On 4 April 2016 the UK government made it mandatory for all suppliers working on centrally-procured construction projects to use Building Information Modelling to ‘Level 2’ maturity. By this it meant that any organisation wishing to tender to provide services for a national public sector commission (such as a hospital, MoD facility or transport building) would need to exchange design information collaboratively, using a 3D model and associated specification data, via standardized management and sharing methods.

Much has been written about what ‘BIM’ is, how to do it and what the benefits are;  but how has the industry responded in practice?  As the NBS publication of the 2016 edition of the National BIM Survey coincides with the deadline, this article takes a look at how the construction industry has actually responded to the government’s call to streamline and modernise.

A call to arms…

The primary objective of the Government Construction Strategy 2011 was to reduce the cost of construction. The manner in which this would be achieved was to reduce waste and inefficiency, through improved collaborative working between stakeholders. This collaboration was seen to be assisted by the use of Building Information Modelling. To this end, the target of Level 2 maturity was set as April 2016, with Level 3 being required five years later. These progressive increases in collaborative working are, in effect, lines in the sand designed to help the industry move forward in a coherent and progressive manner. After all, those who have been working in the construction industry for any length of time will be only too aware that attempting to modernize traditional working practices is like trying to turn the proverbial oil tanker around.

However, like any event in history, it is best seen in the context of time; and in this sense can be seen as the latest set of footsteps in what has been a lengthy process.  Indeed, the Government Construction Strategy cited both Sir Michael Latham’s and Sir John Egan’s reports (Constructing The Team, 1994 and Rethinking Construction, 1998, respectively). So perhaps the real question is: 20 years on, are we any nearer to a truly collaborative industry?

Latham’s executive summary listed a set of recommendations, including, at point 7, the “use of Coordinated Project Information should be a contractual requirement”. Interestingly, to continue the historical analysis, paragraph 4.9 of his report said that the CPI initiative arose from work undertaken by the Building Research Establishment in the 1970s. He also noted in point 9 of the summary that “endlessly refining existing conditions of contract will not solve adversarial problems”, explaining also in paragraph 4.3 that “there must be integration of the work of designers and specialists”.

Such sentiments and initiatives still ring true today; indeed, what is BIM if not integrated working between specialists? Hand in hand with the development of tools, processes and standards, has been the development of contracts that can cater for the hazards of shared design responsibility and ownership. So as this latest line in the sand is crossed, how has the industry responded?

…the industry mobilises…

Few can have failed to notice the amount of talk about BIM in the construction press over the last few years. While at times it may have felt like overload, it can’t be denied that there has been a significant amount of work to do in order to move the industry from the 2D, siloed ways of the past into a new 3D, collaborative future. Perhaps not since the move from the drawing board to the workstation has there been such a sea-change experienced, only this time the process has been driven by the public rather than the private sector.

Yet it is to the industry’s credit that there has been so much information and assistance produced, to help practitioners gain an understanding of the new ways of working. And as the NBS’s annual BIM surveys clearly demonstrate, the adoption of BIM has grown year on year to a new peak in 2016.

As Richard Waterhouse wrote in his introduction to the National BIM Report 2016; “86% of respondents intend to have adopted BIM by this time next year”, but he also noted that “concerns remain” with a significant number “not clear on what they have to do to comply with the BIM mandate”. Moreover, “a quarter feeling they lack the skills and knowledge that they need” and scepticism of delivery is currently riding at 10%. So it could be said that as an industry in a race to change, it is more akin to a marathon than a sprint, with clear front runners ahead of the pack, and some inevitable stragglers at the back.

Echoing Latham’s themes, Waterhouse continues to observe that “as a collaborative practice, BIM requires a shared ownership of the design and construction process…with information pooled, rather than hoarded”; and “like BIM, the future is collaborative”. Yet over our 20-plus year odyssey, the changeover to BIM has been driven largely by designers and contractors so far, as Waterhouse notes: “other parts of the industry are behind”.

But there is cause for optimism, however, for those who have not yet taken the plunge.  For one thing, there is more help than ever available: indeed Mark Bew reported the announcement on 4 April of the launch of a new website to support the delivery of Level 2 BIM. The BIM Level 2 website contains a range of documents, guidance, tools (including the NBS BIM Toolkit externallink) and resources to support the industry in achieving compliance with this stage of maturity, as well as the core defining standards:

  • BS 1192:2007 + A2: 2016
  • BS 8536-1:2015
  • PAS 1192-2:2013
  • PAS 1192-3:2014
  • PAS 1192-4:2014
  • PAS 1192-5:2015

…life on the front line

Out in the trenches, the adoption rate (and extent) of BIM has been variable so far.  But one thing is clear: effective and sustained adoption needs a sense of purpose and drive; half-hearted or vague commitments won’t achieve anything. The National BIM Report 2016 notes that “effective collaboration requires the adoption and use of a shared set of standards”, but that there is still a “perceived lack of standardisation” within the industry. Also, BIM “requires changes in workflow practices and procedure”. Clearly then, there are still practitioners who either have not yet made the move, or who have bought CAD licence upgrades and think that this is all that they need to do.

The primary output of building design is communication: the conveying of a legible and accurate representation of the designer’s intent.  Aside from standardised working practices, diligence is equally important.  For one of the sources of waste is that of errors, inaccuracy or shoddy workmanship in the design and construction processes. 20 years after Latham called for CPI and partnering contracts, we are still employed in an industry still firmly embedded in a culture of mistrust and blame. Errors will ultimately be at their most damaging when they are converted into construction work, and the first question on every stakeholder’s lips is always “who is going to pay?”. The need for high standards of workmanship is as great as ever, and the individual is not going to be protected if they fail to utilise BIM working practices and methodologies conscientiously.

The future of BIM

As for the next steps forward, the UK government crossed the line in the sand in March with the announcement in the 2016 Budget of the development of BIM maturity Level 3 over the next five years. Coming before that, however, is the requirement for all government departments to be able to electronically validate BIM data from suppliers by 3rd October 2016. Meanwhile, the Digital Built Britain externallinkwebsite sets out the vision and roadmap for creating a mature digital economy for the built environment.  This includes “defining advanced standards, creating new commercial models and identifying technologies to transform our approach to social infrastructure development and construction”. This drive to enable the development of the smart city externallinkwithin the UK is underpinned by the Government’s commitment to developing BIM maturity Level 3.

So as the UK prepares to step beyond the Level 2 line in the sand and on towards Level 3, while the line of participants may be stretched out behind for some distance still, it is nevertheless reassuring to see that it is marching determinedly and resolutely forward. And whereas the current mandate relates specifically to central government-procured projects, it must not be forgotten that the best practice being championed today will gradually permeate into the private sector, gradually raising standards and efficiencies across the industry as a whole.

Useful links and references