Just a few years ago, "BIM" was just an acronym that meant little to most U.K. construction professionals.

Now, building information modeling is the subject of increasingly crowded conferences up and down the country. What made the digital system such a hot topic is a U.K. government mandate saying that, by 2016, collaborative 3D BIM be deployed, with all project and asset information, documentation and data being electronic, on all centrally funded projects of any value.

As a result, BIM is now "on the tip of everyone's tongue," says civil engineer Mark Bew. Since becoming chairman of the government's BIM Task Group in early 2011, Bew has made many presentations to audiences increasingly eager to understand their digital future. "To get where we are now is pretty good," adds Bew, saying the five-year BIM implementation plan is "aggressive but sensible."

The BIM mandate stems from the government's May 2011 "Construction Strategy" document, which aims to cut 20% from construction costs by 2015. A government analysis three years earlier had valued potential savings of BIM on major projects alone at up to $3.9 billion a year, not counting post-construction.

As well as capturing data electronically to improve the delivery and long-term management of its assets, the government sees BIM as a means of enhancing the U.K. construction industry's efficiency and boosting its global competitiveness.

And with the government accounting for some 40% of U.K. construction capital expenditures, the mandate has been a powerful incentive for even small firms to acquire Level-2 BIM skills, believes Bew.

The mandate includes milestones leading to the achievement by 2016 of "Level 2" BIM. This level is defined by the British specification PAS 1192-2:2013, which covers situations where most of the graphical and non-graphical data and documents from design and construction activities are accumulated. Level 2 includes 3D computer modeling of buildings or civil engineering works in which all the project information is held electronically for long-term asset management.

British engineering groups have adapted the U.S. Corps of Engineers' Construction Operations Building Information Exchange, using spreadsheets to share data in order to meet the standard.

When the U.K. started to promote BIM, "there were very few [documents] about data management," says Bew. "Between February and the middle of next year, we will have seven documents that almost completely cover the standards required. It's been really important to take the time to work with the industry."

A major BIM driver in the U.K. has been London's current $23-billion Crossrail project, says Neville Glanville, the building-industry sales director of Bentley Systems (U.K.) Ltd., a major provider of BIM software tools. "The whole premise of that project was to get the design team and construction team to operate in BIM methodology to deliver [asset information] to the client," he adds.

"I'm pretty confident Level-2 BIM can be achieved, and that 2016, as a line in the sand, is admirable," says Glanville. He forecasts 50% to 70% growth in Bentley's U.K. sales in the sector, with contractors providing the greatest opportunities. "I adjusted my team three years ago to focus on that sector," he adds.

While contractors offer the best pickings, designers are among the U.K.'s most seasoned BIM users. "We have been doing 3D [modeling] for probably 15 years," says Michael Beaven, a director of the architect-engineer Arup Associates, London. "Now, all our projects have a component of BIM to the degree that the client wants. We are committed to doing every project using a BIM platform."

The 300-person firm PRP Architects, London, has trained 70% of its production staff in BIM workflows, says associate Darryl Store. "BIM skills are not widely available," he says. "It gives us an additional competitive advantage."

The rising importance of digital modeling also is enhancing the job prospects of technicians, potentially at the expense of professional engineers. "You have to understand design and the digital world," says Beaven. "It's breaking down the division between designers and technicians."

Mott MacDonald Group's BIM champion agrees. "Some of our technicians are very, very good at managing models," says Richard Shennan, a division director. A slight problem, he adds, are the engineers who think they don't need those skills.

London-based Balfour Beatty Construction Services Ltd. (BBCS) is well into its deployment of BIM tools. "We're not doing it just because the government says we have to—it's the way to go," says Peter Trebilcock, BBCS design director. He saw the value of BIM collaboration when he visited, in 2008, the contractor's U.S. and Hong Kong subsidiaries. "I came back with eyes open," he says. "But it wasn't till I canvassed our supply-chain members about their [BIM] readiness that I recommended to the board that we were ready."

BBCS's design-build contract to deliver Heathrow Airport's 520-meter-long Terminal 2B, with 16 aircraft gates, is its largest BIM application. Next year, the company is due to complete the $912-million second, final phase contract on the project.

"We used [BIM] in nearly all our planning sessions," says Andrew James, BBCS' Terminal 2B construction chief. BIM helped the firm save $16 million by optimizing construction methods for the 360-m-long, 15-m-deep basement.

"We really started embracing BIM on Terminal 2B. We've tried to spread it back into business. It has become more prevalent in our bids," says Scott Kerr, BBCS's principle BIM integrator. "To some degree, we've dragged some of the supply chain with us," adds John Keaveney, the company's aviation business director.

On the public-sector side, the government's planned London-to-Birmingham high-speed-rail project will capture "more data than any other infrastructure to date," says Jon Kerbey, head of management systems at the project's development company High Speed Two Ltd. (HS2), London. "BIM is very high, if not top priority, on the agenda," says Kerbey. "BIM for HS2 is about focusing on the whole life of the asset."

Among private-sector owners, the U.K. subsidiary of the U.S. retailer Walmart Corp. will be operating at BIM Level 2 well before the government deadline, believes David Sibbitt, head of highways, utilities and civil engineering at the Asda grocery-store chain.

When, in 2006, Walmart told Asda management to become BIM-compliant, "a whole new world" opened, says Sibbitt. Two years later, Asda decided to work only with BIM-ready designers, but contractors' interest lagged. As recently as last year, "we found their lack of faith disturbing," says Sibbitt.

The U.K. "is seen as being a fast follower" behind Denmark and Singapore, says Steve Dunwell, the U.K. executive director for construction and engineering for database giant Oracle.

Bew feels the U.K. is well positioned in international BIM adoption. And Level-2 BIM is only the start. With targets for the next phase due to be announced early in 2014, "we move into the world of Level 3," he says.

The U.K. supply chain is not adopting BIM with uniform enthusiasm. Some firms are deterred by the investment, training and software needs, says Casey Rutland, an Arup associate. Trebilcock agrees that costs can be a burden for smaller firms.

Further, cultural hurdles can inhibit collaboration. Says Tom Loader, BBCS' BIM director for major projects, "It's quite common for people to feel reluctant to share work in progress."

"The challenge has nothing to do with technology," adds Huw Roberts, Bentley's vice president of core marketing. "It's having a fear of change—the notion that it is easier to stay in your comfort zone."