help to build links between a trained software environment (Autodesk Revit say) and intuitive untrained environments (Panoramic viewers such a PURAview) will also play a part in design data living on into the operational phase.

For existing buildings, the canvas that all of the data is attached to is really important as well.  How do you retrospectively build record information about a building that has no records (surprisingly common)?  A number of techniques from LiDAR to photogrammetry to straight panoramic photography can be used.  Attaching data to the canvas in an engaging way is also important however and PURAview is a system that Arup are developing to put the end user/operator in control of this process.  If the end user is in control, then the cost of the resources they deploy to collect the data can be aligned within their needs and budget.  Some Scan to BIM workflows require large upfront specialist input (and cost).  This can make the business case for BIM difficult without supporting value case studies.  As such, an awareness that there are other ways to approach BIM is something that needs to grow.

Finally, the data storage format is important as well.  We must not ignore the protocols that have been setup by new-build BIM workflows.  This sees data residing in the construction model via interoperable formats like Construction Operations Building Information Exchange (COBie) or Industry Foundation Classes (IFC).  This is vital as data needs to move from platform to platform so that a request to see it doesn’t return multiple sources of the truth.


If you want to implement BIM for operations, make sure you acknowledge the following as a minimum

  1. What do you need to know to operate your building?  This might initially be compliance information or the like, such as which emergency lighting or fire alarm devices have been tested.

  2. Think about who is going to access and update the information, and what is the most user-friendly way for them to do this.

  3. Understand how the data is going to be stored and how it can move between software platforms.

  4. If any of the above are beyond your experience, ask for help from one of the increasing number of specialists in this field.

Don’t let the language of BIM prevent you from improving the asset information and, in turn, the effective operation of your buildings.


Read BIM Journal in full here.

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