BIM under the microscope

Gavin Dunstan, SES Engineering Services’ digital engineering operations director, explores the unique challenges and potential pitfalls for engineers using BIM to deliver state-of-the-art laboratories for the modern UK scientist.

The UK’s world-leading scientists play a pioneering and vital part in driving the government’s vision to stimulate the UK economy through science innovation and infrastructure.

That’s why MEP services installations in laboratory facilities demand a highly complex and technical solution to meet the stringent requirements of the UK’s scientists.

To build a facility that meets all of these standard requirements, as well as providing the flexibility for the majority of the research space to have a multitude of uses means we must raise our bar even further. Throw into the ring the usual fast-track pre-construction period and a full BIM Level 2 requirement and the scale of the exciting challenge facing companies like SES Engineering Services (SES) is clear.

Challenges are of course there to be overcome, and that is just what SES has successfully achieved on a number of recent laboratory projects, such as the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) in Darlington and The Pirbright Institute in Surrey, as well as current projects at The Quadram Institute in Norwich and Project Capella in Cambridge.

With a number of our expert team having already brought years of experience with highly complex installations to these projects, we’ve certainly developed an in-depth knowledge of the potential pitfalls and challenges on laboratories.

Furniture, Fixtures, & Equipment (FF&E) coordination

FF&E is always a major element of any high-tech project, as customers will always have specialist equipment which is either new, or being transferred into a new facility. It is more often than not the final part of the design information that is released by the customer, often morphing at various stages through the design process.

BIM gives the opportunity to coordinate this in real-time at the earliest stage, not only with building fabric but also the essential services to support the equipment. Careful and detailed coordination with the end-users is required to make sure FF&E items are useable, maintainable and, of course replaceable if necessary.

This is all part of the essential design interface with the BIM model. Close attention should also be given to the schedules of specialist equipment whilst viewing the FF&E layouts, as the airflow and pressure surrounding many appliances is often critical to their successful operation.

The advice is: obtain fixed FF&E as early as possible, but don’t be surprised or downhearted when this changes.

Data extraction

Developing a quality BIM model and using defined products gives SES’s BIM team the ideal opportunity to extract data for accurate costing in the early stages of the pre-construction period, and provides an audit trail to track the changes as the design develops, or the scope changes through further engagement workshops.

More laboratories are becoming BIM Level 2 projects and the data deliverables can be very time-consuming. Always ensure that the correct level of data supply is obtained and agreed at the early stages.


This is a very real issue for BIM. The act of collating all of the building information within one distinct digital file is, for many projects within this sector, a major issue and possibly elevates a project to much higher security levels than would have happened traditionally. 

The government has taken action in this field and made plans for information security during the recent BIM Level 2 specifications with the publishing of the PAS 1192-5 2015 guidance. While there are still many holes to be filled, after working in line with this document, there is guidance available.

Check the security level from the beginning; ensure information is shared in a security-minded fashion; don’t waste time with detailed COBie asset data if this is a security-conscious project.

Maintenance strategy and early stakeholder engagement

One of the most advantageous uses of the BIM model is the possibility to virtually review the new facility at the very earliest pre-construction stages. From this we can establish a systems and plant access and replacement strategy with the customer and FM or maintenance teams.

The FM/maintenance teams are the ones who have experience of the day-to-day management of the facilities and their input is an absolute necessity.

Early stakeholder engagement offers the opportunity for SES to engage with a broad demographic of interested parties at early design stages to review the new facility, its operation and coordination where people and material flows can be discussed in detail before construction.

Early collaboration is essential. However, be prepared for changes later on in the project.

Offsite manufacturing

The production of a design using defined data aids the offsite strategy, assisting with the early development to maximise the offsite opportunity, which realises the full potential of the strategy for the construction programme and site/labour benefits.

On several projects, to meet with both the spatial and programme restrictions, SES has relied upon a high level of services prefabrication which includes risers, multi-service modules, plant skids and even offsite produced brackets for areas where prefabrication may not be feasible.

To ensure SES can prefabricate and produce Stage 4C installation drawings or Stage 5 manufacturing drawings the BIM team supplements the models with the SysQue extension for Revit. This product, in which SES has heavily invested, allows the Revit model to be populated with true to life-sized pipework and fittings.

This not only increases the accuracy of the services coordination but allows the use of SES’s award-winning “BIM2MOSAIC” procedure which auto-generates material take-offs direct from the coordinated model.

Don’t get caught out by modelling too early before things have a high degree of certainty.

General coordination

This is the final, and probably the most common challenge within laboratories. Space is very much a premium in these types of buildings and the high complexity of services will always make the overall coordination far more of a challenge than in most other sectors.

Through early engagement, we can work in a multi-disciplined way with the designers to optimise building volume and spatial fit. Whilst many of these types of projects are often not full design and build, we invariably have significant Stage 4b/4c design obligations and, for manifold reasons, we often need to incorporate a number of major adjustments as we complete the construction design.

Image: Alexander Raths |

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