Structural BIM: a start point for SMEs

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CSC’s BIM expert, Kevin Lea, discusses why many SMEs (Small Medium Enterprises) have been slower to adopt BIM than large structural consulting firms, and explores how they can immediately benefit from Structural BIM

I am often confronted with the view that Building Information Modelling (BIM) is for large projects and is not applicable to the smaller projects typically undertaken by small-to-medium structural consulting firms. This is a misconception, there are huge benefits for an SME employing BIM even on small projects; the key to unlocking these benefits is to understand what BIM can do for your business, and I strongly believe that ‘Structural BIM’ is the best place for an SME to start.

About the author

Kevin Lea, BIM business development manager at CSC, specialises in both structural design and BIM software. He has assisted many of CSC’s corporate clients such as Arup, Atkins, Buro Happold, Aecom, Ramboll, WSP, White Young Green to implement the latest structural BIM technology.

Jargon busting

For structural engineers BIM essentially falls into two camps, External BIM and Internal or Structural BIM (also referred to occasionally as Big BIM and Little BIM). External BIM focuses on external communication with the client, architect and contractor. This has typically been adopted by larger consulting firms which have had an external driver — a client or contractor stipulating the use of BIM for collaboration. Smaller projects tend not to have BIM directives; hence there is a smaller driving force for BIM adoption by SMEs.

Structural BIM is where the structural engineer and the technician streamline the design process by sharing project data internally within the structural design office, synchronising the code-compliant design model produced by the engineer with the technician’s BIM model for project documentation. It is a less well-known concept but if executed well, an SME can immediately see huge productivity gains.

Better productivity

Despite requiring the same geometry, the design and BIM models are often created separately, doubling the workload and increasing the risk of errors. By using Structural BIM, the structural design office only needs to build one model, as the geometry in Autodesk Revit or Tekla Structures, for example, can be synchronised with design software, such as CSC’s Fastrak and Orion. Project amendments can be made in one place, maximising the use of the BIM data, which in turn, increases productivity by avoiding repetition and reduces the risk of errors.


As an example, McElroy Consulting Engineers & Project Managers, an Irish SME employing 22 staff, recently completed its first Structural BIM project where it synchronised its Fastrak design model with Autodesk Revit on a small project with relatively simple geometry.

McElroy found that the Structural BIM processes revolutionised how it approached designs as it was able to maintain a single set of BIM data throughout the project.

Will Norton, structural engineer at McElroy, said: “Historically we would have re-modelled the structure twice for each design change, once in Fastrak and again in Autodesk Revit, but with seamless synchronisation between the two software packages we were able to maintain a single model, sharing all the latest data.”

Like McElroy, I recommend using Structural BIM on a small project in the first instance — an SME can get to grips with understanding and implementing BIM without the pressure of delivering a big project to an external project team. Not only will it increase productivity internally within the organisation, it gives the design team time to learn the workflows that are essential for effective BIM synchronisation, while building confidence for tackling larger and more complex projects. Following this, it will be an easy transition to share BIM data externally with the rest of the project team, as the workflows are already in place.

Getting started

For SMEs with finite resource, the transition from a traditional approach to executing Structural BIM may at first be daunting but it need not be. It is best to start by identifying who will drive the strategy and implementation; consider what information needs to be produced and how it will be used. For instance, will BIM tools be used simply for drawing creation within the design office, or will it be shared externally, even downstream to a fabricator? This will help determine the level of data required, which BIM platforms are required and what workflows to use.

It is also important that a business considers how it wants to work with its clients so that clear expectations are set in relation to the sharing of BIM data and who is responsible for what.

An SME should review the BIM capabilities of its current structural design software; many packages already have integration capabilities with industry-standard BIM products like Autodesk Revit and Tekla Structures.

It is also worth exploring the training and consultancy services provided by software houses, as external support can help inspire confidence in understanding and implementing new BIM workflows.

Business benefit

Every day I see SMEs punching well above their weight by adopting Structural BIM for their own benefit. The streamlined processes afforded by Structural BIM enable SME businesses across the globe to tender for work faster and more efficiently, as well as compete for larger projects.


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