Analysis

It’s BIM, but not as we know it

16 April 2015 | By David Rogers

In Denmark, BIM isn’t always called BIM. The alternative designation is “virtual design and construction”, or VDC, and although the two concepts co-exist peacefully enough, there has been a lot of debate as to whether they are quite the same, or what the difference might be. To find out, BIM+ went to Copenhagen to meet the BIM/VDC team from contractor MT Højgaard, which last year had a turnover of around £670m.

“We’re using it very much to mean BIM is the old stuff and VDC is the new stuff that we want to do. We use the term to stress the difference between them,” says Ole Berard, who is in charge of modelling and coordination for Højgaard.

Rolf Büchmann-Slorup, Højgaard’s VDC project leader, argues that the main difference is that BIM is a tool for designing a building, where VDC is more a way of redesigning the company that builds it.

He says: “We think of VDC as something more than BIM. We say BIM is what we do on projects – it’s those tools that make construction easier and handle normal stuff like clash detection – and then we have the VDC initiative, which is more than that.”

As an example, he says the VDC approach requires all projects to be organised with a centralised database so that data can be stored and re-used on other future scheme, remembering the lessons learned and making them available to other projects.

One of the most important applications is that it can improve the design process. “We wanted to integrate cost and design,” says Büchmann-Slorup. “We wanted to be able to tell our business partners very quickly what the consequences would be of their decisions, especially regarding the design, because that tends to control a lot of things. We want to make it much, much faster, and to answer more questions for the architects and engineers.”

100 loops

Around three years ago the company took some painful hits on what are euphemistically called “non-performing contracts”, and this led to a fundamental rethinking of the entire firm’s business approach, and the decision to use VDC as an organising principle.

Büchmann-Slorup says: “In order to make this software work the way we wanted it to, we found we actually needed to work in a different way. Now we’re laying the foundation of a thorough analysis of what was going wrong in our tenders, and that’s what we’re rebuilding our process from.”

MJ Hoygaard uses the cost information in its databases to handle quantity take-offs quickly and efficiently. “We’re able to provide the engineers, architects and clients with a very fast answer for how much that solution, as a system will cost. In the old days that analysis is what tended to slow down the process, and it affected us in the end,” says Büchmann-Slorup.

Rolf Büchmann-Slorup, Højgaard’s VDC project leader

The next problem was to improve the way the contractor tendered for design-and-build schemes. “We do what we call ‘VDC loops’,” says Büchmann-Slorup. “We can use the software to give us more alternatives. On average when you construct a building you look at 2.4 alternatives for each design decision, and then you select one, and that’s what you control. What we say is that we want to do 10 or a 100 alternatives and we want to do it in a matter of hours instead of weeks, and that is what the software enables us to do. We just need to build up the processes to make sure that we can do it.”

The Stanford factor

Ole Berard was one of the originators of the VDC approach, and this came in part from the interaction between the Danish industry and work carried out in universities in Denmark and the US. Both he and Büchmann-Slorup have PhDs in construction IT, and Berard undertook part of his research at Stanford University – which is where the term “VDC” was coined.

“I was at the Centre for Integrated Facilities Engineering at Stanford, and that is place where the US contractors look for the latest on IT, BIM and VDC,” says Berard. “It’s where the BIM managers from all the big US contractors come in and tell their BIM stories, and where Martin Fischer has been a big influence.”

And it was the US approach to using software to make tender-stage bids more accurate, and also to decide which tender to bid for in the first place, that has informed the way Højgaard is trying to use VDC.

Büchmann-Slorup says: “We’ve created this vision of what we want to be able to achieve and the end result is to increase our hit rate on bids. We now win one in five, and we currently have a target of one in four. We can see that our business partners in America can reach three in four.” 

Berard adds: “That means not bidding indiscriminately. If you can assess the project better before you bid, we think we can win three out of four.”

The German connection

Another important factor has been the choice of software the contractor chose to base its VDC system on.

The specific program is iTwo, produced by a German software house called RIB. Berard says: “This started in the 1970s as cost estimation software, and it has been one of the de facto cost estimation standards in Germany for a long time. All the big construction companies use it for estimation and document management and accounting.” 

The program evolved after RIB went public in 2006 and invested the money it raised into turning its flagship product into VDC program, which RIB describes modestly enough as “the world’s first cloud-based big bata 5D BIM enterprise solution for construction companies, industrial companies, developers and investors”.

Berard says: “They started with the cost side, and that’s why we found it interesting. Germany is interesting because the contractors there missed out on the first BIM discussions so they were behind in 3D models, but in the late nineties they were interested in the electronic exchange of cost estimating documents, so they have a lot of standards for exchanging invoices and estimates and all that kind of stuff. And it’s more natural to a contractor to begin with the cost.”

The other main software suite that Højgaard considered was Vico Office, but Büchmann-Slorup says it wasn’t as strong on the cost side. “They were more in love with the thought of integrating stuff than actually making value for the contractor. So iTwo is a serious piece of software. RIB thought about a lot of things which makes it difficult to comprehend in the beginning.” 

Berard says: “Companies like Bentley and Autodesk have a solid understanding of design. Autodesk is really about design coordination, maybe a little bit about 4D. They have developed a complex thing for taking quantities but not really managing cost.” 

Early returns

Højgaard’s attempt to use digital construction as a way of rethinking some fundamental rules of the contracting game certainly looks impressive. However, Büchmann-Slorup and Berard are quick to add that this is still a work in progress, and some important issues still need to be tackled, such as working out exactly what effect the new system will have on productivity, and exactly how that target of three wins out of four is to be attained.

Even so, it’s clear from a glance at the contractor’s financial returns that efficiency is being improved: turnover in 2014 may have fallen to £670m compared with £936m in 2012, but gross profit has more than trebled to £67m and cash has gone from minus £6.5m to £40m, so the early indications are that the strategy is paying off.