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Analysis

Mace's Marzia Bolpagni Q&A: 'BIM is for everyone'

11 December 2020

Q&A: Marzia Bolpagni, senior advisor on BIM at Mace

Marzia Bolpagni, senior advisor on building information modelling at Mace, has been at the forefront of ensuring digital assets are delivered to clients in a suitable form. Here she talks to Denise Chevin about her work ensuring that becomes business as usual for every client. 

BIM is for everyone, not just experts, says Marzia Bolpagni, senior advisor on BIM at Mace, member of the BIM Excellence Initiative and assistant editor of the BIM Dictionary, ambassador of the UK BIM Alliance and task group leader at the European Committee for Standardization [sic].

Since her days as an engineering student in Italy, Bolpagni has been looking at how clients can get more out of BIM. Her interest in simplifying digital processes took her to Finland, which was in the vanguard of client studies, before joining the Massachusetts Port Authority in Boston. She moved to London for a digital role at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in 2017, where she reported to the department’s head of BIM, before joining Mace as strategic BIM advisor while she completed her PhD at the Politecnico di Milano in 2018.

Here she explains how she’s simplifying BIM to give clients digital methods and tools they can actually use.

I realised we need to improve the way clients specify what information they really need. So I started looking at the level of information that clients should put in their brief.– Marzia Bolpagni, Mace

Why did you decide to look at BIM from the client’s view, rather than as most people have done, from the contractor’s view?

Since I was doing my Master thesis in Finland, I could see how clients were struggling with all the information they were getting from designers and contractors.

The system was designed more for the needs of the contractors than the clients. To get away from that, I realised we need to improve the way clients specify what information they really need. So I started looking at the level of information that clients should put in their brief.

When I moved to the US, I appreciated they talk about a lean approach and how to be purpose-driven. But there are still too many people in lots of countries who sell BIM as one central model for design and construction. You just press a button and out comes the solution. We’ve got to get away from that approach. We need to stop thinking of BIM as a magic box that can do everything.

In reality, there’s an ecosystem of different applications, depending, for example, on whether you want an energy analysis or a structural analysis. And if you want to use your model for either of those analyses, the information you need is different. After all, if you’re only interested in cost analysis, you don’t need to know about the visual aspects.

From an owner or client point of view, the challenge is how to then get information that they can use in their operation and maintenance, and reuse that information to do new projects.

I know clients that have 200 models that they used during design and construction, and now they can’t use them anymore, because they didn’t have a plan for keeping that information updated, and now they can’t be used during the operational phase because they can’t find what they want. And that is waste! Such an approach cannot allow us to achieve the golden thread of information required by the UK government.

As a client, you’re saying why you need information and then what your information model looks like and which information and documentation are required.– Marzia Bolpagni, Mace

You’ve been doing a lot of work in helping clients define their needs: what are you working towards now and how’s it going?

I’ve been examining LOD – the “level of definition”, or the “level of development” as it’s known in the UK and America. It focuses on the combination of level of information and level of detail in terms of requirements to create models such as geometrical representation and associated values. For example, the manufacture, the colour, the performances, acoustic ratings.

For example, think about a wall. It can just be a box, or you can require it to have different layers each with different performance values.

If you want to use your model for cost or energy or so on, people need to spend time creating those deliverables. At the end, what the clients really want is to be able to use that information, especially if they are also the owner, during operation and maintenance.

Back in 2016, when I was still a PhD student, I was one of the first people to say: “Guys, the current way of how we specify information using simple labels isn't making sense, our industry can do better.”

It was about then I received a message from Dr Thomas Leibich - one of the founders of IFC, the Industry Foundation Classes, the open data scheme that is being standardised at ISO level. He asked me to work at a European level, to standardise this topic with other experts.

So, for the past four years, I’ve been leading a group of experts from 16 countries looking at the Level of Information Need, a framework to better define the extent and granularity of information and avoid waste of information. The standard has been published and it is available at BSI website - it’s called EN17412-1: https://shop.bsigroup.com/ProductDetail?pid=000000000030382760.

How will this standard affect the UK?

In the UK, BIM level 2 dealt with the employer’s information requirements and the level of definition, but with the new ISO 19650 series, this concept has been changed. We don’t have “LOD” anymore, but we have the “level of information need”, and that’s what this framework is all about. You can find more details also in the Guidance on ISO 19650 series (Part D) as part of the UK BIM Framework.

The new aspect is that it’s purpose-driven. So, first, you need to say why you need the information. And then you need to specify the geometry, the geometrical information, the different attributes, alphanumerical information, and documentation required to achieve the identified purpose. Basically, as a client, you’re saying why you need information and then what your information model looks like and which information and documentation are required.

Take a chair for example – before we were just saying “I want a chair LOD3, LOI3 in the design phase”. It is quite open to interpretation, isn’t it? Now, instead, we are asked in the brief, to start identifying the purposes in different phases (e.g. rendering, quantity take off  during design, etc.) and then, you just say you want a chair in a particular space with realistic appearance for rendering purpose, but not any additional attributes or documentation, while for quantity take off, you ask for type information, and you don’t care about the dimensions as you just want to count how many chairs of the same type you have.

In this way, different professionals will be able to filter and just get what they need at the right time. In addition, it will be possible to support automatic and semi-automatic verification and validation of information to ensure quality of deliverables against requirements (checking if a chair in your model is “LOD3” is quite challenging; instead, checking that it has the value “type” defined or it has a realistic appearance is quite straightforward!).

The standard, at European level, is defining this concept. At ISO level, so far there is just a generic definition on the level of the information need and how to apply it. At standard European level, we went into more detail in providing examples, specifying which aspects of the geometrical information.

We need to invest in BIM education at university level - students still finish their degrees and they don’t know about anything about BIM.– Marzia Bolpagni, Mace

From your standpoint, how established is BIM in the UK? Has it yet become ‘business as usual’?

No, I don’t see that a digital approach is business as usual yet. But a lot has been done so far to enable a digital journey. We need to invest in BIM education at university level  students still finish their degrees and they don’t know about anything about BIM, so companies need to spend money to train those people. If we don’t change it so that young people have that mindset, that cultural approach, it is difficult to have ‘business as usual’.

What about the supply chain? Is that lagging behind too?

Yes, especially when we go to the smallest parts of the supply chain. For them, it’s still perceived as an additional cost. There should be a different business model, where the cost isn’t on their shoulders. We need to support SMEs and create an environment where they can provide the information that is needed in a digital way.

Tell us about your role at Mace, and also the BIM Excellence Initiative.

I’m a senior BIM advisor at the company. I work in the consultancy part of the business, helping private and public sector clients develop and implement their digital strategies.

As I’ve explained, there is a real need in the UK with the mandate to have client requirements on BIM that are relevant for the different organisations. It is not a box-ticking exercise: it is there to produce something that can empower them to better manage their asset and their estate.

I firmly believe BIM is for everyone, not just for experts, and I try to explain this topic in plain language, so people aren’t scared of it. We don’t have to create this barrier, or have BIM consultancy as a separate silo, or create an additional layer.

I don’t see there being BIM experts in the future. At the moment, we’re in a transition period, so there are BIM experts. But soon BIM will just be there to empower the architect, the engineer, the cost consultants, and allow them to spend more time with the clients rather than being there to count how many doors there are in a drawing.

Clearer terminology and clearer definitions will help make BIM more accessible, and this is something I’ve been working on in my role as assistant editor of the BIM Dictionary, which is part of the BIM Excellence Initiative. It’s a community effort, at international level, to have a common approach on BIM. There’s a team of 130-140 people that are volunteering their time on this project.

The BIM Dictionary is available online for free (https://bimdictionary.com), and has been translated into 25 languages so far.

In it, there are 700-plus terms, they are also going to be aligned and linked with the ISO 19650 new terms and concepts. These hopefully will be launched early next year .

So imagine a person that is not familiar with BIM at all, and they see all these different acronyms - the dictionary will help them learn. But also, there is a link for each term, and they can include it in their requirements or contracts or so on. You can also incorporate it into your own website, if you want to create your own glossary for example. I use it in my day to day job to make BIM accessible to everyone.

What areas are you focusing on most at Mace at the moment?

One of our big areas of activity is our work for the Construction Innovation Hub, and specifically the topic of standardisation of governmental department specification. By standardising wherever possible, it means that one client can procure at a bigger level and have this platform approach.

The UK government has been investing millions in the industrialisation of our sector. Mace is helping, and I’m leading this project at the moment, working with the other partners, Grimshaw and BuroHappold, in order to define those gaps and those differences, and trying to standardise things across government departments. Mace has been working on those topics for several years now, gaining experience on MoJ projects in collaboration with other industry organisations such as Bryden Wood.

For example, take a situation when we need to create a meeting room for two people - why should the DfE’s meeting room be different from the DfT’s? It should be the same across the government estate. Or if there is a toilet pod, or an accessible toilet pod, why can’t we standardise this?

There are some peculiarities, but there are many things that can be standardised. If you think about manufacturing a car, you can have 11 options, but actually they are coming from three different platforms. They change the wheels, the different covering parts, but the structure behind the car is just three different types, not 11.

So we need to stop thinking about building typologies, but instead move to a platform approach. This is what’s exciting me most at the moment.

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