Members of the National Housing Federation (NHF) and UK BIM Alliance are collaborating on a joint project to help housing associations implement digital asset management. Denise Chevin caught up with the project lead Jack Ostrofsky, head of quality and design at Southern Housing Group, and asked him about its aims, barriers to BIM uptake in housing, and what implementing a 'digital' golden thread will mean to the sector.
You’re the head of quality and design at Southern Housing Group: what does that entail?
It’s quite a broad role across the development team and also involves technical management. I have a team of five – three clerks of works, a CDM manager, and design and technical manager. I look after quality management that spans quality assurance from concept designs for planning, our standard employers’ requirements and quality control with our team of site inspectors.
The role plays a key part setting crucial policies on themes like fire safety and sustainability. Added to that is setting a BIM strategy and implementing it, which has started with enabling documentation setting out our asset information requirements.
Housing associations generally have dramatically increased their focus on fire safety. One of the key responsibilities I have is making sure that our developments – we build around 1,000 homes a year – are designed to be compatible with our maintenance and management strategy; questions like 'are the sprinkler flow switches in the right place so they can be accessed without going into peoples’ homes', these sorts of things. So there’s much more joining up of the development and asset side I would say than there has been in the past.
Where does your interest in championing BIM come from?
I’ve unusual experience within housing associations because I’ve worked in both development and asset management over the last decade for a number of housing associations. My first job in housing was as a fire risk surveyor for Peabody, after I qualified as a surveyor. Before that, I’d trained as a carpenter when I first moved to the UK from the US in 2006 and quickly found myself running building sites. I have witnessed how the complexity of residential building has increased exponentially over the last 15 years. As an asset manager, I experienced the frustration of having to spend my time scrolling through PDFs, and operation and management files trying to find information about the specifications for elements in our housing blocks.
Good information about buildings needs to be available to everyone. We’re still finding our way, but we’re getting closer than we have been.
Coupled with that, I also led the fire safety taskforce for Genesis/Notting Hill and got involved through the NHF with the Industry Response Group, set up by the government to gather advice on ACM tower block remediation and how else industry and government should work together on how best to respond to the terrible risks exposed by Grenfell.
All these experiences helped shape my view of the need to have a digital record of our buildings.
People who run housing businesses switch off when it comes to BIM. It’s difficult communicating what BIM is – it’s very esoteric, people are busy and want a simple solution.– Jack Ostrofsky, Southern Housing Group
Why do you think BIM has been slow to take off in housing associations?
BIM has been slow to take off in housing generally despite the complexity of some developments, including high rise and mixed use. People who run housing businesses switch off when it comes to BIM. It’s difficult communicating what BIM is – it’s very esoteric, people are busy and want a simple solution.
It’s also hard to make a business case, in the sense you can’t easily measure return on investment. It doesn’t really help either that we’d all got used to understanding terms like BIM Level 2 – and that gets dropped as we transition to ISO 19650. I understand why, and it was necessary, but it just makes it harder. I’m lucky that I’m in a well-financed organisation and therefore we’ve been able to adapt to the new ISO standard, but many contractors we work with still refer to BIM level 2. The transition from previous is still ongoing and is much harder for contractors especially now in these uncertain times of Brexit and the pandemic.
To be enthusiastic about BIM, you have to understand the benefits of adopting the process, and how as a client it allows you to keep track of what’s going on, and how it makes for a much more collaborative process, and then the benefit it brings of having digital information of an asset.
After Grenfell, it was necessary to establish very quickly what cladding we had on various buildings (owned by the housing associations I worked with at the time): it quickly became apparent just how useful it would be to have digital data.
And I think housing associations across the board understand that, and the need to obtain more accurate information from the building process. So I would say there’s growing recognition of the wider benefits among housing associations. The interest in BIM 4 Housing will be a litmus test of that.
Will reforms in the building safety programme – including the requirement for the digital 'golden thread of information' – drive BIM uptake?
Yes, most definitely. I appreciate that there might be perceived mixed messages coming out of the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG). [In a document published in April, A reformed building safety regulatory system, the requirements the department had set out seemed to be very basic ‘BIM Level 1’ and has drawn criticism from some BIM experts: https://www.bimplus.co.uk/news/government-sets-out-digital-requirements-establish/]
I think we need to be more understanding. The MHCLG is not a BIM expert, and it has to be careful between being too prescriptive and setting a performance requirement. But I do know this is something the building safety programme team are looking into. They are listening to the industry. They want to get it right. So I think we will see more ambitions than BIM Level 1.
Mandating that building owners draw up digital records of all of their existing buildings in scope of the new legislation is a difficult one for government and in fact building owners.
It’s very important to strike a balance of the benefits and costs against the risk. If organisations are going to go to the trouble and expense of doing point cloud surveys to create 3D digital models, then they have to think hard about what are they going to do with that information? Are their internal systems able to store that information and make it available?
Housing associations recognise that data is an important part of safety compliance and many are already creating digital records of existing buildings and enhancing their systems and processes. This will take time. I would advocate combining these efforts with the National Digital Twin agenda, which is at the same time acknowledging this will all take some time.
Mandating that building owners draw up digital records of all of their existing buildings in scope of the new legislation is a difficult one for government and in fact building owners.– Jack Ostrofsky, Southern Housing Group
Can you tell us more about BIM 4 Housing Associations?
Well the group’s not actually an 'official' UK BIM Alliance group – at least not yet – it is instead a project and as such we are receiving support from the Alliance and we’ve got a lot of support from the sector, including the NHF. We’re being funded by A2 Dominion, Notting Hill Genesis, Peabody, Optivo, Sovereign and Southern Housing Group. The real backbone of our efforts is the time, energy and effort contributed by practitioners, architects, contractors, engineers and BIM specialists.
We’ve launched an introductory brochure, 'BIM 4 Housing Associations: Asset Management in the 21st Century', setting out our aims: https://www.bimplus.co.uk/news/bim-guidance-housing-associations-launched/
Our plan is to develop a set of exemplar documents, compliant with the UK BIM Framework, that together with a report will provide a quick-start guide to implementing digital processes. These include the business case for BIM for housing associations, examples of projects in action, the benefits of applying BIM processes to existing buildings, and exemplar exchange information requirements for development projects.
We are also speaking with the chair of BIM 4 Housing. We are conscious of not overlapping. The issues we’re focussing on are very much client-orientated whereas BIM 4 Housing has a much wider remit.
We hope that people will take our documents, provide feedback so that we can make the next edition even better and we can get the group off the ground.
Main photo: Southern Housing Group's The Mannings development in Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex