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The US National Building Information Model Standard Project Committee has the following definition:

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility. A BIM is a shared knowledge resource for information about a facility forming a reliable basis for decisions during its life-cycle; defined as existing from earliest conception to demolition

Traditional building design was largely reliant upon two-dimensional technical drawings (plans, elevations, sections, etc.). Building information modeling extends this beyond 3D, augmenting the three primary spatial dimensions (width, height and depth) with time as the fourth dimension (4D) and cost as the fifth (5D). BIM therefore covers more than just geometry. It also covers spatial relationships, light analysis, geographic information, and quantities and properties of building components (for example, manufacturers' details).

BIM involves representing a design as combinations of "objects" – vague and undefined, generic or product-specific, solid shapes or void-space oriented (like the shape of a room), that carry their geometry, relations and attributes. BIM design tools allow extraction of different views from a building model for drawing production and other uses. These different views are automatically consistent, being based on a single definition of each object instance. BIM software also defines objects parametrically; that is, the objects are defined as parameters and relations to other objects, so that if a related object is amended, dependent ones will automatically also change. Each model element can carry attributes for selecting and ordering them automatically, providing cost estimates as well as material tracking and ordering.

For the professionals involved in a project, BIM enables a virtual information model to be handed from the design team (architects, landscape architects, surveyors, civil, structural and building services engineers, etc.) to the main contractor and subcontractors and then on to the owner/operator; each professional adds discipline-specific data to the single shared model. This reduces information losses that traditionally occurred when a new team takes 'ownership' of the project, and provides more extensive information to owners of complex structures.
   
There is a common misconception that BIM means 3D design. In fact, it's much more. BIM is a process for creating and managing all of the information on a project – before, during and after construction. The output of this process is the Building Information Model, the digital description of every aspect of the built asset.