Government efficiency mandarins this week fired a wake-up call at the construction industry with news that from 2016 building information modelling (BIM) will be used for every single publicly funded building and infrastructure project. The move is a core part of the new Government Construction Strategy.
It’s a tall order, given that take-up to date has been less than overwhelming.
Last month chief construction advisor Paul Morrell said that firms who failed to adopt BIM risked being “Betamaxed out” of existence.
Morrell was speaking at an event convened by Riba commercial arm NBS after an industry-wide survey revealed alarming ignorance over BIM. NBS’s survey found that just 13% of those working in the industry were aware of BIM and currently using it. More than four in 10 had never heard of it.
BIM systems allow different designers’ work to be brought together in a 3D model, visualisations help planning and sequencing and detect clashes, and increasingly to add in a cost line to the sequences.
The new Government Construction Strategy, published last week, puts it at the heart of plans to make the industry 20% more efficient than it currently is by the end of this Parliament.
Significant new initiatives, such as making contractors responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of what they build for up to five years after completion, hinge on BIM and its potential to connect design and construction to asset management.
The Cabinet Office has demanded that trials on the new initiative will begin by next summer, by which time the government has pledged to have defined expected standards for BIM and set out a number of trial projects that will use BIM models.
Can the industry step up to the challenge? “At the industry’s leading edge, there are companies which have the capability of working in a fully collaborative 3D environment, so that all of those involved in a project are working on a shared platform with reduced transaction costs and less opportunity for error; but construction has generally lagged behind other industries in the adoption of the full potential offered by digital technology,” says the Construction Strategy.
The strategy accepts that a lack of compatible systems, standards and protocols, and the differing requirements of clients and lead designers, have inhibited widespread adoption of the technology.
But so too have more pragmatic issues – such as the cost of investing in expensive software and training people to use it – getting just one person kitted out and trained up in BIM is estimated to cost around £10,000.
In a world in which some small businesses still do not have an internet connection, or with businesses who have considerable sunk investment in legacy systems, which may not be appropriate to future ways of working, there are clearly barriers to the rapid adoption of BIM right across the industry.
Software giant Bentley is working with Crossrail to crack the standardisation issue, and others are pushing ahead with the technology. Mott MacDonald is working with Autodesk to use BIM on the Presidio Parkway mega project in California and, closer to home, with Bentley on London’s Victoria station upgrade. Atkins too has used Autodesk’s BIM solutions to great effect on the M25 widening DBFO to eliminate clashes.
Indeed, Autodesk’s own survey – albeit of delegates at its own user conferences in London, Munich and Milan towards the end of last year – found that the vast majority of firms expected to be using BIM by 2013.
Of those polled, 60% in the UK, 57% in Germany and 55% in Italy were already using BIM methods. But of those respondents not already using BIM, 82% in the UK, 85% in Germany and 42% in Italy expect to do so within the next two years.
The majority of those polled in the survey thought that the recent economic downturn had been a major catalyst for change within the industry (70% in the UK and 51% in both Italy and Germany).
“Those surveyed in all three countries agreed that the take-up of BIM was a natural progression for the industry following concerns over waste and inefficiencies and the need for more sustainable design,” says Auotdesk senior director Pete Baxter.
Baxter may be right, but many firms in financially tough times may not have the luxury of making such naturally progressive choices.
As NBS head of BIM Stephen Hamil put it earlier this year: “What this may leave us with is a two-tier construction industry, where there is a real chance of many companies being left behind.”
No-one would want to be in that position.