Experts: Urs von Arx (HHM – Hefti. Hess. Martignoni)
The term ‘building information modelling’ (BIM) refers to the complete digitalisation of the planning, construction and operation of buildings. If used consistently along the entire value chain, building information modelling should lead to increased efficiency, cost savings, higher quality and improved sustainability, as well as lower error rates in the construction sector. For the economy, the method offers an opportunity for bigger margins and shorter construction times. However, there is still a need for investment in a constantly up-to-date database that can be viewed by all players, as well as for political efforts to enable optimal use of BIM in all projects.
Building information modelling (BIM) is a methodology for networked and digitalised planning of structures that also includes the construction itself, its management and any subsequent demolition. It is used not only in structural and civil engineering, but also in infrastructural, green and landscape planning. Since the structure is visualised geometrically as a 3D model, a seamless flow of information is required. All players along the entire value chain must work together and comprehensively incorporate all parameters, such as costs, materials, quantities, sustainability data and simulations. The digital building models represent an information database for the structure or site and serve as a reliable basis for decision-making during the entire life cycle of the structure – from planning to demolition.
Five years ago, there were many pilot projects involving BIM. Nevertheless, only an estimated 10 to 20 percent of all companies active in construction are making extensive use of the methodology today (in 2022). It is mainly used in complex structural engineering projects, such as high-rises, hospitals and stadiums. Its use has been compulsory for Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) structural engineering projects worth 5 million Swiss francs or more since 2021, for instance. As of 2025, in a move driven by the Federal Roads Office (FEDRO) and SBB, it will also become compulsory for infrastructure projects, including civil engineering. In recent years, building SMART International (bSI), an international non-governmental non-profit organisation, has developed a service that collects BIM use cases and makes them openly accessible. What is missing though, is a description of the underlying processes: Showcases alone do not equip people to use the methodology. Even though there are numerous possible applications along the entire value chain that could encourage digitalisation and automation in the construction sector, there is not yet very much acceptance among the players.
BIM can only develop its full potential if there is a guaranteed flow of standardised, machine-readable information between all players along the value chain. That would lead to increased efficiency, cost transparency, cost savings, bigger margins, shorter construction times, higher quality and improved sustainability, but also lower error rates in the construction sector. This could also be beneficial to society. In addition, BIM could create an incentive to invest larger amounts in research and development (R&D), although this may be difficult in a sector with little affinity for research. Thanks to end-to-end digitalisation, every newly built structure would not be a prototype, but a data source, the use of which would yield greater added value.
The construction industry in Switzerland is highly fragmented and the numerous players along the value chain have a silo mentality. In conventional planning and construction processes, the first step is to determine what is to be planned, the next is to clarify how to make it a reality, and only at the end is it decided who will carry out the planned work. The know-how of the companies doing the actual implementation only comes into the process at a late stage, when there is no longer much scope for taking it on board without making major adjustments to the project. Integrated project delivery (IPD) could be the answer and BIM must be part of this comprehensive solution. IPD is a collaborative construction-project-delivery method, in which all relevant factors, such as people, systems, structures and processes, are included from the very start. All participants have all the information and work together to achieve their shared goal. IPD is a methodology that encompasses BIM, which is an essential tool for collecting and handling the data. IPD and (accordingly) BIM represent a cultural change, with which to overcome the fragmentation and silo-thinking that exist between planning and realisation processes. However, this requires a shift in the mindset of the conservative construction sector. Just as importantly, the education sector must also offer new courses of study and be open to change.
One national challenge is that virtually all players have their own data formats, standards and implementation tools. On one hand, this means information gets lost during communication between players, and on the other hand, it makes the work of designers and the training of their staff more difficult. With regard to data formats and standards, Switzerland would be well advised to actively participate in international developments and to align itself more closely on the European level. Federalism, with its inconsistent regulations, is more of a hindrance here than an asset.
In Switzerland, there is no funding scheme for a holistic approach encompassing the entire sector. In addition, Swiss researchers have little chance of successful involvement in highly lucrative European calls for proposals owing to Switzerland’s status as a non-associated third country. Furthermore, the construction industry does not have a strong political lobby, which is why it was not mentioned in the Digital Switzerland Strategy – and will only be included in the next edition now that interventions have been made. A clear commitment is needed on a political level. Legislation should also be adapted. At the same time, the overriding importance of cybersecurity for cloud-based working of the type required by BIM must not be forgotten.