Is BIM the solution to construction’s quality issues?

David Philp outlines the role digital technologies can have on improving quality in the built environment.

Competitive advantage is increasingly related to maximising customer experience and improved productivity. As such, the quality of our work, particularly in the built environment, extends into a quality customer service provision, which relates very clearly to quality of life, enhancing our communities and stimulating our economy.

Productivity and quality are not mutually exclusive, as Dr Deming (the originator of Total Quality Management) noted: “Improve quality, [and] you automatically improve productivity.”

Tragically, events such as the Grenfell fire, the falling masonry at Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh and most recently the Miami bridge collapse have put the lens firmly over construction quality and forced us to have a long hard look in the mirror to reflect on how we are performing. 

Worryingly, according to research by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) more than three-quarters of construction professionals believe the industry’s current management of quality is inadequate. It is essential therefore that as professionals we must all do our utmost to close the gap – but how?

Are applied technologies the redeemer of these issues? If we have learned anything from our BIM journey in the UK then it is evident that there is no silver (technology) bullet.

We discovered quickly that any turning of the improvement dial needs to be holistic and that a convergence of capable people, collaborative processes and then supporting technology tools is crucial.

It also necessitates a wrapper of unifying “purpose” and I cannot stress enough how important that is: having a clear north star is essential to better quality service provision.  

However, BIM, associated technologies, collaborative working processes and more important, accurate structured data, can undoubtedly significantly help the quality agenda.

BIM lets us prototype a built asset in a virtual environment before it hits the site, ensuring that the design is coordinated, interfaces are managed, buildability is tested and, through a soft landings process, maintainability is simulated.

This is only effective, however, if we use BIM and other virtual design and construct (VDC) applications as a means of bringing teams around the project information models to enhance communication, interrogate and refine the solutions. This proposition can be enhanced by the use of increasingly common immersive technologies such as AR/VR.

While still maturing, we can also use rule-based model checking of the designs for compliance, especially from a regulatory perspective. It is likely that regulatory technologies (reg tech) will continue to develop and it is not unreasonable in the near future to see it becoming a mandatory part of our statutory processes.

With current regulations and guidance seen as too complex, confusing and open to misinterpretation, digitisation of this process with better user interface and better decision making would significantly improve the current system.

Parametric BIM objects can also have a role to play when they have been robustly tested and refined. Tacit knowledge can be infused into these objects by creating simple lessons-learned videos by those that have installed or maintained the physical versions of these systems or products. 

Manufacturers can significantly contribute here with high-quality digital product data sheets and installation information such as virtual method statements.

Complementary BIM technologies are already helping, especially in the construction verification process, with a move to continuous data capture of what is actually being assembled on site and the creation of laser scans or, increasingly, 360-degree site photogrammetry linked to the model.

These tools can help assist the site supervisory teams better analyse what is actually being built against the specification on projects which are becoming ever more complex. Having the specification linked to the model will also improve quality assurance functionality through improved clarity and accessibility.

We should also give a massive shout out to Level 1 BIM and its common data environment (CDE) foundation plank. Whilst is it is seen by many as being a cliché, the “single source of truth” for all project information is really important to the quality agenda where everyone can search and find indexed and validated information using laptops or mobile devices no matter where they are.  Getting the basics right, without fail is essential. Doing Level 1 BIM well, therefore, is non-negotiable.

For clients that own and operate an estate, BIM plays a massive part in the quality process especially in the event of non-sequential trigger events where it may be necessary to determine across the estate if a particular problematic product or detail has been used. 

Other than sending surveyors out on the road or searching through volume after volume of ring binders a simple query should pull together automatically the appropriate information based on computer readable high-quality data with appropriate classifications and meta data.

In addition, we cannot ignore the mutual link between Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA), BIM and high-quality assets. Applying factory quality assurance and testing procedures reduces onsite commissioning and defect rectification which can result in an improvement of up to 70% in reworking and snagging.

Couple this with BIM as a means of optimising standardisation and rationalisation and there is a powerful method of working to unlock these benefits and mitigate the quality risks inherent in traditional labour-intensive ways of building.

Looking forward, advanced technologies such as distributed ledgers will also help the industry move from procurement based largely on capital price tags, where quality issues are prevalent, to whole life outcome-based contracts where quality is inherently incentivised.

In conclusion innovation and technology can and will improve the way we create and maintain our built assets, but we will still be dependent on a skilled and competent workforce with a desire to create high-quality outcomes.

Convergence between good behaviours and innovative technologies is essential and the ultimate test will be in user satisfaction. Poor quality, poor outcomes in our built environment are simply not acceptable – we all owe it to the society we serve to get it right, let’s not waste this crisis.

David Philp FCIOB is global BIM/MIC consultancy director at Aecom and a CIOB Trustee

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  1. BIM isn’t a solution for anything. It’s a tool, a process that if managed incorrectly, or not used in the correct way will solve absolutely nothing. And it’s our industry’s complete lack of good management that causes the problems. Solution to my long grass is my lawn mower (tool) but will I get around to using it? And will I do a good job using it or take shortcuts leaving patches…..!

  2. What quality crisis…?? never has the old saying “you get what you pay for” ever been so relevant as it is in the industry today. BIM is not the answer it’s just a 21st century fad in vogue until the next revolutionary tool comes along. I’ve been in the industry for over 40 years and have seen these things come and go and in all that the time if we just went back to basics (which have stood the test of time) we would be producing buildings which would be future proof, efficient and long lasting. The fundamental problem with the industry in all sectors these days is the overwhelming desire for the client to drive the price down. QED.

  3. Michael’s comments are also fair. It seems we are jumpimg to BIM as the saviour without looking at the very serious cultural issues.
    David Philp, there is a certain hospital me and you are aware of…. that hospital’s problems could not be resolved by BIM because of significant cultural issues around managerial and commercial activities being undertaken, so why do you think it will help anywhere else with the same issues?

  4. I totally agree with David’s conclusion that “innovation and technology can and will improve the way we create and maintain our built assets.” My belief is that society needs to focus on becoming paper-free first. Overcome that obstacle, personally and professionally, through digitisation of your daily processes and the rest will fall in place : improved productivity, quality…

  5. I dont think David has been on a construction site getting his hands dirty for a long time. I mean really getting his hands dirty and seeing the problems day in day out. There is a complete knowledge gap by the writer here around Modernise or Die. I have been getting my hands dirty on sites for 20 years now, in a high managerial level position and consider myself tech and BIM knowledgeable. The issues we have is around culture plain and simple. For example, I have pushed the Last Planner system and for temporary works to be modelled and it bounds to nothing because of the adversarial nature between our teams. Everyone is looking out for number one and don’t want to share what they should because it might expose their own failings. Payment issues with subcontractors… this causes so much trouble. Why implement last planner when we don’t want to pay our suppliers on time so they decide to hold back work or materials or simply not bother stretching that extra mile to tell us our delivery will be late. I could go on and on all day.
    David, you may be an expert in BIM, but I fear you have much to learn about how sites, contracts, management and people work on projects. You only get that from being on site every day from start of a project to the end.
    This isn’t a dig, but you tell us how BIM solves these issues like holding back payments, cutting costs for short-term savings and late subcontractor involvement because the commercial model doesn’t support it, a lot of this negativity driven by the client!

  6. Hi John, if, for a certain hospital, delays were blamed on “the fitting of pipes and wires [taking] longer than expected”, why wouldn’t this have been mitigated by prior coordination in the virtual construction model?

    Why can’t the transparency of capturing hold/witness points digitally have mitigated the risk of delays caused by remedying cracks in structural beams?

    No, BIM is not a panacea, but I don’t think that David Philp is touting it as one!

  7. The specific malaise which plagued the construction industry is not client stinginess, but the unbelievably sharp practices within construction supply chains.

    BIM may well improve construction coordination and ultimately yield valuable digital asset data for improving efficiency.

    Nevertheless, the Government Construction Strategy 2011 looked to the Fair Payment Charter and Project Bank Accounts to reduce the delays and eliminate onerous payment terms (e.g. net-120) from being imposed on the lower tiers of the supply chain in order to improve cash flow higher up.

    In fact, the Fair Payment Charter and Project Bank Account (PBA) scheme couldn’t make the mechanism clearer for timely payment of all parties.

    How this Fair Payment mechanism could be construed by some as compatible with a net-120 Early Payment Facility is a mystery to me.

    If there is blame for payment tardiness in the construction industry, it cannot be laid at the door of the BIM Level 2 initiative.

  8. David Sheppard, let’s use your example in cracks in structural beams, you could do a perfect BIM L2 with all the collaborative bells and whistles and you could still end up with cracked beams and delayed programme. The suppliers concrete tests fail and becomes a process issue. But because the supplier was procured late, they were procured based on price rather than competance (BIM L2 doesnt necessarily require complete competance check and summerising only IM checks) and the supplier is already playing a game of politics because they have some NCRs against them and have no incentive to make this a priority means the whole efficient engine that’s running on clean BIM L2 power is now crumbling due to bad managerial, cultural influences that runs deeper than L2 permiates. Dan’s comment above is spot on. Yes some issues are directly resolvable by BIM but the batch of “Quality issues” don’t always step from coordination. Coordination could be perfect but your subbie couldn’t care less because he’s paid by the hour and the procurement method means he isn’t part of a team, he’s just a number that looks after his own interests and because he was procured late, hes not had time to look at all the models and 4D sequencing and VR war rooms because he starts 3 days after award and he’s still got a 60-page BIM Protocol/EIR to read, 300 page contract and 4 other plans inc BEP. If this post was about wider initiatives like IPI which covers the wider cultural issues, I wouldn’t be so…. miffed.

  9. BIM may well work on large projects and MMCs like modular, but SMEs will take decades to even dip their toe into the world of BIM. I think when elements of blockchain tech are embedded into BIM (eg for payments to all aspects of the supply chain clearance) and more tech like HoloLens are widely used the advantages will be clear. Like previous replies have said the element of managerial quality (a 5 day SMSTS is worth more than a 4 years Honours degree these days) and clients driving the jobs by lowest price alone will not be solved by using BIM2 or BIM99.

  10. David highlights the perennial Quality Management failures within construction very well and sets out the key ingredients to the solution – capable people, collaborative processes and supporting technology [the headline of a BIM solution is perhaps misaligned to the article text]. The project lifeblood is quality information that needs to efficiently flow between people and throughout processes.
    The comments are valid that in the world of rain, traffic jams, attitudes of dog eat dog and clients demanding lower and lower costs make the solutions fiendishly difficult – but not impossible.
    Some rare projects manage to succeed on time, to budget and hitting quality standards but for that to become widespread then the project building blocks must be laid by project leaders from inception.
    – The culture of collaboration must be driven by the client through the project team and into a supply chain that is truly partnered (not used and abused).
    – Commercial teams must be educated on quality management due diligence so that suppliers and contractors are recognised (and paid) for delivering quality goods and services that meet required specifications and not on lowest cost.
    – The technology is available to provide real-time reporting on as built construction meeting agreed design specifications (laser scanning vs digital models as David mentions), which should trigger rapid supply chain payments.
    – Inspection and Testing models need to be overhauled to use embedded sensors, data trusts and AI to assess materials and construction in real time vs quality standards. Audits and Hold Points are insufficient and crude methods based on statistically too small samples.
    – Pooling existing data from across the construction industry such as photos, videos, material data sheets, performance reports etc would allow Artificial Intelligence to identify variables in performance much earlier in the design, construction and operating processes.
    – Understanding continuous data using business intelligence reporting across projects allows better informed and quicker decision making.
    The solutions are available but project processes must be structured differently with Digital Quality Management at the heart of project management.

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