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BIM: is the industry ready?

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To launch the BIM+ site, Construction Manager gathered a panel of industry experts to debate the question of the moment.

BIM: is the industry ready? Judging by the responses around the table at the debate that CM put together to launch the BIM+ channel on its website, the answer is a variation on “Yes, but...” Yes, but there are still major developers and clients out there asking: “What’s BIM?” Yes, but we might not have a contractual framework that really supports collaboration. Yes, but we might find we get overtaken by Asian economies. And yes, but as we have no way of measuring the extent of BIM adoption, how will we ever actually know?

These were some of the topics that came up in the BIM+ launch debate, hosted by law firm Olswang, just 15 months before the government puts billions pounds of work on a BIM footing. The participants were all engaged with BIM, so were perhaps more positive about it than a random cross section of the industry would be. But, as shown by the reactions as various curveballs were tossed around, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to debate. 

The discussion was informed by the fact that BIM is being used on £9.76bn of live public sector projects, either onsite or in pre-construction. That figure, revealed by David Philp, the head of BIM implementation at the government’s BIM Task Force, is large enough for everyone to realise that the new era has begun; small enough to remind them that the adoption curve will soon have to climb at a steeper gradient.

So the starting point was whether contractors were finding evidence of BIM in their tender documents and invitations to tender. Martin Chambers PPCIOB, framework director at Shaylor Group, had previously written in BIM+ that the company had expected to see more projects on its radar by now. “That’s our experience – there is a limited number of clients who are regular users of BIM. Maybe it’s the size of contracts we get involved with – below £7.5m – but we did expect to see more coming through.”

For an alternative perspective, there was Peter Trebilcock, BIM director at Balfour Beatty. His firm has 70 live projects – although not everything is plain sailing. “There are still a lot of clients who don’t know how to articulate what they’re looking for. We see huge inconsistencies in tender documents – from one line to 30-page BIM execution strategies for the supply chain. We also have clients who wanted BIM at first but then retracted their Level 2 requirements. A lot of clients are basically asking for help,” he said, introducing a theme picked up several times in the conversation.  

Sonia Zahiroddiny, of the Information Management and Modelling Capability Programme at Transport for London, was cast into the role of representative for public sector clients. On the whole, she gave a positive, if qualified, assessment of their BIM-readiness. She said: “Compared with two years ago, the message has definitely gone through. We have come a long way, but there’s a lot of room for improvement in terms of assets managed and benefits realised.”

Jaimie Johnstone is a director of architect Bryden Wood, and his experience spans the UK’s public and private sectors, as well as overseas clients, so he is in a position to make cross-cultural comparisons. “Almost all our new clients are asking for BIM,” he said. “People know they’ve got to ask for it – although they don’t really quite know what they’re asking for. They’re trying to build it into procurement processes but don’t have the experience yet.

“Internationally, people are slightly better: they don’t come with the same baggage as in the UK, where they think they need to understand it more so as not to embarrass themselves. [Overseas clients] use it to drive the endgame – they understand its point better.”

But any UK clients with hang-ups about their less-than-perfect understanding of BIM would have found a sympathetic hearing around the table. “We’re asking clients to be experts in IFC [industry foundation classes] and interoperability but that’s not their forte,” pointed out Balfour Beatty’s Trebilcock. “Clients say they want BIM Level 2 but when we ask what assets they want the information for, and for each asset what technical data they’re looking for, they can’t articulate that. It’s ‘why do I have to become a COBie expert? I just want my FM data’.”

Despite already being engaged with BIM, the panel found there was plenty to discuss...

Responding, Simon Rawlinson, EC Harris’s head of strategic research, argued that it was up to the industry to pull off a swan impression: an appearance of smooth efficiency belying furious work on the data and procedures beneath the waterline. “You don’t need to know about IT semantics to be able to buy something from Amazon and get it this afternoon. Once that’s in place then you get the client into a position where they don’t need to know what they have to specify – just that it’s an asset they can exchange electronic resources with.”

But the debate centred on public sector clients that understand the general outlines of BIM, even if they’re hazy on details. Chris Chivers, senior vice president of the CIOB, said he was advising a private sector residential developer who just didn’t get it at all – a timely reminder that the industry is progressing at very different paces. “I have a project currently that’s crying out for BIM but the client says ‘no’. It’s trying to explain to them that if they sharpened their axe they could cut down trees quicker but they say they don’t have time to sharpen their axe.”

Tim Platts, representing the BIM4SMEs working group, pointed out that much of the supply chain was awaiting better evidence for the investment case. “There are some metrics – for instance there can be a 90% reduction in requests for information – but there is no standardisation about how we measure BIM in UK. This is especially important for SMEs.” Platts said he was hoping the industry’s key performance indicators would be extended to cover BIM.  

So what else would accelerate progress? Transport for London’s Zahiroddiny raised the issue of whether the current contracts on offer – JCT, NEC, PPC 2000 and the CIOB’s Complex Projects Contract – went far enough in creating a collaborative culture. “How can we create the online gaming collaboration ethos in the industry? How can we get that trust and communication? NEC3 contracts have a clause on collaboration but it doesn’t get used often and it’s limited. Is there anything we can do contractually to push collaboration?”

Her comments triggered a debate about the extent to which contracts shaped project behaviour, and to what extent they were a hook to hang other failings on. Shaylor Group’s Chambers, for instance, thought there was too much emphasis on the contractual environment. “Contracts are a red herring – they don’t tell you how to behave, they just tell you what to do.” Philp was more of a “contractualist”, albeit not one wedded to the small print. “The contract sets out a common purpose. If you have a common purpose and a culture of openness, you start to build the right things.”

Rawlinson disagreed. “The early adopter projects used NEC3 with Intellectual Property amendments and it went though straightforwardly. You can make it too elaborate.”

But Francis Ho, head of construction at Olswang, was concerned that “JCT is responsible for about 95% of all contracts but it just doesn’t do BIM – most big projects have bespoke contracts but our industry is driven by standard documents.”

In his opinion, the NEC3 option was not a foolproof way to achieve collaboration, pointing out that its exhortation for parties to work in a spirit of “mutual faith” had failed to prevent a rising tide of disputes. He felt the industry hadn’t yet created the right legal backdrop for BIM, although work was progressing – and the CIOB’s Complex Project Contract could help show the way.

Another topic that bounced around the table was the BIM education gap, a concern to most of the participants. For instance, Eddie Tuttle, the CIOB’s policy manager, said there was a BIM training deficit at Level 2 that would only deepen as the industry’s early adopters pressed ahead to Level 3. “There’s a huge supply chain that still needs to be educated up to Level 2, so when we talk about Level 3 and beyond, we need to remember that we have to backdate knowledge.”

Zahiroddiny countered that to deliver Level 3 the industry needed “different people from different backgrounds to come in and start educating people”, and Bryden Wood’s Johnstone had first-hand evidence to suggest that was happening.

“One of our most recent hires was an astrophysicist. We started talking to students at UCL and recruited people who had no idea that anyone needed what they did, let alone in construction. We are learning how to make creative people work with data-driven people.”

Johnstone offered another rationale for looking outside the industry for skills: the need to avoid overloading specialist designers with digital demands. “What we don’t want is architects knowing too much about COBie and data – you want to give them creativity.”

Although several universities now offer BIM masters degrees, Philp felt that BIM’s presence in the undergraduate curriculum and HNC courses was fairly limited, although he said a new “learning outcomes framework” from the BIM Task Group should help to change that. “If you think that in future we’ll need digital construction managers, we need to inject that into courses.” But, he also argued in favour of a more general, global view of construction education, at least in the early stages. “When young people come in to construction degrees we put a badge on them saying ‘you’re a surveyor’. We need more T-shaped learning.”

For Trebilcock, the priority was upskilling the industry’s experienced staff, arguing that until that generation had its BIM epiphany, it tended to see it as another example of top-down management-speak. “The big cultural problem we have in our industry is that the younger people get it and the older generation do not. From designer to surveyor to site manager, procurement guy – when they get it they become engaged. Those that aren’t see it as a foreign language.”

Michael McCullen, chief executive of construction software house Asta Development, agreed on the need to shift the mindsets of industry veterans, who are often the decision makers. He said: “We see a parallel with IT industry. As part of our project management offering we supply IT departments and when we're putting a system in, the younger people can see the benefit and want it but there’s nearly always an older person, usually a male, who blocks it. It’s about their status in the organisation.
The key is to convert those people.”

And Ho argued that we needed more focus on raising BIM skills among clients’ teams – as likely to include generalist procurement managers, or non-construction entrepreneurs, as they are RICS-accredited surveyors. “They come from different backgrounds, so how do we get them interested in something that’s technical and very construction-focused? There is a lack of expertise among clients and a lot of large projects are done by thinly resourced teams.”

So will the industry be ready in 2016? The likelihood is that large sections of it will be, although some regional contractors, specialists and SMEs may be playing catch-up for several years to come. And if there is one over-riding take-away from the debate, it is that clients in particular need more support to get the most from BIM. But overall, there is little doubt that the industry in 2016 is going to be far more digitally driven than it was in 2011, and that by 2021, we’ll all be digital natives.

Q: What does the industry still need to do before April 2016?

Maybe we need a ‘crisis’ – other industries have re-engineered themselves after a challenge they couldn’t ignore.– Simon Rawlinson, EC Harris

We should be telling colleges and universities to collaborate in their process so people are learning collaboration, not just BIM.– Chris Chivers, senior vice president, CIOB

Training is a huge issue, and so it’s having true collaborative frameworks in place and defining what is required for that.– Sonia Zahiroddiny, Transport for London

If people start to really understand employers’ information requirements and set out what the client needs at the bottom end and how that data appears, the bits in between will sort themselves out. – Jaimie Johnstone, Bryden Wood