Where is BIM taking us?

A recent study tour of London by Danish practice Arkitema highlights some of the ways BIM is affecting practice

Arkitema Architects used BIM to design the new 125,000m2 acute care hospital in Goedstrup.
Arkitema Architects used BIM to design the new 125,000m2 acute care hospital in Goedstrup.

OK. We get it. BIM is not a thing. It’s a process. It improves outcomes for everyone involved by reducing risk and waste, increasing efficiency, and speeding up procurement. Clients get a better deal. And according to the latest NBS BIM survey, it has gone mainstream.

But where is it taking us? To the rolling-eyed soothsayers of nerd-dom, it opens up tantalizing visions of joined-up virtuous spirals of digitally enabled assets propping up the circular economy. And in the crystal ball of architectural practice, it hints at the dismantling of professional boundaries and dissolving long-established ways of doing. So it’s worth looking into.

Hence the recent fact-finding mission to London by large Danish practice Arkitema, which is based in Aarhus. It wanted to find out about the technical aspects of BIM implementation in the UK and its consequences for business. It predicts that technological progress in construction will create entirely new building types, and is looking forward to designing them. Unsurprisingly, it sees BIM as one of the key tools for getting there.

Arkitema’s timing is good. Although BIM adoption across the UK is still patchy, more than half of architects claim to be aware of it or currently using it. In other words, practices are beginning to accept BIM as the new normal. The Government’s four-year lead-in to the BIM Level 2 mandate – in force since April this year – allowed just enough time to adapt, and for the software to keep up.

It’s still early days, but all that promise seems to be bearing fruit. Maybe the UK was late to the party, but its transparent roadmap, RIBA BIM Overlay and NBS BIM Toolkit have led it to the forefront of BIM sophistication internationally. The leadership continues in the government’s Digital Built Strategy.

Architects in Denmark have had a bumpier ride. BIM was mandated more or less overnight for state projects way back in 2007, throwing the industry in at the deep end. There was very little supporting methodology, standards, protocols, guidance, competence or, indeed, tech. The angst was ramped up further since most clients required quantities were to be extracted from the federated model, a stage well beyond Level 2.

  • Lord's Media Centre refit by David Miller Architects.
    Lord's Media Centre refit by David Miller Architects.

Ulrik Dybro, chief operating officer and production director at Arkitema, remembers it as a tough time. ‘An efficient BIM workflow took us much longer than expected,’ he says. ‘We struggled with early versions of Revit between 2007 and 2010. Revit were still refining their software. It was hard on our staff and, worse, our output lacked the finesse we were used to.’ 

The tight-knit Aarhus architect community responded by closing ranks. Arkitema hooked up with six other practices to form BIM7AA, an evolving collaboration that now sees these rival practices sharing resources. Despite being nominally in competition, they have found a way to work together to cope with the BIM assault.

The extent of the collaboration is extraordinary. They meet regularly to share knowledge, experience and insight, and are there for each other on live projects. They go so far as to lend each other employees, often informally, as workloads allow. The understanding is that the favour will be returned at some time. It’s an enlightened set-up and it works.

Arkitema is now at the vanguard of BIM practice, and enthusiastically appraising options to plot its digital future. It has trained up, gained experience and competence and now works routinely at a high contractual level, allowing the practice to undertake impressive public projects such as the 50,000m2 Skejby Psychiatric Hospital, currently on site.

While there has been an explosion of BIM interest groups in the UK, it has been at one or other of the major software publishers’ altars – rarely with business rivals, and not to the extent of casually lending labour for rivals’ commercial projects.

David Wood is BIM manager at Chapman Taylor, one of the practices that hosted Arkitema. He’s very active in the Revit users group and, although sceptical, is not averse to collaboration at the Danes’ level. ‘BIM is still at an early stage. We have as much to learn as we have to give away.’

Marcus Earnshaw, HLM associate director and another of Arkitema’s hosts, is equally open to the idea. To him, production expertise is not the same as intellectual property, and so architects have nothing to lose. In fact, as an office run on ArchiCAD, the less common of the two main BIM softwares, HLM makes a point of sharing its interoperability troubleshooting skills with wider project teams. It has between 15 and 20 Revit licences across its offices.

  • Point cloud scanning was the starting point for a BIM enabled refurbishment of Anstey Hall Barns by David Miller Architects.
    Point cloud scanning was the starting point for a BIM enabled refurbishment of Anstey Hall Barns by David Miller Architects.
  • Anstey Hall Barns, by David Miller Architects.
    Anstey Hall Barns, by David Miller Architects.

While there were no firm conclusions about the route ahead, the Arkitema team have squirrelled away plenty of food for thought from their whistle-stop study tour.

They were struck by HLM’s approach to interoperability issues, which is not only to accept it as inevitable but make a virtue of being the ones who can fix it. Marianne Friis, head of BIM management at Arkitema, was impressed by HLM’s flexible capability to allow its geographically remote offices to work together on the same project at the same time on one platform. They found reassuring echoes of their own forward strategy of spinning off differently branded consultancy expertise as distinct business offers. Diversification, especially when it is cross-disciplinary, could be an important stepping stone through the maelstrom of digitalisation.

They admired Chapman Taylor’s route to BIM fluency. Central to its story is a sophisticated Toyota-style continuous learning feedback system for project management and incremental improvement. As David Wood says, ‘BIM is not a quicker way of doing things, but it is the right way. Even at an early stage, the integrated model is worth it.’

  • Using the model of Lord's Media Centre at David Miller Architects.
    Using the model of Lord's Media Centre at David Miller Architects.

David Miller Architects was the last of Arkitema’s pitstops. It had a different take on the BIM implementation. Growing his micro-business of four people to over 20 today on the back of BIM, Miller points to easier change management as the main reason they have punched above their weight. Friis was most impressed with his practice’s use of point cloud scanning as the starting point for a BIM-enabled Anstey Hall Barns refurbishment project. She also loved his BIM-lite rapid 3D modelling workstreams to help clients with options in development appraisals.

For Arkitema, niggles remain. Denmark has no equivalent of the CIC BIM Protocol, the UK’s contract bolt-on that addresses liability issues. Data loss and responsibility for the asset information model are headaches that have not gone away. The practice also worries about BIM’s propensity to distance the architect from practical experience. Friis says: ‘We encourage younger digital natives, but their focus on tech at the expense of what is built might eventually become problematic.’

On the whole, though, Arkitema’s outlook remains optimistic. It’s clear that there are a number of profitable business models in the evolving world of BIM. The lessons from London will be absorbed to suit Arkitema’s circumstances, ultimately using digital data to improve the quality and sustainability of all it does.