Advocates of Building Information Modelling (BIM) have been telling everyone for several years now that BIM is the future.
Driving down costs
They have explained that these project information systems which contain all data gathered from conception through to operation can be used to save a fortune in construction and maintenance costs.
It is also claimed that these systems can also reduce waste and carbon emissions and cut down the time it takes to build projects in the first place.
But even the zealots acknowledged that early adoption of BIM faced some serious impediments, ranging from a lack of software functionality to an industry that seemed distinctly underwhelmed by the new developments.
But times are changing. Technology has come on in leaps and bounds and the growing popularity of BIM in international markets such as the US, Denmark and Finland, along with the much publicised cost savings, have given renewed impetus to the UK.
Publication of the government’s Construction Strategy in May, which says that use of BIM is to become a compulsory aspect of public procurement by 2016, has taken BIM to a new level of importance (NCE 9 June).
Mark Bew is head of the government’s BIM group and director of building information systems at URS Scott Wilson. He says that in practice this means that projects will need to become sophisticated enough to achieve what is known as BIM level two.
He explains: “A level two project would have a set of BIM models created by the various disciplines within the supply chain, so an architectural model, a structural model, a services model and maybe a construction model, which are all linked together in some way to provide a combined set of information to deliver the project and manage the project post occupancy.”
Bew says that this means simply creating models rather than drawings and as such does not represent a huge technical challenge.
“All you are doing is producing a model rather than a drawing. One of the things we are trying to make clear from a public services point of view is that this is not a big technical jump; it is quite a big cultural jump.”
A step too far?
For some, the requirement to use new technology and to share information has so far been a step too far.
“We need the entire project team to be contractually bound to share data − without that we haven’t got enough to work with,” says Malcolm Stagg, who leads the implementation of BIM for Skanska UK and is part of the Skanska global BIM expert group.
The firm is a leading adopter of BIM, making it compulsory on major projects from January 2009 following a three-month study ordered by group chief executive Johan Karlstrom.
“The feedback was very clearly that if you are not able to work this way then you won’t be competitive”
Malcolm Stagg, Skanska UK
“The feedback was very clearly that it is of benefit, it is significant and within a short period of time if you are not able to work this way then you won’t be competitive,” says Stagg.
Sharing the In practice, he says that although many companies are committed to using BIM on paper, they are using modelling systems to produce drawings and not sharing the information.
“You hear people saying “we want to work in a BIM way” and then we ask for a copy of their model and they say “no, but you can have the drawings”.
A solution is on its way, however. Bew says that the government’s BIM mobilisation team is currently developing modified clauses for the NEC3 suite of contracts. “The key thing is that we are going to procure consistently across the public sector.
“Ninety per cent of current construction procurement uses NEC3 and the contracts team has already started drafting the modified clauses. There will be no changes to the body of the NEC3 contract, just modification of the clauses, so there will be no massive rewrites,” says Bew.
“You really need that,” agrees Manchester City Council capital programme director John Lorimer.
The organisation has used BIM on three projects to date and Lorimer is a firm believer in the benefits.
“When BIM is working properly it will give us something that we can use to then manage the facility once it is completed. It is a big frustration for us that the industry is incapable of offering options and BIM enables options to be quickly and accurately demonstrated to us.”
Lorimer gives the £100M refurbishment of Manchester town hall and library as an example of simple BIM benefits.
“The library is a circular building; you imagine trying to draw a section through it. BIM can do it any way you like and that is phenomenal.”
Working in a different way
However, he concedes that development of BIM across the industry has not been without its challenges. “What I am picking up is that the people in the project teams are finding it really tough because it is a new tool it is demanding that they work in a different way.
“The individuals doing the day-to-day work have probably got to work a bit harder. That is where organisations like ours have a role in supporting the team and keep people going,” he says.
“You have to skill up an awful lot of people,” agrees Simon Rawlinson, head of strategic research at built asset consultant EC Harris. “But we have seen industry make these transformations before.
“We have seen people move universally to electronic information, we have seen businesses develop their own information standards. Now what we are looking to see is people align those a lot more effectively so that people can exchange information, which is one of the keys to BIM.”
A major challenge for all projects using BIM is the transferral of data between different software packages. “We may use different software from maybe more than five manufacturers on any one project,” says Stagg.
“You need to have a technology map. You have to really understand everything that is available on the market and explain what you are going to use, at what stage and who is going to use it, how you are going to exchange the data − all of that has to be nailed before you start.”
Answering the questions
The defunct British Standard BS1192, developed in the 1990s, has already been reworked as BS1190-2007 (NCE, 9 June). In essence, it sets out a disciplined procedure for the production and issuing of documents, specifying how they should be named, filed, referenced, styled, signed off and issued.
Bew explains that for BIM level two, projects will share data sets using a set of structured data known as “construction operations building information exchange” (COBie) that can be transported via a spreadsheet.
“We don’t know enough to answer all the questions yet, all we can do is start to articulate them”
Mark Bew, director of building information systems, URS Scott Wilson
“In an ideal world, in level three everything would be done online, but that is not where we are at,” he explains.
“At level two, we have defined a fairly simple data set named COBie and they are in effect a stepping stone to level three.”
Although level two is compulsory, Bew expects leading edge firms to be straying into level three territory within the next five years, but he acknowledges that there are a lot of issues to be resolved before level three can become the norm for public projects.
“We don’t know enough to answer all the questions yet, all we can do is start to articulate them,” he says. “What we do know is that it will bring opportunities and challenges.”
The BIM challenges for industry today are numerous, from getting to grips with the various software options to understanding more about how projects will be built at an earlier stage, but clients both public and private are increasingly aware of its potential.
“I think the big hurdle is industry sharing knowledge and actually getting down and doing it. It is going to happen. So let’s share and learn quick,” says Lorimer.
“Those who understand where this is going are going to do very well and those that don’t are going to find themselves in the horse and cart age.”
But he says that under phase two of the government strategy it will indeed become so.
“We don’t know enough to answer all the questions yet, all we can do is start to articulate them,” he says.
“What we do know is that it will bring opportunities and challenges.”