as NBS responds to key questions

NBS has responded to issues raised by industry practitioners trialling the beta version of the BIM Toolkit – the online system designed to guide clients and their teams through implementation of a BIM Level 2 project.

Stephen Hamil, director of design and innovation and head of BIM at RIBA Enterprises, which owns NBS, has told BIM+ that there’s been an “encouraging start” with more than 1,000 projects so far set up on the system, representing 50 different countries.  

However, the Toolkit it is still missing a major piece of its functionality: the ability to generate a pass/fail checklist on the project and design management data input by clients or their representatives.

Hamil said that this element was currently in “private beta” ready for release to the industry in the early summer, and also urged industry professionals to contribute to its ongoing development.

But while the Toolkit in general has been praised as the “missing link” many have been waiting for, there has clearly also been some head-scratching going on, judging by posts on Twitter and LinkedIn. 

A lengthy blog post by Rob Jackson of architect Bond Bryan – which raises issues such as the fact that only one individual per firm can access each project – has been read over 800 times. 

Hamil told BIM+ that the NBS was “building up a list of requests for changes” to the beta version, and made the following responses to six areas of concern:

1. Commercial aspects

The Toolkit includes adverts from product manufacturers, and also from companies in the RIBA Enterprises family, such as RIBA Product Selector, NBS Create and National BIM Library.

The NBS was given £1m funding for an initial development period for the Toolkit. However, Hamil said that the NBS must now run and develop the website over the next five years. He explained that, to create a “sustainable commercial model … advertising was the model we came up with”.

He pointed out that the adverts respond to the progress of the project: at the early stages, users might see adverts for technical literature, and later on they might see BIM objects being promoted.

“We think we’ve done it in an elegant way – it’s not like pop-ups or banner advertising where everyone sees the same advert. We make it relevant to the area you’re working in,” he said.

2. Generating specifications

[Amended version] Raj Chwala, vice chair of BIM4SME and chief technology officer for Nunelah Design Consultants, says that his firm has identified several areas where the Toolkit beta has functional glitches.

In addition, he highlights the fact that anyone clicking on the button labelled “generate spec” will find the system generates a zip file containing an html file and an unreadable file suffixed ".spex". The .html file is a link to a webpage inviting users to sign up to an NBS Create subscription in order to produce their specification.  

Hamil said that users can click on the "export" button to generate a Microsoft Office Excel file of all the data in the project Toolkit, then use the relevant data in the spreadsheet to start writing their specification sheet. He added that the "generate spec" functionality is largely intended for existing NBS Create customers. 

3. Terms and conditions

Shaun Farrell of Turner & Townsend has been reading the small print. In a LinkedIn post he wrote: “I do not want to bash this in any way, it is an astounding piece of work with obviously a lot of effort. I would just like transparency and part of my concern can be found here.

“Any content you upload to our site will be considered non-confidential and non-proprietary. You retain all of your ownership rights in your content, but you are required to grant us and other users of the site a limited licence to use, store and copy that content and to distribute and make it available to third parties.”

Farrell added: “Many commercial clients will not want their projects in that environment, it will need to be anonymised.”

Hamil said that he was not familiar with the detailed wording of the terms and conditions, and would pass on any concerns to NBS’s legal team.

4. Security of data 

Others, like Farrell, have raised concerns about how secure their project data will be once it’s uploaded to the BIM Toolkit: BIM+ has heard of one major developer that is wary of exploring the Toolkit out of fear that its project data could be hacked or leaked.

Hamil argued that concerns were misplaced, as the Toolkit would only contain information about the management of the project, rather than the design or technical information itself. “You have your own private area, and the only thing you put in is the demand information,” he said.

But he added: “We’re having meetings with the authors of PAS 1992:5 [on cyber security, currently in draft from] and we’ll be incorporating links to the standard and guidance.”

However, Raj Chwala argued that information in the Toolkit, such as the deliverables on M&E, could have security implications, and that it was likely that NBS would have to offer a beefed-up security protocol to comply with the final version of PAS 1992:5, for instance providing every user with a secure “token”.

5. Interoperability 

A key aspect of the original government specification for the Toolkit is that its data should be in an open format, allowing data to be exported and imported from other software, and other software developers to align their own tools with the Toolkit.

The Toolkit’s “export” function creates files in a proprietary NBS format called .dpow, which the site explains is actually a JSON file format used widely in the software industry.

However, Chwala says that extracting the information from .dpow files is cumbersome, involving “triple-handling” the data. “There are multiple manual operations to get the data, why not just make it easier for everybody?” he asked.

But Hamil pointed out that .dpow files were only one export option available: COBIe, IFC and Excel were all alternatives.

6. Suitability for the operational stage

Kath Fontana, managing director of BAM FM is very positive about the Toolkit, telling BIM+: “Overall I was very impressed with the amount of work that’s clearly gone into this product. Especially good to see was the flexibility and detail available for clients to define their EIRs through LOD and LOI.”

She also looked forward to testing the “data validation process. At stage 6 this will be incredibly useful for the FM community and will reduce cost, risk and waste in the building mobilisation and operational phases.”

But in a later LinkedIn post she wrote: “I have been looking at the new BIM Toolkit just released in beta. It does not facilitate any development of information in the asset information model stage (PAS 1192:3). It appears that there is practically nothing related to FM, in fact the stage 7 details are exactly the same as stage 6, implying to me that we are about to recreate the same old disjointed mentality between projects/operations.”

Hamil stressed that NBS is engaging with “many different focus groups and any organisation that wants to get involved” to improve the software.

Asked when the Toolkit would be formally “out of beta”, Hamil pointed out that it would be subject to a continual process of reform and improvement.

“It’s intended to be in use for a minimum of five years, but I think it will be around a lot longer. It will always be getting improved, there are always new technologies and new standards,” he concluded. 

We’re having meetings with the authors of PAS 1992:5 [on cyber security] and we’ll be incorporating links in the standard and guidance.– Stephen Hamil, RIBA Enterprises

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  1. I think we need to give NBS a break! They’ve assembled a world class consortium to deliver the toolkit. They’ve engaged with the CIOB and the other leading professional institutes. We need to get real- THERE IS NO GOVERNMENT MONEY TO BE PUT INTO THIS! All along, the Government has said this is how we want information delivered but it is up to industry to provide the answers. The deal with the TSB competition was for the Toolkit to be commercialised so that it could be provided free to end users. Working on this sort of stuff £1m really doesn’t get you very far! So I think all things being equal they’ve done pretty well. Of course more development is required, but in BIM world that applies to everything. As soon as we understand a bit, we want more. I often think of this as a public experiment because all this development is happening in public view with social media, comment and scrutiny. The most amazing thing here is the Toolkit being used in 50 countries around the world already. Amazing! The UK is leading the world in developing a strategy and approach to BIM adoption, Level 2, 3 and beyond. It is a shame that the numbers aggressively adopting BIM in the UK still remain quite small. However the endgame is inevitable, it is only a matter of time! Here endeth the rant!

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