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UK BIM adoption: reality is difficult to fathom

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Is UK construction adopting BIM fast enough, asks Andy Boutle, chair of BIM Regions East.

Well… no it isn’t… or is it… or maybe it is happening too quickly!? The reasons why I say this require a little more thought and I will do my best to explain further throughout this article.

It is fairly widely accepted now that BIM and digital construction is the present and the future, and it is acknowledged that thanks to the government’s pull for modernisation of project delivery and asset management, the UK is now at the forefront of the global BIM programme.

We are continually reminded at the plethora of BIM/digital conferences by headline speakers about “how far the UK construction industry has come” since the 2011 government strategy paper calling for what we now know as BIM Level 2. Those reading this are no doubt already aware that the mandate for BIM Level 2 came into effect in April 2016 for the government clients across its central departments.

While industry has come a long way in the last six years and reminds those of us working in the BIM space to pat ourselves on the back and feel some pride that our industry is changing for the better, in reality the proportion who can actually play their part on a BIM Level 2 project to the required standard(s) is still relatively small. 

This observation is not limited to the supply chain but to clients too. Therefore, the stark reality at present is that although projects may (or may not) have BIM Level 2 expressed contractually via Employer’s Information Requirements (EIRs), there are a number of reasons why the benefits of working in a BIM Level 2 environment are not fully realised by those involved.

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Often BIM is costing the client more in the capital phase rather than delivering savings via efficiencies gained therein, perhaps putting clients off to the initial investment to realise lifecycle benefits.

Before looking into the reasons behind this, we have to remind ourselves of one of the core drivers for BIM – to improve efficiencies across the supply and demand chain to deliver and manage more cost-effective assets throughout the capital and operational phases.

So in even simpler and broader terms the objective of BIM Level 2 is to start improving outcomes for all involved in project delivery and operation. 

While there are some great case studies being shared across the industry and published “savings” by the government client to date, I feel there are a number of current issues limiting efficiencies and positive outcomes that we perhaps should be realising by now:

  • Not all of the UK government central departments are BIM Level 2 ready despite being almost a year into the mandate. Therefore, it appears there is little or no policing/governance of this mandate, which sends a mixed message to the supply chain.
  • EIRs (when produced) are often not thought through in context of how the project is to be delivered and what the client really wants. The EIR is more of a “tick the standards guidance” exercise rather than looking in detail at what is required to improve project delivery and ultimately asset management.
  • Asset Information Requirements (AIRs) are an even rarer beast than the EIR, and this accurate scope for data exchange (whether via COBie or other) is often the missing link for procuring useful accurate data from the supply chain.
  • Procurement routes and contracts currently don’t lend themselves to the collaborative, integrated team environment required for BIM Level 2. (The CIC BIM Protocol helps to address intellectual property and the information manager appointment, but is more of a temporary fix than a solution).  Blame culture is still apparent and in force despite the advent of innovative contracts such as Integrated Project Insurance.
  • The numerous developing standards and specifications for BIM Level 2 are prone to contradictions and errors, creating confusion and introducing the risk of companies interpreting and implementing subtly different versions of industry standards.
  • Supply chain drivers for adopting BIM are mainly to satisfy the end client (or direct employer), not to look at internal benefits of improved information management, smarter working and gaining efficiencies internally harnessing technology and data. 
  • Moving down through the supply chain tiers it is apparent one of the fundamental requirements for BIM Level 2 workflow isn’t understood by some, and often it is preferred to work up a 2D design and then retrospectively produce a 3D model off the back of this. This not only wholly defeats the BIM “single source of truth” and collaborative requirement, but also means workload is effectively doubled and this wasteful process of course costs more.
  • A good proportion of the supply chain still struggles with BIM Level 1 (BS 1192:2007) that provides the core information management foundations for Level 2. (In hindsight should there have been a BIM Level 1 mandate!?)

So there are a number of issues presenting challenges to the widespread upskilling of industry to adopt BIM Level 2. At the same time industry needs to rapidly gain a core understanding and mastery of Level 2 over the next few years before Level 3 Digital Built Britain can come into effect, responding to the targets set out in the government’s 2025 construction strategy.

Arguably the step change between Level 2 and “full” Level 3 will be more significant and disruptive than the Level 0 to Level 2 journey.

The graph above is borrowed from the UK BIM Alliance. As a rough estimate, we think at 2016-17 approximately 16% of industry has adopted the skills and understanding to work to BIM Level 2.

The graph also indicates the huge effort required by 2020 to reach a point where 75% of the supply and demand chain are at business as usual for working at Level 2.

One of my observations earlier was that the supply chain drivers for BIM adoption are primarily client driven and not necessarily for improving internal workflows and efficiencies by harnessing technology and process. 

While this is a generalisation and not true for all, the fact that the BIM Level 2 mandate only applies to central government departments presents a major issue for the 2020 business as usual Level 2 target. That being said there are a number of private sector clients and especially university clients now procuring their schemes at BIM Level 2, as they see benefit for this way of working (to ultimately improve portfolio management) which is encouraging.

The question remains if and when will the local government client and remaining private clients come to the party? The vast majority of local government/council commissioned schemes across the UK don’t yet demand BIM Level 2, meaning their supply chain doesn’t necessarily need to respond to the calling of modernisation at present.

My conclusion is therefore, confusingly, that BIM adoption isn’t happening fast enough to reach the 2020 target of Level 2 business as usual, but perhaps this is actually an unrealistic target to meet bearing in mind the ability for a hugely complex and disparate industry to move at a consistent rate to modernisation as a core mass.

It really is up to business leaders across industry to take up the mantle for this challenge seriously, and ensure their own business strategies prioritise BIM and digital construction. They will need to invest in digital technologies, improve processes and ensure their workforce is upskilled and supported adequately by specialists to remain competitive AND to realise internal benefits.

To quote the strapline from the Farmer report the message is surely as simple as “modernise or die”.

While industry has come a long way in the last six years and reminds those of us working in the BIM space that our industry is changing for the better, in reality the proportion who can actually play their part on a BIM Level 2 project to the required standard(s) is still relatively small. – Andy Boutle, BIM Regions East