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Technical talking at BIM round table

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Six months on from the watershed that was the government mandate on use of Level 2 BIM for centrally procured projects, CM gathered experts and stakeholders from the industry to discuss its impact. Tom Ravenscroft reports.

For many years the BIM mandate has been one of the most discussed pieces of legislation within the built environment, and its date of implementation, 4 April 2016, is seen as the most important milestone in construction's transformation from an analogue to a digital industry. From this date all central government-procured projects must be designed and constructed using Level 2 BIM, ushering in a new era of digitally enabled projects that benefit from increased efficiency of time and materials.

Six months have now passed since the industry-defining mandate came into effect, so Construction Manager, supported by software developer Bluebeam, gathered some of the industry’s most influential BIM advocates for a lively debate to discover whether the mandate has been successful and what needs to happen to drive greater adoption of BIM and technology in the construction industry. The debate fell into a number of key themes:

Don’t believe the hype

The session kicked off with the group trying to get a grasp on the current state of the industry's level of BIM adoption. While companies are adopting BIM at different rates, there was general agreement that the mandate has not only increased the rate of adoption, but also controlled some of the hype around BIM.

Shaun Farrell, associate director at Turner & Townsend kicked off the discussion by drawing on the Gartner Hype curve – a graphical trajectory for the progression of new technologies. It starts with a steep rise to reach “the peak of expectations” before falling sharply to the “trough of disillusionment” then rising again more slowly to a “plateau of productivity”.

“What most of us here are trying to do is cut the top of the hype curve off so that you never go into the trough of disillusionment, but rather the industry steadily realises the benefits of BIM. You don’t bother following the hype,” explained Farrell.

Watch a video of the event below

Nigel Davies, director of Evolve Consultancy, added: “The best thing that the mandate has done is take the hype curve out of play. Beforehand all you would hear is ‘BIM this, BIM that. Isn’t it wonderful? You can save 500% of your budget.’ What it [the mandate] has done is created a level playing field for everyone, rather than listening to all the nonsense. It’s given a practical approach to what it is possible to achieve.”

Farrell agreed, however he was quick to point out that while the government has clearly stated what it wanted, there could have been more guidance on how to achieve it: “They took the approach of: ‘We want this at the end, we just don't care how you do it’,” he stated. “They have been really good deciding to be an intelligent client and saying ‘we’ll lead’.

Be honest about your capabilities

Although most around the table agreed the mandate has had a huge impact on the profession – transforming the hype surrounding BIM into actual targets and processes that the industry can aim for – they also agreed that it has also led to confusion and a great deal of misinterpretation of people’s abilities.

Farrell noted that it is extremely hard to understand the degree to which BIM has been adopted, as many companies are misinterpreting their own capabilities. “There are companies that say they are [BIM enabled] to win work. But once they get on that work, they definitely prove that they are not, which then kills the whole thing and increases disillusionment. Rather than being practical and saying ‘on the hype curve you’re asking us to do this and we can only do this’, they are promising the top of the curve.”

Who was there

Top row (l-r): Mark Norton, head of BIM, fit-out, engineering and construction, ISG; Nick Leach, head of BIM, Multiplex Construction Europe; Garry Fannon, project BIM manager, Willmott Dixon; Fred Mills, director, The B1M; Shaun Farrell, associate director, Turner & Townsend

Bottom row (l-r): James Chambers, senior account services manager, Bluebeam; Sasha Reed, vice president of strategic development, Bluebeam; Nathan Wood, chief enabling officer, SpectrumAEC;
Nigel Davies, director, Evolve Consultancy

Not pictured: Denise Chevin, discussion chair, editor CM; Tom Ravenscroft, editor BIM+; David Philp, Global BIM/IM consultancy director, Aecom

Nick Leach, head of BIM at Multiplex Construction, agreed, saying “this is a real problem for the industry”. However, this was not seen as a problem exclusively related to BIM capabilities. It was viewed as being ingrained within the construction industry, where often companies do not give honest answers, due to the pressure of satisfying sometimes unreasonable clients.

Leach continued: “As contractors you try to take others on the journey with you, but there is this cloak-and-dagger lack of honesty about what they can and can't do. If they were honest from the start we'd be more than happy to help them along. At least we'd know where we stand.”

Although more transparency and honesty is undoubtedly required across construction, Fred Mills, founder of web and social media specialist The B1M, asserted that this tendency to exaggerate skills comes directly from heightened expectations surrounding BIM: “It's a manifestation of the hype, people feel the need to use the word BIM, as it’s the answer they need to give to get into tenders or to get onto projects.”

Mark Norton, Fred Mills and James Chambers

Mills believes that part of this problem is a lack of a broad understanding. “I get the feeling that there is a real issue with knowledge inequality around BIM,” he continued. “There are people who are advanced with it and are pushing ahead, but the vast majority are a little bit left behind.

“We’ve done very well in the UK, both from a government perspective and an expertise perspective, of developing processes and nailing the theory. What we have failed to do is translate it into a consumable format for the masses. That’s where the traction needs to come from.”

Clients need greater involvement

Garry Fannon, project BIM manager at Willmott Dixon, believes understanding needs to begin with the client. “The start of the journey for me is our client or customer not getting the quality advice they really need to understand their own part in this journey,” he said. “Time and time again we see contracts with those three horrible words ‘BIM Level 2’. All of a sudden we have to unpick the process, as they have been poorly advised and their expectations are wrong.”

Fannon sees the solution as clients seeking out and getting better advice at the start of the process, while Turner & Townsend's Farrell sees clients’ misunderstanding as being born out of how successful we have been integrating BIM as an industry up until now. “Clients think that since BIM has been mandated, you can go out to Tesco and buy it. It's fully defined and that is essentially what they think they can go out and buy from the industry,” Fannon said.

However, Farrell suggested that this was not the case: “All Level 2 has really done is introduced data into an industry that has never used data before.”

Shaun Farrell and Nick Leach

Hearing this, James Chambers, senior account services manager at Bluebeam, asked if clients really understood what Level 2 is. The general response seemed to be that traditionally clients have been indifferent to harnessing information in the past. As Fannon pointed out: “History tells us they sit back, say ‘give me a building’, employ someone to manage it for me, employ a contractor to deliver it’. In the new world of BIM that doesn’t work. We need to spend more time understanding their requirements so we can respond to it and deliver what they want.”

This, of course, means that clients need to spend more time understanding their own requirements. Although they may be willing to pay for additional services, they may not be willing to spend time understanding what they actually need the building to do.

“Clients need to be aware that they have to change their behaviour,” said Nathan Wood, chief enabling officer at SpectrumAEC. “Owners don’t understand what they need to give up to get the benefits of BIM – you can’t have your cake and eat it.”

But Mark Norton, head of BIM, fit-out, engineering and construction at ISG, pointed out that clients are also progressing on their own BIM journey: “There has been a shift in client awareness and it [understanding of BIM] has improved. There has been a phase-shift in the past year where they have become more knowledgeable.”

Are contracts creating a barrier to BIM?

The conversation turned towards the sticky subject of contracts. The B1M’s Fred Mills outlined the problem, stating that current contracts are creating a huge barrier.

However, BIM consultant Nigel Davies was adamant that contracts are being used as an excuse not to engage with BIM: “It’s not just about the contracts, it’s about putting barriers up as an excuse for not breaking them down. We can work under the contracts we have now if we work openly and objectively.”

Nigel Davies, Evolve

Wood agreed, adding: “Even if we had better contracts, it is easier to sling mud than it is to have crucial conversations that need to be had because of different personalities. Because at the end of the day, design and construction are polar opposites.”

Although Mills accepted that there were cultural issues, he said: “I don't think that the ultimate value proposition, where we are all working digitally and collaboratively, can be achieved in 10 or 20 years using a 2011 JCT design and build contract.”

Wood agreed that updating contracts should be one of the highest priorities: “Until we change contracts nothing else matters as people follow the money. Ultimately the players in the room are not incentivised to do what we should do.”

Ending on a positive note, Farrell pointed out that many companies are very successful in their use of BIM. “There are people out there who are going to do it as it is the right thing to do,” he said.

Technology’s role in construction?

Asked about the role of technology in construction’s current thinking, Farrell dispelled some of the hype that is leading some to believe that technology will solve all the industry’s problems. “We did an analysis and concluded that technology is only 10% of the challenge,” he stated. “If you fix the technology, and don't address the culture with technology, then you are only going to solve 10% of the problem.”

While all present agreed that technology is not a silver bullet, everyone also accepted that it has an important role to play in improving construction methods and communication. A key stumbling block that was identified was companies’ and, essentially, decision makers’ attitudes to technology.

Nathan Wood, SpectrumAEC

Willmott Dixon’s Fannon explained: “There is a cultural issue in many businesses. There is a hierarchy of technology, where more senior people get given better technology. We are at a position in the industry where we, as main contractors, need to reflect on the new generation coming through and start seeing technology’s value, not cost.”

He continued: “There is a cultural issue. For decision makers in our industry, this is not their core skill. They are builders. They trust money and they know how to build. The rest of it is peripheral.”

All the contractors around the table had examples of where technology – whether smart phones, tablets or apps – had improved processes, however, it was far from fully ingrained within their businesses.

Sasha Reed, vice president of strategic development at Bluebeam, concluded that full integration of technology will only happen once decision makers realise the financial benefits or feel the pinch from failing to retain staff: “Until it hits the executives’ pockets then it [technological adoption] will not happen. It’s a fuse that has been lit but we have yet to feel the full impacts.”

About the sponsor

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Bluebeam also aims to connect and inspire professionals by fostering debates and publishing influential articles on StrXur.com and BreakgroundMedia.com

Until it hits the executives’ pockets then it [technological adoption] will not happen. It’s a fuse that has been lit but we have yet to feel the full impacts.– Sasha Reed, Bluebeam
The best thing that the mandate has done is take the hype curve out of play. What it has done is created a level playing field for everyone, rather than listening to all the nonsense. It’s given a practical approach to what it is possible to achieve.”– Nigel Davies, Evolve
People feel the need to use the word BIM, as it’s the answer they need to give to get into tenders or to get onto projects. – Fred Mills, The B1M
Clients think that since BIM has been mandated, you can go out to Tesco and buy it. It’s fully defined and that is essentially what they think they can buy.– Garry Fannon, Willmott Dixon