20. July 2023

BIM as a database:

Read more why the “I” in the buzzword matters for the construction site.

What you will learn today: 

  • The “I” in BIM is the most important and unifying factor in the acronym. 

  • BIM data is categorized into ‘graphical’ and ‘non-graphical’ data which conveys information about the 3D model. 

  • BIM data is inherently ‘structured data’ that can be represented in form of databases (rows, columns, tables) which is electronically processed and queried to provide specific information to users. 

  • Viewing BIM beyond a 3D model but as a database that enables constant, easy, and fast access to information during the construction process underscores its importance for the industry. 

What comes to your mind when thinking about BIM? Do you have a three-dimensional (3D) building model in front of your eyes? In our previous post, we mentioned that BIM is THE Buzzword of the construction industry. We explained in the end, BIM is all about the creation and use of information to enable connectivity between teams and make informed decisions during the entire lifecycle of a building[1]. Regardless of how you describe BIM — either as a ‘process’, ‘product’ or ‘management approach’ — the single most important and unifying factor we should all pay the closest attention to is the “I” in the acronym. 

In other words, we mean ‘INFORMATION’. 

Why the “I” in the buzzword matters

To understand why the “I” is the most important component of BIM, we need to look at some basics. In order not to confuse such a technically complicated topic, let us compare BIM to a motor vehicle. 

The Chassis, Frame, and Body is the 3D model we see on a screen. 

The Driver is the user interacting with the model and utilizing its information. 

The Engine is the data stored in the background of the model. 

To stay with the analogy, we could imagine a construction project as a ‘highway’ where the milestones are the various stages of the building lifecycle. Here, BIM serves as the vehicle to travel from one stage to another in the construction project. In essence, data serves as the engine that enables the driver (user) to maneuver the body (3D model) through different directions and speeds. It is the central nervous system that enables the different functionalities of BIM to work. Unfortunately, less attention was given to this aspect due to the overemphasis on the ‘graphical’ aspects of BIM. Just like the car analogy, we may be tempted to focus on the physical frame of a Ferrari or Porsche, but it is undeniable that without the engine the chassis is just a piece of metal sculptor. 

Therefore, the key questions you should be asking is: 

  • “What is data in relation to BIM?” 

  • “Why should we view BIM as a ‘database’?” 

  • “How does BIM data impact the construction process?” 

What is data in relation to BIM? 

Wikipedia defines data as a collection of discrete values that convey information, describing quantity, quality, fact, statistics, or other basic units of meaning. In other words, data is anything that provides us with information about a specific item. In the case of BIM, the data can be categorized according to graphical and non-graphical data[2]. 

The BIM Corner provides us with a clear description of the types of BIM data. It defines graphical data as anything we see on a screen that visually conveys information about the 3D model to the user. These include line thickness, line type (solid, dashed, dotted), color, annotations, layers, characters and symbols, and shape of the model. Graphical data allows us to visually distinguish between a house, bridge, or highway along with their different parts. 

Non-graphical data is all that cannot be visually identified from the 3D model. They are the physical properties that sits within the model that provides specific information about building components of the model. They include quantities, material, fire resistance, load bearing elements, manufacturer’s data, date of installation, and many more. 

Why should we view BIM as a ‘database’? 

Remember that we defined BIM as a ‘digital representation’ of the ‘physical properties’ of a building, road, bridge, or any other physical asset in the built environment. The question is what do you understand by the term ‘digital representation’? We did mention that data provides us with information about any specific item. While reflecting on the above-mentioned descriptions of BIM data, it is not difficult to see that digital representation is the ‘graphical and non-graphical data’, right? 

To further elaborate on how BIM can be viewed as a database, first we would like to relate it with a ‘data model’. According to Wikipedia, a data model is an abstract model that organizes elements of data and standardizes how they relate to one another and to the properties of real-world entities[3]. Thus, a data model may specify that the data element representing a building be composed of other elements (eg, walls, columns, beams, roof) and relationships (eg, location, spaces, storeys, orientation) which, in turn, provides a representation of its unique functionalities. In essence, it explicitly determines the structure of data. 

A data model of a ‘door’ can only be represented with the attributes of an entity with ‘frame’, ‘hardware’, ‘material’, ‘dimensions (height, width), and direction of swing. It also describes the door’s relationship with other building elements. That is, it cannot be free standing; It must be embedded within a ‘wall’ and not a ‘slab’; It can have a date of installation and cost; and so on. The data model is the core foundation of what makes BIM to function beyond just a visual 3D representation because it organizes information in a structured manner

Because BIM data is inherently structured, it can be represented in form of databases (rows, columns, tables) which can be processed and queried in a relational manner to provide specific information to users. Considering that a database is an organized collection of data that is stored and accessed electronically, it is clear to see that BIM models are simply databases of digital data of the building. [4]. 

How does BIM data impact the construction process?

The beauty of BIM as a ‘digital representation’, or simply, ‘a database’ of a building is that it provides permanent, easier, and faster access to all types of information during the construction process. In the past, information in construction was limited to drawings, schedules, and reports that were created and stored in paper format. As a consequence, information was much more difficult to organize, store, access, share, adapt, and interpret to provide meaningful insights into a construction project. Thinking of all the inherent challenges we find in the construction industry — i.e., delays, cost overruns, low productivity, and high environmental impact — it is not hard to connect it to a lack of adequate information management. This is more apparent at the execution phase where construction managers and foremen must painstakingly sort through lots of information and rely on their gut feeling. This is why BIM data is inherently important for a construction project. Apart from the fact that construction data can be stored electronically, all kinds of data (structured and unstructured) is linked together to 3D model to form a golden thread of data that can provide a complete audit trail throughout the lifecycle of a construction project. Having any point of data just clicks away would be transformational for the supply chain were every material, equipment, and personnel can be traced and monitored[5]. No wonder BIM is described as “the most disruptive digital instrument in the industry, subsuming all major contech trends.” 

Concluding Thoughts 

It should no longer be confusing on why the ‘I’ in BIM matters. Just like the analogy with the engine of a motor vehicle, it is what lies under the hood of a car that matters the most. Hopefully, we have been able to help you see BIM beyond the visual 3D model by providing enough emphasis on BIM as a database. As such, laying a good data foundation is the most important success factor in today’s data driven environment. It surely leads the way to the connected construction site of the future. This is why we at specter automation consider BIM data as the ‘holy grail’ of the construction industry. 

[1] “Introduction to BIM: Making sense of THE Buzzword.”, Specter automation Insights, July 14 2022, 

[2] “What is data? Introduction to Data Management in BIM.”, BIM Corner, July 13, 2022, 

[3] “Data model.”, Wikipedia, Retrieved August 12, 2022, 

[4] “Database.”, Wikipedia, Retrieved August 12, 2022 

[5] “The golden thread of data: What it means for contractors.”, pbctoday, February 11, 2022, 


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