One unexpected outcome from the Low Carbon Construction Innovation and Growth Team (IGT) which reported to government in November 2010 was a call for the use of BIM to be required on government buildings. The logic goes like this: low carbon (LC) design and construction costs more, but the cost of building has been rising unsustainably. We won't be able to afford LC building unless we can cut the cost of building. And we now have the engine to do that in BIM. Plus BIM supports service through the building life-cycle, also improving carbon performance in use. So BIM becomes one key to the world of Low Carbon, Low Cost building: LC2. June 22nd 2011 marks the date that this policy goes live.
The reason BIM can cut the cost of building, and increase quality, is that it supports better collaboration, with the client, between consultants and along the supply chain. Collaboration experiments have been numerous but not lasting, like flight before the internal combustion engine. Once the Wright brothers had tied an engine and propeller onto a glider we had flight whenever we wanted it. BIM does that too, making collaboration much easier and more effective, and not reliant on altruistic behaviour. And flight beats walking any day.
Industries like aerospace are well ahead of construction in using Information Modelling. Car making, shipbuilding and engineering construction could go digital and collaborative because they had dominant customers who could order their preferred suppliers to use the preferred platform. Construction is far too fragmented for that, with competing and profession-centred CAD platforms and a culture of risk aversion as most people provide incomplete, unreliable information. It has taken governments, as the largest customer, to break this market failure. Singapore, Norway, the US General Services Administration and now the UK government have over the last decade required the use of interoperable BIM. The GSA wants it because it makes building ownership more economic; the Singapore government uses it to automate planning and building control. The Norwegians use it to build a virtual Norway for sustainable management. Now the UK government wants it to make low carbon building affordable.
So BIM is a means to an end. For members of the industry it means far more than a new software program. It means a new way to work, creating and capturing data once for multiple uses, sharing and re-using design elements, co-ordinating everyone's input with machine intelligence smoothing the fit and operating the building with proper guidance. The culture which grew out of not trusting anyone's drawings or specification can evolve into one where you can trust information. The virtual building allows simulations and rehearsals, providing a near surprise-free site experience. The adversarial style of risk dumping can evolve into a collaborative style of risk management. Perhaps we are on our way to a Japanese-style one-page contract which is not about what to do when there is a problem but simply a statement of the project, its cost and its completion date.
That's still a long way off, even after June 22nd 2011. The RIBA is alive to the huge potential for architects but also to the need to support them in transition to the BIM-enabled world. Policy is emerging to put the Institute's weight behind the change and support the emerging standards and progress towards full interoperability of BIM platforms. New commercial arrangements are needed, to make insurance concerns manageable and to revise process maps and appointment documents. There will be a lot of CPD to devise, training principals in the very different ways work can be planned and staff in the methods themselves. Cost and risk will be removed from design and construction, but commercial skills will be needed to enable the improved profit potential to be realised whilst benefiting clients. The RIBA is working with the CIC as the voice of the professions to respond to these challenges collectively. It is also working with the University of the Arts on a TSB-funded project to exploit the emerging Semantic Web as a tool to speed up the use of web-based construction knowledge and the interoperability of BIM platforms.
The schools of architecture have a major opportunity. Teaching BIM at Part 2, and dropping 2D CAD, will make students very desirable properties for practices adopting BIM. Teaching BIM also teaches collaboration and construction. Ideally it should be taught across disciplines, not just within architecture. It is hard to make a model if you don't understand construction. Drawings can be fudged, but not models. Learning specification becomes more accessible too, plus there are the delights of the digital catalogue as suppliers populate the web with downloadable product models. Several schools are planning to teach BIM as a specialism, providing the skills to steer major projects and practices, and to advance the art.
There is also a potential to fight the cost to practices of the software, servers and training by using the power of the Cloud. RIBA Enterprises is working on a BIM compatible National Building Specification and sees this soon being available through Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), where the broadband user receives the software from the Cloud and stores and shares the model there too. Vendors and application providers will do the same. 'BIM by the Hour' could ease the way in for students and practices.
The recent RIBA Futures study of the profession's future suggested that it could become split between the major international firms and local practices with the medium-sized practice fading away. The way firms respond to the arrival of BIM will be telling. Those with the vision to adopt it early and to build the relationships it supports will prosper. They will be able to increase design and service quality whilst cutting their costs. Those who don't see the point or can't invest will major on their local opportunities and on the less easily modelled world of refurbishment and restoration. But even a small practice should be able to join the BIM world; many already have. Architects ask: 'What is BIM?' The answer is: 'It's what you want it to be'.