BIM consultants and their role in digital transformation

At the seventh in our series of roundtable discussions run by the Centre for Digital Built Britain in association with Chartered Institute of Building, we brought together specialist BIM consultants to share their insights and consider the progress being made towards BIM as “business as usual”.

The message coming through loud and clear was that although BIM has the potential to deliver enormous benefits, there is still some way to go before it becomes business as usual. There are many shining examples of good practice, particularly in the public sector, but the majority of private sector clients still lack a clear understanding of what BIM is and what it can offer, not just at the design and build stage, but throughout the lifetime of the asset. A shortage of skills across the sector was also highlighted as one of the main obstacles to progress.

These were some of the issues aired by a group of consultants specialising in BIM who had gathered together for the seventh in our series of digital debates organised by the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) and the CIOB. CDBB will use these sessions, which are also covering academia and training, constructors, consultants, manufacturers, SMEs, asset and facilities management and technology companies, to help understand how BIM is being adopted and to inform future work.

Where we are now

Chairing the event were CDBB’s Terry Stocks and Fiona Moore. They began by asking how far the participants think BIM has come in recent years.

While there was widespread agreement that progress has definitely been made, there was also consensus that work remains to be done. Lawrence Chapman, BIM consultant at TempleGate Projects, felt that “private sector clients only use BIM because their architects or contractors are using it. They are not getting any advantage or benefit from BIM themselves.”

Most of the benefits are being retained in the supply chain, with suppliers using BIM to make significant efficiencies to their way of working, with the longer-term benefits not necessarily being passed on to the client.

Marzia Bolpagni: ‘Need to use plain language’

Thomas Lindner, digital transformation projects, associate director, at IT consultant Nitty Gritty, suggested that in some cases BIM is being used to create an environment  in which “contractors impose certain ways of working on building services engineers” rather than, as Stocks put it, “using BIM to work collaboratively and as a means of delivering a desired outcome rather than a particular output”.

There was a widely held view that for many companies, a superficial compliance with BIM is masking a lack of underlying change. According to Rob Jackson, associate director at Bond Bryan Digital: “Many construction companies haven’t fundamentally changed how they deliver projects. They are not digitalised, they are just ticking boxes to get certification.”

Expanding on this theme, he went on to argue that a lack of client awareness could undermine the procurement process. If a client decides it wants a building, it immediately “appoints a project manager or architect and then you’ve lost the opportunity to get everyone around a table and working collaboratively”. It would be better, he suggested, “to have those initial stages managed as a separate service in order to develop a proper brief from an information perspective and only then appoint designers and other service providers”.

There was much agreement that procurement is key, with an example in the nuclear sector cited by Ray Purvis, associate director of digital construction at Atkins, of where good practice and working “collaboratively at an early stage of procurement” has ultimately created “huge savings”.

David Glennon, managing director of digital consultant DoubleD and member of the UK BIM Alliance executive team, was also upbeat, pointing to some “more mature clients who are trying to create smart destinations in, say, retail or airports, to get closer to their customers and make their asset more relevant to them. They are now seeing the value of BIM in making that happen. But that’s a small group.”

Stocks wondered if it is too easy to blame the client for not being sufficiently knowledgeable about BIM. Purvis agreed: “Why would a client know? It’s our job [as BIM consultants], to raise their awareness.”

At least part of the problem for Marzia Bolpagni, BIM adviser at Mace, is the persistent complexity around BIM. “It is really important to start using plain language to engage people. What we must avoid doing is creating another silo for BIM experts rather than helping people across the business understand what BIM is and why it is relevant.”

There was much agreement when Stocks asked if discussions with clients are too focused on capital expenditure and not enough on through-life benefits, but Andrew Victory, global BIM lead and technical director at Arcadis, made the point also that “we need to understand that for some clients there isn’t an end-user and it’s simply about selling on and reducing costs to maximise their profits”.

Having acknowledged that one size does not fit all there was, however, a consensus that the sector needs compelling, sector-specific case studies to demonstrate the benefits of BIM. The need for standard data templates has come up at previous roundtables, and the consultants here were also of the opinion that they would represent a huge step forward in making BIM business as usual.

A shortage of skills

Alongside a lack of client demand, Andrew Johnson, adviser at Operam, identified a lack of training as the second major barrier preventing take-up of BIM across the entire supply chain. When Stocks asked what skills are needed, “coding skills” was the immediate response, but Michael Hudson, associate director at FL Innovations, qualified this by saying: “You also need discernment, knowing how to apply that knowledge is key.”

Andrew Johnson: Lack of training is a barrier

He also expressed concern about the challenge of hiring data scientists which is difficult at the moment “in the construction tech industry because the job roles aren’t yet there – or the salaries”.

The need for change management expertise as well as digital skills was emphasised, as was the importance of getting senior management on board, which, according to Glennon, means not talking about “geometry and standards but focusing on the business benefits and return on investment”.

Jennifer Macdonald, senior BIM consultant at PCSG, stressed the need for “people who can act as connectors and can share knowledge across different disciplines”. She also commented on the different approaches taken by both professional bodies and educational institutions in different countries: “I’ve seen change around the world, an increase in collaborative working between disciplines which up to now have been very siloed. Historically, there was no such thing as separate professions and maybe they should come back together again.”

The need to change

It was universally agreed that doing nothing is not an option with Chapman warning about the increasing intensity of global competition. “The amount China is investing in BIM and digital construction is phenomenal. We’re leading the world now, but we need to continue to invest and change fast. Otherwise we will drop the ball.”

Stocks asked the group for their thoughts on the impact of digitalisation on the sector, and the possibility that firms from outside the industry may come in and steal a march on the incumbents. Victory pointed to the fact that there are “startups everywhere which is always a sign that disruption is just around the corner. We should be scared. And Facebook is talking about open standards with Google around crowd simulation in towns. How can we compete with companies like that?”

Chapman added: “Google has been doing a lot of work with a major constructor, trying to understand its processes.” David Owens mentioned that WeWork has just appointed a Revit developer as its design technology automation lead, the role needing both C# and Python experience. And Tesla is challenging its suppliers to improve design through design automation.

The future shape of the industry was also discussed, and the idea that large organisations may become a thing of the past with large projects being tackled by agglomerations of SMEs coming together and then disbanding. Purvis also noted that large firms may be seeking to break into smaller more agile entities as “they look for new service lines and new business opportunities”.

This way of working may resonate with the next generations of employees who “don’t buy into the whole corporate badge thing”, suggested Moore.

The session concluded with Moore asking the participants what they think the role of BIM consultants will be in the future and if there will come a point when their services are no longer required. Jackson thought there was still plenty of work to be done: “Look at how the industry has progressed in the last six or seven years but there is still a long way to go. It will continue to evolve, something new will always come along.”

Macdonald added: “I’m not sure it will be called BIM consultancy but the need for information management and digital skills is going to keep growing. There will always be a need for consultants.”

How are you helping your clients to reap the benefits of digital transformation and what do you need to help you make BIM business as usual?

David Owens, Costain BIM Consultancy – “We’ve got to set the bar really high so that we can all aspire to attain better productivity, better data, better outcomes. It is not just for the design phase or the construction phase, but for the long-term, for the social impact, for the greater good.”

Ray Purvis, Akins – “BIM gives us the foundation of good information management on which we can build our digital opportunities. I’m bringing my experience of project delivery and thought leadership to influence processes and standards within our business.

“For our clients, early engagement is really important, and a realisation of the benefits good information management can give them.”    

Andrew Victory, Arcadis – “We try to listen to where our clients’ pain points are, see what they’re trying to tackle and how BIM can enable that. We are trying to create a common, global language, especially for projects with large companies, where we are working across multiple countries and with multiple eco-system partners.”

Nahim Iqbal: Impartial advice to clients

Nahim Iqbal, BIM Academy – “We like to understand and listen to our clients in terms of what their problems are rather than dictate solutions. We continue to provide impartial advice for all our clients based on our technical expertise and experiences on major projects across the world.”

Stefan Mordue, Aecom – “We involve all stakeholders from the client organisation and capture their requirements in order to get a clear understanding of the outcomes they want to achieve. We also recognise that BIM is just one component in a much bigger conversation that includes things like soft landings. It is also important to not just focus on capital expenditure, but to think more about operations and how we can integrate with existing data and asset databases to unlock value.”

Marzia Bolpagni, Mace – “First you need to understand your clients’ current processes and then explain the benefits in clear language. Then you need to define their needs and avoid the overproduction of information that does not create value for the client.”  

Michael Hudson, FL Innovations – “We are democratising the data by hosting it on free platforms which allow clients to engage with what we’ve found out, rather than it just being: “Aren’t we clever: here is a complicated set of rules.”

“I continue to expand skills by putting my time into non-profit community industry groups.”

Thomas Lindner, Nitty Gritty – “We take a pragmatic approach and believe that integration of business information systems paired with improvement of processes results in steady innovation.  

“To make BIM “business as usual” and to deliver benefits relevant to the business, consultants like us need to measure our success based on the organisational change we deliver.”

Andrew Johnson, Operam – “We know that implementing BIM starts with vision and leadership, this has been discussed at length in the barriers of adopting BIM, but ultimately the driving force is through the individuals who will apply BIM in their day-to-day execution of projects.

“Value planning whilst embracing everybody’s interest motivates the employees from various organisations and the supply chain to participate in the collaboration.”

Lawrence Chapman, TempleGate Projects – “It’s really important to understand what outcomes the client is looking for, whether it’s return on investment, safety, efficiency or whatever.

“We are passionate about encouraging the best talent into our industry so UK plc can become world class. I would love to develop a data dictionary across the industry. It’s the missing piece.

“We also need to rationalise the number of institutions that are supporting BIM to be more aligned and pool resources in one core organisation.”

Jennifer Macdonald, PCSG – “We try to avoid clients having to abandon their existing ways of working by building a platform where we can bring together new and existing data. We are also bringing together education providers with clients and we are providing training ourselves.

“We need more collaboration across the industry. We need to encourage STEM skills, particularly in terms of diversity. If we don’t, we are going to be overtaken by other countries very quickly.”

Rob Jackson, Bond Bryan Digital – “We are helping to develop good requirements documents built around open standards as well as supporting the practical delivery of open standards. We need better open standard support from vendors and we should be making open standards business as usual, particularly for facilities management. We have to do more to convince of the value of good information management.”

David Glennon, DoubleD and UK BIM Alliance – “We will continue to take the more strategic view that BIM is about digital transformation, looking at clients and their business outcomes and aligning the transformations to that.

“I’d like to see more backing for the likes of UK BIM Alliance and buildingSmart. We rely on a small number of organisations and people putting in hundreds of hours of their personal time. If we are serious about this, this can’t be the right approach.”

Key takeaways

  • In spite of considerable progress in recent years, BIM is still not sufficiently well understood by many clients, particularly those in the private sector.
  • The sector still needs a clearer articulation (with case studies) of the benefits of BIM for the clients, the supply chain and the end-users throughout the lifetime of the asset.
  • If BIM is to deliver those benefits, the industry needs new collaborative procurement models.
  • The industry needs new skills, particularly data scientists and information managers and needs to find a way of attracting them away from areas such as fintech.
  • Standard (or ‘vanilla’) templates for BIM data deliverables would simplify the process and help with client take-up.
  • Other countries are investing heavily in BIM and are likely to overtake the UK if we do not make good progress.
  • If construction firms are not able to digitalise the sector someone else will come in and do it instead.
  • The sector’s professional bodies and the UK’s educational institutions need to come together to reflect the way the industry is moving towards a more collaborative, less siloed, way of working.
  • There will always be a role for digital/information management consultants.
  • Clients should consider engaging a wider skill set when starting a project. Digital expertise at an early stage can deliver benefits across the whole life cycle
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  1. Based on lots of experiences with standardisation processes and standards and most important based on input of users (architects, construction firms, specialists and manufacturers) we developed a method and circular system for unique identifying parts and component parts of façades, supported by an Internet platform. The output of this process is furthermore, fully BIM-integrated by BIM experts. Beside the practical benefits for users and asset managers, for façades, the facilities are also ready to use for all other (tailor made) parts and component parts of buildings.
    Maybe we can help each other to make practical BIM steps.

  2. Many true ideas are highlighted, but I’ve been hearing them for 7 years already. Lack of understanding, lack of training, lack of experience – ultimately lack of the need for digital asset in the traditional delivery approach where architect is appointed first.
    The most valuable portion here is the mentioning of data science – it’s the only logical way to showcase the benefits of BIM. Machine learning requires data for training and only after that solid results might be presented. Would be happy to discuss more.

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