Glossary November 11, 2020
Updated 22 March 2023 by James Ocean

What is a BIM File Format? BIM vs. CAD.

Table of Contents

The history of CAD programs (computer-aided design) is relatively long, but it provides the ability to create detailed models in both 2D and 3D. Because of that, many companies have been relying on CAD software for years. However, with the rise of BIM (building information management) in recent years, many thought that the transition between the two would be as simple as converting the files from one format to another.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Since the differences between BIM and CAD extend far beyond the file formats, making the transition is much more complicated than just the data conversion process. Even the history of these two terms is completely different – and history is what we will start with.

History of BIM

The concept of BIM has existed as a technicality since the 1970s, around the same time that building modeling software tools started to appear. However, they were expensive and unsuitable for widespread use. The term “BIM” was first used in 1992 in a paper by F.P. Tolman and G.A. van Nederveen. BIM owes the beginning of its wave of popularity to Autodesk since the software company published a white paper titled “Building Information Modeling” in 2002.

Although BIM is not as old as CAD, it has always had its niche: architecture. BIM’s prime target audience is architects, as it provides advanced features and simplifies the entire design process. Other benefits of BIM are a consequence of its original purpose, and it has proven to work well. BIM’s popularity is growing, regularly influencing how construction projects are designed and executed.

History of CAD

cad image example #1

CAD has a much longer history than BIM, although there is no single event attributed to its creation. Two different events are often cited, one in 1957 and the other in 1960. In 1957, Dr. Patrick Hanratty released Pronto, the first programming system that used numerical control. Dr. Patrick is often referred to as “the father of CAD” because this event occurred earlier of the two. In 1960, Ivan Sutherland, an MIT student, created Sketchpad, the first program that allowed one to make technical drawings with a computer.

The debate about which event is the true origin of CAD is ongoing, but both contributed significantly to the industry and the creation of CAD software. CAD software continues to evolve and change today, with aerospace technology being just one example of how important CAD is for modern-day construction tasks. CAD has become a de facto standard for any form of engineering and is a job requirement for engineers.

CAD and BIM: the definition


Computer-aided design (CAD) refers to utilizing computer technology to create both design files and documentation. It’s often used for projects that require multiple different parts and components to fit seamlessly together. Both 2D and 3D models can be created using CAD, as the software has evolved throughout the past thirty years, making it easier and faster to work with more complex projects.

The widespread adoption of CAD software started quite a while ago. One of the first deciding factors was the long list of manufacturing guidelines from the automotive and aerospace industries that forced manufacturers to adapt their processes to keep up with the demand. This started about two decades ago, and now CAD is a requirement for the industrial market to be at least somewhat competitive with other players.

cad image example #2

Some of the most significant advantages of CAD as a standalone toolset, and without the BIM CAD comparison in mind, are presented below:

  • Easier communication – an easy way for different teams to communicate with each other about specific parts of a project and with the help of an existing 3D model.
  • Feedback and user input – the ability of CAD to take the most unusual concepts and turn them into a comprehensive design in three dimensions is a massive advantage at the design phase that cannot be ignored, allowing different teams and specialists to give feedback in their specific field of work.
  • Visualization – while there are many different specific advantages of this particular ability, the mere fact that an idea of a project can be visualized at the earliest stages of the project realization allows for a much more perspective and insight on the subject.
  • Structural engineering – CAD’s ability to offer specific capabilities for various industries allows it to be a highly versatile tool that can cover multiple different approaches to the subject of design and planning.
  • Comprehensive tools – CAD can offer a multitude of features that help with better project visualization and at the same time provide an unprecedented level of customization.

As with almost any existing technology or system, CAD also has its disadvantages – some of these might also be on the list of BIM CAD differences. For once, CAD is quite a resource-heavy technology, although it has been around for a while. One of the prerequisites for CAD is a cloud server inside the system, which makes the cost of implementing CAD far higher for more conservative companies.

Additionally, CAD software, despite all of its attempts towards user-friendliness, is still a relatively difficult software to get used to. There is a learning curve, and there is a training cost. This also limits the number of CAD experts in the field. Another problem of CAD is the disconnect with reality when it comes to assembling different parts – it can be done in CAD with ease, but in reality, these parts would have to be welded or fastened together, which is quite different from just connecting one detail to another in CAD software.

The vast majority of industries nowadays are still using CAD for a myriad of different purposes, including civil engineering, manufacturing, plant design, industrial, and so on. The most popular file formats when it comes to CAD are DXF, DWG, IGES, STEP, SAT, and more.


Building information management (BIM), on the other hand, is an entirely new process of collaboration between different parties to design and build a project using the same model from the same database. The extent of visualization that BIM offers allows departments to analyze and visualize various design choices, together and before the construction process begins in the first place.

Technically speaking, the Great Recession of 2008 was one of the biggest contributors to today’s widespread BIM adoption. It made many commercial building projects de-funded, and even more got put on indefinite hold, stopping the entire massive industry in its tracks. This was when AEC firms took the initiative and started reshaping their operational processes to include BIM as a new approach to design and construction with a lot of emphasis on collaboration. That kind of change also made other project participants update their approach to construction so that they could keep up with the amount of information that the AEC industry could now provide – while also reaping all of the other positives of BIM as a completely new approach to the construction process.

bim image example #1

One of the major advantages of BIM is that BIM files are capable of showing a digital representation of various would-be facilities with information-rich models, including electrical systems, HVAC, various aesthetical parts like windows and doors, and so on. The biggest cornerstone of BIM is collaboration, first and foremost.

Of course, there are other advantages that BIM can provide without the BIM CAD comparison in mind. For example:

  • Error spotting – analyzing the initial design with the help of different teams is far easier with BIM since it allows all of the various crews access to the same project design that everyone has.
  • A project as a process – BIM software presents the entire process of generating a building as a series of steps, allowing for different measurements and considerations to be done as early as possible to prevent the need to reconstruct the entire project.
  • Clash detection – on a more automated note, BIM can provide clash detection for multiple different materials and object types, down to the soil materials, roots, and rocks in the ground that might interfere with the project creation.
  • Beyond 3D – BIM solutions can include multiple dimensions of a project into a single working process, be it cost calculation, time constraints, thermal and acoustic properties, and more.

Like CAD, BIM has its share of shortcomings and issues. The most significant challenge is the lack of widespread adoption in the industry. Although BIM has become a more popular approach to construction in recent years, many companies still hesitate to adopt it. This reluctance can create unnecessary issues during inter-company interactions on any project.

At least part of this hesitation is understandable since BIM adoption can be expensive for companies that have never used it before. While the long-term benefits of BIM adoption are worth the investment, the one-time massive cost is a major deterrent for many companies.

Another potential issue for BIM adopters is the fact that it is not yet the industry standard. The lack of experts in the field of BIM, particularly when compared to older industries like CAD, makes it difficult to find BIM specialists to train personnel.


Of course, there would not be a BIM CAD comparison if one of them was perfect in every way. Even BIM has potential problems that may arise in the future – starting with the problem that each new technology has in any field: compatibility.

BIM is incredibly new and is relatively slow in being adopted by different companies. As such, there’s still no universal compatibility for all of the possible construction industry branches – even though there are efforts in that regard that are being made regularly.

Additionally, companies that have adopted BIM already might have some issues with describing specific concepts to other users that still mostly rely on older software or hardware. The number of experts in the BIM field is also relatively small, and the number of consultants available whenever anything goes wrong is even smaller.

Even though the definition of BIM as we know today happened fairly recently, there’s already a lot of demand from owners to provide an as-built BIM model at the end of the construction process – forcing companies to make the transition sooner rather than later.

bim image example #2

While CAD and BIM are different systems, it’s common for both to exist together. The relationship between the two is symbiotic since BIM needs a detailed model to work with, and CAD cannot provide as much information about every aspect of a model as BIM can. Almost every BIM software includes CAD tools, and most CAD software now has some BIM features, which has resulted in a close connection between the two systems. This connection is likely to become even closer in the future.

BIM vs. CAD file specifics

It’s not uncommon for CAD to be used for all kinds of industrial design of various assemblies, including smartphones, computers, vehicles, airplanes, and so on. BIM, on the other hand, is a more specific construction-related tool that’s often used to design and construct buildings, including schools, airports, offices, etc., but it’s quickly becoming the new industry standard in general.

Additional information included in these files allows for collision detection, problem discovery, and several other features that can ease the construction process as early as the design stage.

For example, knowing a specific part’s pressure ratings allows detecting the lack of the correct material for this particular part to handle that kind of pressure. Understandably, various characteristics of models, especially performance characteristics, take up a lot of space in the context of a CAD file and generally are deleted in the process of CAD-to-BIM conversion.

Another example of context-specific information is the behaviour of the actual components. A light fixture “knows” it’s supposed to be connected to an electrical system, an HVAC duct knows it needs to be installed within a wall, and so on. The ability of these components to adjust themselves in accordance with such information is what makes this example so useful.

A significant difference between CAD models and BIM is their adaptability. CAD models, more often than not, are only capable of presenting a highly detailed image of a model at a specific zoom level. BIM, on the other hand, is all about zooming in and out, expanding, contracting, and such. For this exact reason, the addition of a CAD model into a BIM system is bound to have some problems as soon as you need to zoom in or expand out.

CAD & BIM file formats and data types

The answer to the question “What is a BIM file?” is closely tied to the variety of different file formats that various BIM platforms can or cannot work with. It’s easier to digest by separating all of the formats into two groups: proprietary and non-proprietary.

Proprietary file formats are the ones that can only be read by a specific company’s software. Since the BIM software market is relatively big, there’s a lot of these different formats. Let’s go over some of the most popular ones so far:

  • NWD is the proprietary BIM format for Autodesk Navisworks, it can only be opened in either Navisworks Manage or Navisworks Freedom. Two file formats with similar meaning are NWC and NWF.
  • RVT is the proprietary format of the Autodesk Revit, also includes RTE and RFA file formats.
  • AutoCAD files are also in their own league with the DWG file format, but this one is also one of the most popular CAD file formats period, capable of being opened in the majority of CAD-based software appliances.

A popular myth about DWG format is that it can only work with 2D models. This, of course, is not true since 3D objects can also be contained in this format either via basic planes or using full components/blocks. There’s also DXF format (Drawing Interchange Format) that works with BIM drawings. It is similar to DWG but is somewhat larger yet it has the same level of interoperability with most CAD platforms.

Proprietary data formats in the industry are creating expected coordination problems when it comes to interacting with several different proprietary data formats. This problem can be solved by converting the file to one of the non-proprietory formats, using compatibility plugins, and so on.

Speaking of non-proprietary formats, these are vendor-neutral, often open-sourced, and developed via international community collaboration. A few examples of those are:

  • COBie (construction operation building information exchange) is a BIM format that allows the sharing of asset data, rather than geometric or graphical data. This one can be used to transfer documents through different project stages, from design to construction.
  • IFC (industry foundation classes) is the most popular non-proprietary BIM file format out there, supported by a lot of programs, including Revit, Navisworks, Allplan, BricsCAD, and so on. The problem is that this file format is read-only and not suitable for editing. Two file formats similar to IFC are ifcXML and ifcZIP, they are an XML file with the information from the IFC data file, and the compressed IFC file, respectively.

Another interesting topic related to CAD and BIM is data compatibility and conversion between the two. While it is technically possible to convert CAD files to BIM, it can result in partial or complete data loss, especially when working with advanced CAD files with rich data sets. To ensure the safest conversion, it is best to use software from the same developer. For example, Autodesk provides an easy conversion process from AutoCAD to Autodesk BIM 360 that does not result in any data loss from the original CAD model.

The future of BIM and CAD

Of course, these are not the only examples of different BIM file formats. However, this is a good example of a decent amount of variety between different file formats, and a competent information source about the differences between BIM and CAD systems, their files, and principles.

It’s easy to envision CAD and BIM continuing to develop alongside each other, incorporating more advanced technologies to streamline the design process. It’s possible that there may come a time when drafting a project from scratch is no longer necessary. Instead, a system could automatically pre-render several building options if it has information such as load capacity and optimal footprint.

Recent advancements in artificial intelligence, such as ChatGPT, make this kind of future more possible. Technological companies are currently competing to add AI to various parts of their products and services. For instance, the most recent version of ChatGPT (version 4) can operate with both text requests and pictures simultaneously. As a result, the idea of an AI that can provide a detailed CAD model of a building in seconds no longer seems far-fetched.

About the author
James Ocean

BIM/VDC Specialist. James Ocean is Head of BIMspiration at Revizto and keeps everything moving onwards and upwards. From supporting and teaching our internal team as well as our clients, James shows us the ins-and-outs and how to best leverage Revizto to maximize workflows, cut costs, and get all types of projects through the finish line.

BIM vs. CAD. BIM File Formats With BIM being a relatively new addition to the industry, there are still a lot of proprietary file formats, making it difficult to transfer data between different systems. In this case, CAD much easier to work with, but it’s an other system on its own. Find out more about the differences between BIM and CAD, and about the various BIM file formats, in this article. 2023-03-22
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