Crawling into the Future — The Slow Adaption of BIM in Germany’s Booming Construction Sector

07.01.2020 – Samuel Krist

It is the year 2020, January to be precise. At the end of the year, it will become mandatory for every new public infrastructure construction project of the German government to be carried out using Building Information Modelling (BIM).

In other words, you have to work with BIM to be able to apply for these tenders at all. More fields of the building industry will surely follow soon, first all parts of public building projects, eventually also all private building projects. It is only a question of time, that is clear. Too great are the possibilities of increasing efficiencies, reducing costs, of better overview and predictability, in order to let this possibility pass.

The German construction industry’s answer for this new possibility is — with some exceptions — a tired shrug of the shoulders. If you rummage through the depths of reporting, studies and surveys, you get the feeling that many don’t yet know what will hit them. This is how the opportunity becomes a threat.

What is written here is law

In order to start from scratch, we should clarify what BIM actually means. All deeper technical aspects aside (that are explained profoundly elsewhere), the whole thing can be broken down into a simple concept: A digital model that everyone is working on. Live and in real time, with up-to-date data, automatic calculations and 100% transparency. The architect designs here, the structural engineer as well, the construction company refers to it on site and in the office, just like all other stakeholders at any point. If a number is changed at one position, all relevant calculations change accordingly. What is written here is law.

This gives us a new planning certainty and overview to an unprecedented degree. It is no less than the overdue leap into the digital present, an impact that will later be compared with the transition from architectural hand drawings to CAD. At the end of the development stands a 5D model, which brings the dimensions cost and time into play in addition to 3D illustration, to calculate the costs of the complete life cycle of a building.

Germany lagging behind despite construction boom

The adaptation rate of BIM is currently still extremely uneven, with the Scandinavian countries and Great Britain leading the way in Europe. Years ago, comprehensive government BIM strategies were designed and implemented in those countries, forcing the construction industry to adapt to standards. In Germany, development is still lagging behind. Comprehensive binding standards are being sought in vain, there is a lack of training, further education and certificates. If one couples this with the full order books and the shortage of skilled workers in the industry that finds itself in the middle of a construction boom, it is not surprising that developments are creeping. Nobody wants to be the one investing in the wrong technologies, and the shoe doesn’t pinch enough. Not yet, at least.

Nobody wants to be the one investing in the wrong technologies.

In 2015, after several debacles, it went one step too far for the federal government. Disasters such as the Stuttgart 21 central station, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg and BER Airport on the outskirts of Berlin have made it abundantly clear what it means to have no overview of major construction sites. It is also no surprise that it is often building developers, in the case of public projects the state and thus ultimately the taxpayers, who take the financial beating.

On the other hand, the construction companies involved benefit time and again from incorrect calculations, poor planning and subsequent extensive reworking. This, too, is perhaps one reason why the implementation of the new technology is so slow: Many players are profiting too much from mediocrity and nepotism. The non-transparent trade relations between construction companies, manufacturers of building materials, craftsmen and the like, which have grown over decades and in which contracts are still sent by fax and orders are placed by telephone, are wonderfully suitable for siphoning off a little profit at every corner. Simply no one can keep track of them.

Looking ahead

Once the government’s requirements have been implemented, though, the technology will continue to assert itself in the private sector, especially in housing construction. While the zero to negative interest rate policy flushes money out of bank accounts and forces many investors to invest in “concrete gold”, cities are getting fuller and the demand for housing is growing. As a result, the purchase prices and construction costs of new homes are now exceeding their value and profit prospects.

However, houses are still being built and bought, as the resulting losses are apparently still lower than keeping money in the bank. So far, many large-scale landlords have tried to make up for these investments with horrendous rents, but resistance is on the rise. The strong opinions that political instruments, such as the rent freeze in Berlin, have raised, show how fragile the whole situation really is. And surely, this is only the beginning. In other cities, too, the cry for affordable rents and property is becoming louder and louder. Most citizens can no longer afford the ever rising cost involved in one of the most essential parts of their lives. The system will soon have reached its limits. The pop of another housing bubble is on the horizon, this time with Europe and Germany at its center.

One thing remains clear: Construction must become cheaper so that living spaces can become affordable again and therefore for the market to survive. The only solution to achieve sustainable profits for construction companies and investors in this antiquated business in the long term is to increase efficiency.

Who in the construction industry will win the race and be first in implementing BIM on a large scale?

So, let us ask the most important question: Who in the construction industry will win the race and be first in implementing BIM on a large scale?

The possibilities are already here.