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Darwinian moment

Richard Saxon

The UK could take a world lead in the use of BIM, says Richard Saxon, creating a very different construction industry. What would it mean for the rest of the team?

The arrival of Level 2 BIM as a national standard brings with it valuable growth potential, in domestic and export markets. It also challenges the business models of all players in the built environment industry, bringing both threats and opportunities. This is a Darwinian moment for everyone involved: those who can adapt best will prosper.

My report, Growth through BIM, for the department of Business, Innovation and Skills, suggests the UK has a remarkable opportunity to be a leader of the world uptake of BIM, to the great advantage of our professionals. Object modelling in construction has evolved slowly over the last 20 years, unable to emulate its rapid penetration of the manufacturing industry. Construction the stability of engineering teams which allowed continuously improving digital practice to conquer the car, aircraft and shipbuilding industries in the 1990s. Interoperability of the many softwares used in construction still looks a distant prospect. 

But now the British government, in deciding to mandate the use of Level 2 BIM for its projects by 2016, has set up the tools to overcome most of the barriers. It has made itself a dominant buyer, defined an intermediate level of BIM which avoids the major commercial challenges that BIM can raise and has set down the standards for working with it. 

Overseas reaction to the UK initiative has been very positive. The UK is seen to have moved ahead of other countries in the theory and practice of BIM; the gate is open for the UK to lead the worldwide adoption and extension of its approach and for UK professionals to win international work using these advanced tools to give advanced service. It gives our key draft standard, PAS 1192-2, potential to become the ISO Standard for BIM procedure. Other British Standards need to be made more acceptable worldwide to maximise the benefit to our ways of working, and BSI and UKTI are alive to this challenge. British professionals need to work through the BIM learning curve with their team partners so they can offer clients the greater speed, higher quality of service and more competitive costs that are enabled.

All change

Architects are far from the only profession challenged by BIM: the entire ecosystem of the built environment changes with it. Each player’s response to change alters the potential for the others. Let us look at four key groups: cost consultants, building services engineers, regulators and tier one contractors.

Cost consultants invented themselves in the 19th century as quantity surveyors, but 5D BIM has superseded that function entirely and the role is morphing into whole-life value management. Surveyors will need to amass benchmarking, value and cost-in-use data as they now hold capital cost data, arming them to help designers allocate resources well. Carbon accounting can be run as a subset of costing. Asset value for clients will be core business for cost consultants. The design process will be supported by BIM applications giving continuous cost and carbon measurements as designs evolve, so surveyors will concentrate on strategic advice and supplier liaison.

One boon will be to make so-called value engineering honest. The present rough approach to hitting capital expenditure targets usually reduces client value and performance while pushing costs into operational expenditure, all usually done in ignorance. Data-driven practice will make it all transparent and informed.

Building services engineers have a growing role in the BIM era. Previously they often struggled to provide satisfactory outcomes in a split profession: part consultants, part trade designers and suppliers. Operation of buildings has been the poor relation, with the ‘performance gap’ between design and outcome a standing reproach. 

Extended scope

The government’s decision to include Soft Landings in the BIM mandate transforms the scope of the profession. The front end role expands to include the operational brief; conceptual design for low carbon outcomes will be emphasised, and commissioning, handover and operational services will fall under the spotlight. BIM tools will eventually help at each stage. Services engineers still worry that the government approach is not sufficiently geared to their needs, that architects’ models can’t be easily used for environmental simulation and that the tools available don’t yet allow consultants and trade suppliers to collaborate well. The Australians have made good progress on consultant-trade collaboration which can perhaps help us (see

‘Regulators, including town planners and health and safety professionals, have a radically changed world in prospect’

Regulators, including town planners and health and safety professionals, have a radically changed world in prospect. The planning profession is entering its second century facing the concept of smart cities run on digital models. Reviews are in progress to rationalise the several regulatory regimes affecting the built environment and to re-consider them in the light of BIM. In Singapore planning applications made in IFC BIM are processed by running them through a programme which either passes them or points up issues. This is because Singapore has a completely rule-based zoning and building regulation system. UK civil engineering already includes safety rules in road design software so that unsafe roads cannot be laid out. We could go that way too, but it is likely that our mix of technical and political judgements will persist. Some areas could be regulated by embedded applications, some by submission to a judging system and yet others by democratic process and human judgement. 

Main contractors, or Tier Ones as they are called in BIM documentation, are offered good news and bad news. Government Construction Strategy and BIM policy increase the client appeal of integrated teams led by contractors as their early involvement adds value. Stable, well run supply chains are favoured and opportunities are expanded. Risk is substantially reduced. The bad news is that the scope for profit-making from client changes and weaknesses in consultant information almost vanishes: good client decision processes are supported by BIM procedures and the software manages out design discrepancies. Tenders and final accounts will look alike, forcing honest bidding. Actually that is really good news as a team without the threat of claims is one which can collaborate better. 

While public and corporate clients may favour integrated design-build, developers are likely to involve contractors only after the years spent getting planning permission, pre-let tenants and funding. They may well offer contractors a very sharp set of tender documents with no wriggle room. The Argent approach, bringing in one of their framework of Tier Ones for a two stage tender, merges these methods.

‘Tier One contractors can exploit the fourth dimension of BIM to plan and rehearse sitework and logistics, shortening construction times’

Tier One contractors can exploit the fourth dimension of BIM to plan and rehearse sitework and logistics, shortening construction times. They can use more offsite fabrication, supported by BIM-driven automation, to further speed sitework, and make it safer and surprise-free. The dramatic speed with which the Leadenhall building (RSHP’s ‘Cheesegrater’) has risen  demonstrates the potential: Laing O’Rourke, the leading contractor exponent of BIM, cut the client’s expected cost and time of the project hugely. Laing O’Rourke had been investing in BIM for many years before demonstrating its new competitiveness. Others face the same challenge to realise fully the possible advantages; not only changing their own skills but bringing favoured suppliers into their way of working.

Advancing civilisation

The BIM-enabled world will evolve in surprising ways as well as predictable ones. Will more clients choose to be their own construction managers, now that risk can be so reduced? Will confident consultants offer design-build for the same reason? Will Integrated Project Insurance, when it’s proven, bring forward the ‘guaranteed building’? Will regulations just become apps, with regulators concentrating on policing sites and buildings in operation? Will carbon and BIM policies merge to give us a real whole-life design/build/operate context, with Capex and Opex on the same page? 

Philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead said: ‘Civilisation advances by extending the number of important operations we can perform without thinking about them.’ Is this Darwinian moment also advancing civilisation?

Growth through BIM is available free from

Richard Saxon CBE is a client adviser at Consultancy for the Built Environment, and on the CIC executive board


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