BIM – shaping the future and preserving the past

There’s more to historic buildings than its bricks – they are physical links to our past. So, when it comes to preservation, it's not just about maintaining the buildings, but about saving the layers of information they contain about the past and our ancestors.

  • 22 Nov 2017
  • by
  • Edonis Jesus
Using Building Information Modelling (BIM) within the historic environment is a developing concept that can potentially transform the way we understand and preserve structures.

As defined in the British government industrial strategy (2012), “BIM is a collaborative way of working, underpinned by the digital technologies which unlock more efficient methods of designing, creating and maintaining our assets. BIM embeds key product and asset data and a three dimensional computer model that can be used for effective management of information throughout a project lifecycle – from earliest concept through to operation.”

BIM is often associated with the construction of new buildings, but what about the refurbishment of existing buildings and, in particular, heritage assets? How can BIM help us understand and preserve the historic environment?

This is the question that led me to establishing the BIM4Heritage group over a year ago. BIM4Heritage is made up of various specialists, from within the AEC (Architecture, Engineering, Construction) industry, conservation, heritage organisations, academic departments and end-users. The group is a member of the UK BIM Alliance, which is a cross-industry alliance formed to lead BIM Level 2 – the maturity level of BIM required by the British government on the delivery of central department projects; and the digital formation of the construction and infrastructure sectors.

Our vision is to provide a forum for organisations and industry professionals to share knowledge and lessons learnt on BIM applied to historic structures. Our purpose is to promote the learning, awareness and understanding of BIM within the conservation and heritage sector of the built environment, and to influence and integrate this with wider industry needs.

The most notable heritage projects where BIM is being implemented include Elizabeth Tower (better known as Big Ben – Palace of Westminster); Edinburgh Castle; Mackintosh building (Glasgow School of Art); Burlington House (Royal Academy of Arts) and Imperial War Museum London.

A key benefit of using BIM is summed up perfectly in the following quote from The Venice Charter in 1964. 

“Understanding of any component of heritage is beyond understanding the physical characteristics of existing building, because each individual heritage object is a message from the past, and it remains as living witnesses of the age’s tradition.”

BIM is all about information. Heritage information is the basis for the understanding and preservation of the historic environment. One of the key benefits of BIM is allowing all information to be kept in a single model or environment.

I often ask clients on refurbishment projects for information on specific parts of a building and they just don't have it, either because it has been lost or was never recorded. The ability to capture building data and information and store it in a central database would solve this problem. Capturing and recording data is part of the answer, but the other part – how technology via analysis and simulations can support conservation, repair and maintenance activities – is yet to be researched. 

For example, digital modelling technology can be used to control and monitor the state of a structure – laser scans carried out several months or years apart can be compared to highlight any movement in structures.

BIM methodologies and technologies have huge potential. Not only does BIM enable collaboration, improve efficiency and drive up quality, but it can reduce the costs of complex build projects and ongoing repair and maintenance programs. This is vitally important in the heritage sector, as so many of the clients are public sector organisations or charities for whom budgets are tighter than ever and scrutiny of spending is intense.

The many benefits of BIM have set our BIM4Heritage group on a mission: to spread the initiative, firstly across Europe and eventually around the world.

I believe BIM will completely revolutionise the construction industry, in particular the heritage sector. Easy access to information and data will allow us to better understand and preserve our heritage assets for future generations, enabling us to tell the unique stories of our past.