by Anthony Lymath
The UK government’s mandated Level 2 BIM compliance across all public sector projects by April 2016 has now passed and the cynical observer could be forgiven for questioning the fuss. So much has been written since the Government Construction Strategy was published five years ago on the benefits of adopting a BIM approach - but little on the realities of taking an ostrich-like* approach. Here we consider the case of a hypothetical business as it tries to compete in an increasingly technology-reliant and collaborative marketplace…
Boardman, Irvine and Mallory, architects, is a medium-sized practice. They shrank from 28 staff before the recession to 14, but have now risen back to 21. The three partners are all in their early sixties and have been in partnership together since the late 1980s. None of them have ever learned to use CAD and still draw conceptual feasibility studies by hand. The partners’ main concern is the disposal of their business to enable them to retire and they are cautious about making new investments.They employ four associates all in their forties, who began their careers on the drawing board but migrated to 2D CAD during the late-1990s. One of the associates has attempted to learn to use 3D CAD via online training videos with moderate success and is keen for the business to invest in 3D CAD software. Meanwhile, two other associates ‘intend’ to learn as soon as they get the time; being conscious that this is the way that the construction industry seems to be heading. The fourth associate is more reticent, being cynical of the mandate and whether or not it will affect them. The remaining technical staff range in age and experience, including seven recently-qualified architectural assistants and technologists, all of whom have learned to use 3D CAD during their training. The practice has work in the residential and commercial sectors with a core of regular clients, but would like to diversify into other areas in order to be more financially resilient in future. Most of their workload is constructed via design and build procurement.
Although the practice’s workload has picked up in recent months, fee levels are generally being held at pre-recession levels. Cash flow is still very tight, and is being compounded by the need to offer higher salaries to new employees. At the monthly partners’ and associates’ meeting, mention is made of the fact that Level 2 BIM is now required for government projects, together with the suggestion that perhaps the practice should look into moving to 3D CAD before they’re left behind. The idea is dismissed at present, on the grounds that none of the practice’s current workload or clients is public sector-based. However, it is agreed to review the situation again in 12 months’ time.
The practice decides to submit a bid for a private sector project with a new client, which would lead to experience in a new work sector. However, the pre-qualification questionnaire contains a condition that the selected architect must be working to Level 2 BIM. The BIM-experienced associate argues that this could be the ideal opportunity to transition to BIM with relative ease, as well as winning a new client. To this end he writes a report that assesses the steps that the practice would need to take, and their respective costs. Balanced against this he estimates the increase in fee income that could result, in order to justify the investment. Unfortunately, two of the four partners vote against the proposal on cost grounds, and a third feels it unfeasible within the required timescale. Reluctantly, they have to let the opportunity go. One of the junior (BIM-experienced) staff leaves for a new role as BIM champion with another practice.
One of the practice’s current design and build projects goes to tender, and the contractor that wins the contract is one with whom the practice haven’t previously worked (they were recommended by the project manager). Later in the month the contractor wins another tender for a project with a different client, and approaches the practice with a view to appointing them to detail the scheme for construction. The contractor’s reasoning is that the project is within the practice’s expertise (whereas the concept architect is relatively inexperienced); the advantage for the practice would be that they would be introduced to a prestigious client with whom they’ve been trying unsuccessfully to secure work for a number of years. Both the M&E and the structural engineers use BIM, and wish to exchange information in IFC format. However, the contractor doesn’t use BIM, so doesn’t exert any influence over the issue. In the end, the architects issue 2D CAD files to the engineers for them to build their own 3D models, and in exchange they provide 3D CAD files which the architects ‘flatten’ to 2D. Due to software incompatibilities (a number of 3D components aren’t editable in the architects’ 2D software), the architects misinterpret a key area where a number of ventilation ducts are passing under a floor beam within a severely restricted ceiling void. The clash isn’t discovered until the project is on site – it is the ductwork installers who discover the problem. The ceiling level can’t be lowered and in the end the beam has to be redesigned, delaying practical completion by two weeks. At the end of the project, the contractors demand £85,000 abortive costs from the architects, who eventually agree on a settlement of £65,000. The new client doesn’t offer any further work to the practice.
In the light of the previous year’s events, the partners agree to make an initial investment in 3D CAD. To this end, they decide to buy ten software licences. However, due to the cost of the licences, and the partners’ restricted budget, staff are told that they will have to train on their own initiative and in their own time (i.e. lunch breaks).
An existing client takes the decision to insist on Level 2 BIM compliance for all new work going forward, for ‘best practice’ reasons. They see this as a way of looking to streamline the procurement process, and hence make cost savings. As part of this requirement, their facilities management department insist on all as-built and O&M information being submitted in a recognised BIM format, as a condition of practical completion. This client’s projects have accounted for some 20% of the practice’s workload, on average, for the past seven years. As a consequence, the partners are forced to send three technical staff on a three-day training course, in order to accelerate the practice’s knowledge and hence safeguard future work with this client. Despite this training, however, the staff are still relatively inexperienced and there are a number of teething troubles as they get to grips with the new software and file exchange process. During their first test project, the project architect resigns in order to take up a new job with a rival practice, and the replacement staff end up abandoning the 3D model, instead re-drawing the project in 2D CAD. Fortunately, the client accepts this unfortunate situation as part of the learning process, but insists that it can’t happen again.
At the end of the month, the BIM-experienced associate and two members of his team leave in order to start a new business venture, leaving three projects short-staffed. It takes three months to recruit new employees and during this time the staff who are covering the projects (in addition to their existing workloads) make a number of mistakes. This is due to the fact that the knowledge of the schemes has been lost to the departing staff, and also to the rush to try to meet deadlines. Both the clients and the contractors become increasingly concerned as work on sites is delayed, and one of the contractors threatens to freeze payments to the architects. It takes a further three months to recover from the initial loss of experienced staff, and one client is eventually lost to a rival practice. Two further staff leave; one for a career change, and the other for more responsibility in a practice that has already moved over to BIM.
At the monthly partners’ and associates’ meeting it is discovered that take-up of self-directed 3D CAD training has been poor and no staff have made any significant progress in learning to use the new software. Meanwhile, another contractor with whom the practice has had a long relationship says that they will now only work with consultants who use BIM. Faced with an increasing number of business contacts now migrating to BIM, and in the face of the financial costs from the past 18 months’ experiences, the partners see little option but to recruit a BIM champion tasked with implementing a programme of BIM implementation in the practice over the coming six months. They also arrange for certified training for all of the remaining technical staff.
Whilst the above theoretical scenario might seem far-fetched, and the coincidences perhaps a few too many, it nevertheless can’t be ignored that progress and innovation is inevitable. And whilst one may not always agree with changes that might be seemingly foisted upon an industry still widely perceived to be operating in traditionally-adversarial and inefficient ways, it can be prudent in the long run to keep up-to-date with change and development. It is always far better to anticipate and be prepared for change than have to react to it.
So do you still think you can put off BIM implementation? Maybe it’s time to start thinking about the future...
* As for the ostrich approach? It's actually not true that ostriches bury their heads in the sand - instead, when threatened, they lay still with their head and neck flat to the ground, which can (from a distance) seem like they're buried in the sand.