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Ready, steady, BIM

Adrian Malleson

As 2016 approaches the possibilities for wide uptake of BIM are starting to become a reality

How can the design community – and beyond – get real value from BIM implementation? And how is BIM working, now, in practice? The first NBS RIBA BIM panel came to share insights. 

Giving expert views were Michael Goode, director and co-founder of Croft Goode Architects, David Shepherd, BIM manager at HOK; Sarah Davidson, director and head of R&D at international construction consultancy Gleeds; David Miller, owner of David Miller Architects; Adrian Dobson and Anne Dye, the RIBA’s director of practice and head of technical research respectively; and me, Adrian Malleson, head of research at RIBA Enterprises. 


People and BIM

With the government’s target date of Level 2 BIM for all centrally funded buildings by 2016 looming, there is an increase in BIM adoption across different practices and projects. The panel had diverse of experience in using BIM, from small projects in the north of England, to very large projects overseas.

Most simply, BIM is a collaborative working process for the creation and life of a building. Its sophisticated software can bring geometric and other data together in a useful and usable way. These are the BIM tools and they are a precondition for BIM practice. But, of course, BIM is not software, it’s a process.

The question now for many practices is how to get this collaborative working going. But organisations must answer this, not delegate it to post holder such as a BIM manager. The panel described the challenge as three layered: getting people who are willing and able to collaborate, using the tools to build the model, and having the information to meaningfully populate it (and make it useful for the life of a building). 

For BIM to become a norm, the community must undergo a number of transformations. Miller noted that we need to move away from ‘the tyranny of the BIM manager’. BIM cannot be just a top down compliance requirement but must come from the bottom up too, driven by clear benefit to practices. Return on investment needs to be seen.

Difficulties in getting ‘BIM ready’ people is countrywide: Goode had found this both in the north and London. So it might seem that training people to a high level of BIM competence is risky – they might quickly get poached. Miller put this in the context of broader practice management: ‘We have invested heavily in training for our staff in both processes and tools, and as our reputation grows we increasingly find we receive targeted applications from BIM-literate applicants who want to work for us because they know we have fully adopted the system.’ 

But in any case, training always needs to take place, for one design process or another. The cost of BIM training is in the initial shift, in reskilling, not in the ongoing training cost. 

Architectural schools have a place here. Davidson suggested there is a ‘lack of dialogue between education and practice about BIM skill requirements’. We need architectural schools to teach BIM tool use, but in a collaborative context. Shepherd noted it’s a mistake to think tool training is BIM training: ‘Training should focus on collaborative scenarios – once you get that, you get BIM.’

A baseline of how to collaborate in 3D needs to be taught, with electives on more specialised areas. But again, this isn’t about software but process, tools and upskilling.

This doesn’t play down what young professionals can offer. ‘Young people amaze me’ said one panel member. At Part I or II, fresh from campus, they can get frustrated with BIM processes and tools. But during their placement year they can ‘really get it’. These are digital natives, who grew up with dispersed, technology based, collaboration. As the leaders of our digital culture, they may be the ones to release the full potential of BIM. 


The future of practice

The panel discussed the changing make up of creative industries. It’s not untypical, for example, for an advertising agency to have up to a third of its payroll made up of data analysts and computer coders. Data aggregation, manipulation and interpretation is giving the commercial edge that the ‘creative’ once provided. We can envisage architecture going the same way – and there will be real opportunities for the data literate here.

This isn’t the end of creativity, but rather than individuals working alone we will see innovative buildings created by strongly collaborative teams. These will have their own specialisms and skills and will come together to efficiently create a building that meets the clients’ needs and aspirations. If this vision is right, then instead of a few large construction monoliths, diverse vibrant SMEs will work together on projects of all sizes.

What does this mean for tier one contractors? One view is that only the large contractors have the capital and skills to transform the construction supply chain. Alternatively, if Tier 1 contractors are primarily there to package up risk and push it down the supply chain, then a well-functioning, established collaborative process will make them redundant. As Miller speculated; ‘This could be the end of the tier one contractor as we know it. If collaboration can come directly from the supply chain why do you need that layer?’

The panel noted a widespread perception that BIM was not for smaller and medium sized business. The reasons for this included a perceived lack of client demand and concern over the capital cost of getting ‘BIM ready’. Yet at times of intense innovative change, it is typically larger, more established companies that struggle to adapt and the smaller companies that are best at innovation and change. 


What’s holding it back?

The panel identified a number of factors that are impeding BIM adoption, including contractual arrangements which are not always conducive to collaborative working. 

BIM is yet to permeate the breadth of work types. Civil and services engineering are behind, and BIM is yet to flow down the whole construction team. Many designers are becoming adept in BIM, as are an increasing number of tier one contractors. But tier two and three contractors still can’t often can’t use, let alone contribute to, the information in a BIM. The focus on and process for reducing capital costs – including by government – can be a problem. Miller described how the culture of re-tendering at different points of procurement blocks integration which can negate some of the benefits of BIM.

Lowest capital cost buildings rarely give best life time value. Much of the benefit of BIM will come through its use in soft landings, in BIM being the vehicle for improved building maintenance and performance, and in the learnings from Stage 7 coming back to inform Stage 0 of the next project. 

Why, for example, can’t the construction industry sell on the lifetime costs of what it produces, like airline manufacturers do? Well, their clients, the airlines, are extremely well educated. We have few such well-informed clients. The government, for instance, often has separate procurement and asset management departments. And designers and contractors don’t control the supply chain, as sophisticated manufacturers do.


Government’s role

The panel agreed the UK is in a good position. BIM has a clear leader, the government. Davidson noted that this fits into a broader agenda, Government Soft Landings; BIM is just part of a larger picture that will transform how we design and maintain buildings. 

The government’s 2016 mandate that all centrally funded projects will require level 2 BIM by 2016 gives the industry as a whole the impetus it needs. As Davidson put it; ‘if you can make it work for one type of client, why not offer it to others?’

Local authorities however, particularly given the capital costs of BIM, are off to a slower start. But there is real progress. Shepherd observed that public sector take-off is happening. It is patchier with local authorities, but there are successes. 

The government has to see through this commitment, though. The panel didn’t want to see the mandate dropped as the deadline approaches and difficulties become acute. This risk may be less because the BIM mandate offers demonstrable benefit to contractors and clients as well as the design team. It will be in the client’s interest to demand BIM. As Shepherd said, ‘The government essentially has a push-pull strategy; clients will ultimately decide the benefits they want.’ 


Looking ahead

To the panel the question was no longer if but when. There are real issues in BIM adoption, but the overall impression is that the next few years, as we begin to realise the government’s BIM requirement, can be exciting for architects and practices. In the words of Goode: ‘BIM is putting architects back in the room.  The impact we have as the developer of the BIM model can be of huge value to the profession.’ 

Lynda Thompson, researcher at RIBA Enterprises, facilitated the discussions


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