Analysis

We're all on a journey - and all roads lead to BIM

1 March 2013

The industry's BIM journey is underway, but there's no map, no speedometer and no satnav. But as our case studies show, everyone is getting there at their own pace. Elaine Knutt and Katie Puckett report.

Read the case studies accompanying this article

The road to BIM: success in the public sector

The road to BIM: making it work for small companies

The road to BIM: taking it into education

Where are you on the BIM journey? The question has become a cliche, an ice-breaker in coffee breaks at the BIM conferences, seminars and workshops springing up around the country. But it includes important sentiments: the anxiety of making sure you’re going in the right direction, the acknowledgement that everyone is on a journey together, and the unspoken assumption that the destination will be worth it in the end.

But as our case studies show, the industry isn’t just at different stages on the journey, it’s taking multiple different routes. There are “classic” BIM projects exploring integrated 3D modelling, 4D sequencing and 5D cost planning; and projects where the 3D model takes a back seat and the stress is on building the FM database. Some projects are endorsing a “closed BIM” single-platform approach as the most pragmatic option available today, whereas others are experimenting with a wider range of software in a cross-platform “open BIM” philosophy.

Then there’s “point of use” BIM via tablets and mobile devices onsite, and BIM that stays firmly in the office. There’s BIM via online collaboration platforms, BIM in the cloud or BIM on the client’s servers – anything goes.

Nearly two years after the government first galvanised the industry to deliver Level 2 BIM by 2016, the construction sector is trialling everything it can. “You can’t just get to 2016 and say everything works now. We’re all taking part in working groups and workshops, informal and official. We’re all talking to each other and that’s great – the industry has spawned a whole new level of expertise and ability to share learning,” notes James Daniel MCIAT ICIOB, BIMM development manager at Willmott Dixon (the extra M stands for “management”).

There is still much to do to reach Level 2 BIM

But it’s also clear that there is a long way to go to reach Level 2 BIM, never mind Level 3. None of the projects featured here came anywhere near trialling COBie (Construction Operations Building Information Exchange), although eight contractors last year took part in stage one of a COBie pilot run by the Open BIM Network.

Nor was there much evidence of “live” BIM – models updated during the construction phase in real time, or close to it – or BIM-enabled offsite manufacture or logistics management. In fact, the case studies suggest that contractors’ approach to BIM is additive, rather than transformative – while the leading edge was being pushed forward by clients.

Nevertheless, for the industry’s top tier of contractors, Level 2 BIM – where the design models can originate separately but operate federatively, and government clients will expect five COBie “data drops” – is within sight. For this group, the challenge now is getting their supply chain up to speed, often via BIM workshops and awareness days – a priority mentioned by BAM, Willmott Dixon and Speller Metcalfe in our case studies.

Ben Wallbank, a BIM consultant at SmartBIM Solutions, says that supply chain engagement by Tier 1 contractors is already well under way, and likely to be rapidly followed by supply chain validation  and BIM-based selection. “I already work with a contractor that is talking about banding its supply chain subcontractors into three levels of BIM validity, and then selecting [for projects] on the basis of their BIM ability. The implication is, if their existing supply chain can’t do what they want, they will go to those who can.”

But although that engagement process is under way, Wallbank and others stress that it will be technically possible for a Tier 1 contractor to win a central government-funded project without a fully BIM-ready supply chain. “At Level 2 BIM, the main design consultants have to collaborate, and then the model is brought together only for pretty simple stuff, like COBie. Yes you can get away with [not having everyone participate in BIM], and no it doesn’t matter,” he says.

Don Ward, chief executive of Constructing Excellence (CE), which runs a series of regional CE clubs for the industry argues: “Our main focus is working with Tier 3 and 4 suppliers. There’s no need for all these companies to buy Autodesk, we’re counteracting a disinformation that it’s about investing in big software packages. You can certainly do Level 2 BIM data exchange without going near CAD. It’s more a question of culture and process, you have to standardise the way you provide information.”

The COBie data drops themselves are becoming better understood. As Wallbank explains, at drop 0 the client defines the information it will require from the team; drops 1 and 2 essentially involve the design team and relate to RIBA stages B and D; data drops 3 and 4 will be coordinated by the main contractor, with drop 4 coming at completion and including all as-built information. Finally, there is a fifth data drop a year after completion, coordinated by the building management team.

But COBie requirements will vary according to what the building is. “Eighty-five to 90% of the information required by COBie will be the same: what is the space, what is it used for, what should be in it. But there will be a different ‘drop 0’ for the Department for Education or the NHS. But after that the data will be structured in such a way that we will be able to drill into it for all sorts of things we haven’t yet thought of,” says Wallbank.

Some have further to travel on the BIM journey than others – such as SMEs that already feel disadvantaged in terms of securing public sector work. But there is also the possibility that BIM could offer the equivalent of an overtaking lane: SMEs that reach BIM readiness before larger brethren could find that the range of opportunities open to them increases. That, at any rate, has been the promising experience of SMEs Nu Construction and Speller Metcalfe.

“We’ve had architects and a firm of structural engineers contact us, saying, ‘can you come and tell us what you’re doing [on BIM], we’ll tell you what we’re doing, and maybe you’ll consider us for tender lists?’ By being a little bit ahead of the game, it looks like there are commercial benefits,” says Adrian Speller, environmental manager at Speller Metcalfe.

Gemma Lennon, business development manager at Nu Construction, agrees: “I go and see a lot of people, and I always talk about BIM. I’m finding that architects are starting to say ‘great, if you get BIM, we want to work with you’.”

Framework agreements

Government clients, including executive agencies such as the Defence Infrastructure Organisation and Education Funding Agency, are also on a BIM journey. At present, many find procuring construction projects challenging enough, but from 2016 they will have a parallel BIM project to procure too. Although local authorities are not covered by the government’s BIM mandate, many are falling in line, and framework agreements straddling local and central government spend are likely to boost this trend.

The industry’s online collaboration platforms, led by Asite, 4Projects and Conject (formerly BIW) are also on a BIM journey. Respectively, their online data management services are used by top-tier contractors including Laing O’Rourke and Balfour Beatty; Vinci and Morgan Sindall; and Lend Lease and Mace. 4Projects’ system is currently being used by the Ministry of Justice and Interserve for the Cookham Wood Level 2 BIM early adopter project, while Asite is working with Northumbria University’s BIM Academy to trial its eBIM model.

Nevertheless, the general view is that the collaboration platforms haven’t been setting the pace on BIM. But that could be changing: 4Projects has a new American owner, and Conject is using Ecobuild to announce it is stepping up its BIM offer. “It won’t be about the model – our strength is in project governance, collaboration and compliance. So we’ll pick up the IFC-standard [design] model and work with the data to support 5D BIM – incorporating time and cost – and also auditing and logging COBie data,” says a spokesperson.

Collaboration

IFCs (Industry Foundation Classes) are also on a journey. The IFC schema would allow data in one package to be exported to the next without loss of accuracy and is essential to the concept of open BIM: software from multiple software vendors blended into a single BIM environment, with construction companies able to collaborate and innovate irrespective of what’s on their PCs. But it’s noticeable that in three of our case studies, single-platform closed BIM, powered by Autodesk Revit and Autodesk Navisworks, was dominant.

At present, Autodesk and Bentley Systems have only partially signed up to the IFC schema, so open BIM is still playing catch up. But as IFC-standard-setting body buildingSMART UK has been recently rejuvenated and taken over by BRE, it’s now likely that the IFC adoption process will be given an important boost.

In answer to the question “where are you on the BIM journey?”, no one can truly say they’ve arrived. That’s the logic of BIM – it’s capabilities are so varied that no one company or client will ever achieve everything it’s capable of. And that’s also the opportunity it offers: construction businesses can take the opportunity to innovate and differentiate themselves in a whole new arena.