13 December 2016

What is it about this thing called BIM? Here we are, at the end of the year in which the UK government BIM mandate was implemented. Six years after Paul Morrell’s BIM Strategy was outlined and five years after the UK Government Construction Strategy was published, which included the requirement to use BIM on all centrally procured projects by 2016. The standards have been written, the protocols have been put in place, the procedures and methodologies have been tested, proven and documented on pilot projects. BIM has been the subject of thousands of discussions, articles, academic papers, research projects. Every week there is another BIM event or conference. Europe has set up a BIM Task Group, and published their first BIM standards. But still, it is fair to say that BIM is still not in mainstream use, or considered common practice in planning, design, construction and operations of buildings and built infrastructure. A lot of people are still wondering why they need to use BIM? Many are actively trying to ignore or avoid it. Why?

People may instinctively feel that we've planned, designed, constructed and operated buildings for thousands of years without BIM, and question, why we need to introduce this new thing? Within the well-deserved 'sense of achievement' we feel, having delivered a new building, or new piece of infrastructure, we often forget the pain and trouble we've had to deal with along the way, and continue to deal with long after the building is handed over. Some people possibly enjoy, and thrive on, or benefit from, the 'pain' of delays, variations, cost overruns, disputes and litigation, that have become an inherent part of our business. While studies have shown how other sectors have more than doubled their productivity through the adoption of digital technologies and processes, productivity in the construction sector has flat-lined, or even fallen over the past 40 years, as increased complexity, legislation and regulation have been introduced.

The UK government hypothesis back in 2010, when they devised their strategy, was that...

“…government, as a client, can derive significant improvements in cost, value and carbon performance, through the use of open sharable asset information…

But let’s be honest, what client, or building owner, would not want 'significant improvements' in cost, value and performance? This shouldn't just be about government. Surely this should be about every client, every building, or piece of built infrastructure? BIM, as a technology, has been around for over 20 years, and has been mature for at least 10 years now. At this stage, the use of BIM should be common practice and mainstream. Open sharable asset information, or data, should have significantly improved our planning systems, our design system, construction and building operations. The data generated, should have significantly improved the way we manage and operate facilities, campuses, estates, portfolios, neighbourhoods, towns, cities. But still, after five years of all the noise and hype, we are still a long way off BIM being used by everyone in the industry. Why?

There are two big challenges we need to deal with in the construction industry. Firstly, an obsession with 'paper' (not data). Secondly the high level of 'fragmentation' in the industry and lack of a 'bigger picture'.

The move from paper to data

The way every aspect of the construction industry works, is still based on 'paper', or the 'document'. Project briefs and contracts are technical 'documents', that require people to produce other 'documents', which ultimately get used to build and operate. If you seek to get planning permission, or building control approval, you are asked to submit ten printed copies of 'documents', which are then circulated amongst the various departments, 'rubber-stamped' and 'kept on record'. When you go out to tender, you submit thousands of 'documents', schedules, specifications, drawings, etc, on which the tender is based. As you plan the construction, you produce many more thousands of 'documents' for fabrication of elements of the building, which are then used to construct or assemble. When built assets are handed over to owners and operators, or transacted in lease or sale, they are required to have a collection of 'documents' which record what was built, and provide instruction on how to safely maintain and operate the building. We could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the point. The use of 'open sharable data' is just simply not a feature of how our industry operates. Nine years after BS 1192 was published, as a code of practice for the production and management of building information, we still struggle to get people to use and follow the concept of a Common Data Environment (CDE).

The use of 'open sharable data' is just simply not a feature of how our industry operates.

Of course, BIM can vastly improve the way we produce 'documents', and the quality of coordination of these documents, and many are using BIM for this purpose. But the “value” of the underlying asset 'data' in BIM, has still not been fully recognised, valued, or explored, in our 'document' or paper-centric business processes. And let’s also be honest, the business models of people and companies working in this industry, have been largely built around, and are based on producing “documents”, and the idea of sharing open data with others, can be very disruptive to those business models. It will only be when our contracts begin to require us to produce and provide open sharable data, rather than documents, that BIM will really get traction. When our city or town councils, local agencies or development authorities, begin to require open sharable data, as part of the planning and building control procedures, and a larger digital strategy for asset management across estates, portfolios, neighbourhoods, towns and cities, then BIM will be mainstream or common practice. The move from 'paper' to 'data' is a slow work in progress. But it is happening, and unfortunately, some will get left behind.

The bigger picture

The construction industry is highly fragmented. There are many individual people, and organisations involved in the planning, designing, constructing, maintaining and operating buildings, or built infrastructure. From owners, investors, accountants, solicitors, planners, project managers, architects, engineers, contractors, specialists, surveyors, manufacturers, suppliers, facility managers, tenants, users – the list goes on and on. Each of these people, or companies, has their own way of working, and producing and using information, with one key objective - to complete their element of work or task, with the least amount of effort possible, to get paid, often leaving issues for others to deal with downstream.

Who, in this scenario, has the “bigger picture” in mind, of how “information” is going to be transferred and used by others downstream? Instinctively you would think “the client” has the bigger picture in mind, but many developer type clients are never going to be involved in using, maintaining or operating their buildings – this will be contracted or transferred to another company or department later on. Planning or development teams often don’t have the technical understanding of what operations teams will require, to specify how information should be produced and used during the development cycle, so that it is fit for purpose for operations and asset management. Once a capital budget is approved, and finance is in place for a project, what interest or incentive would project managers have in trying to reduce the time or cost of a building? What incentive would there be to invest some of the capital budget in things that would benefit or improve the operation budget? And what interest or incentive would clients or building owners have in providing their town or city with information that might be useful for future planning and management the city? The whole fragmented system is fraught with disconnections, vested interests and adversarial relationships.

The whole fragmented system is fraught with disconnections, vested interests and adversarial relationships.

So how do we deal with this issue of fragmentation? Someone needs to have the bigger picture or broader context in mind, to make sure that information procured from one party, is useful and fit for purpose for the next party. We need to begin to reward and incentivise parties to take a broader view, in the way they carry out their tasks, and produce their information. Here are some things we can do:

  • Use and follow common agreed industry standards for the production, management and exchange of information about buildings and infrastructure, so it can be used by others later on (don’t make it up yourself, or do your own thing)
  • Consider the full “lifecycle” of assets. Plan, design and construct with longer term performance and operations in mind, from the very beginning (follow BS 8536, and appoint a “champion” at the beginning of projects, who has the bigger picture in mind)
  • Re-think contractual arrangements, to make them more collaborative (less adversarial) and incentivise, or reward good conduct, and good information (consider integrated project delivery, alliancing, partnering, etc.)
  • Support (and even demand), that your taxes are spent wisely by government and local authorities, on infrastructure (roads, rail, utilities, schools, hospitals etc.) that uses a process that aims to achieve 'significant improvements in cost, value, quality and performance'
  • Support and be part of a 'smart cities' movement that ensures your taxes are spent on better, more streamlined information management systems, at government and local authority level, for planning and building control, that accept open digital data, rather than paper.

People may feel they have heard enough about BIM at this stage, but we are only at the start of a digital transformation of the industry, which is going to be very exciting and interesting for those who embrace it, and very challenging and disruptive for those who don't. Enjoy the journey!

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