In 2011 the UK government announced that, by 2016, all central government construction projects must be delivered using a technique known as building information modelling, or BIM. BIM organises projects around a virtual model of a building, one so detailed that it can detect design clashes, generate bills of materials and produce effective schedules to reduce the errors, waste and delays that plague traditional construction.
A government-led group of experts called the BIM Task Group was set up lead the migration over to BIM. In the last three years common standards and protocols have been developed to help a highly fragmented industry come together in the way BIM requires.
Most recently, three all-star teams made up of industry bodies and firms have entered a contest to create a final piece of the BIM puzzle, a digital tool that would allow the disparate parts of the industry to speak a common, digital language.
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The team’s task is threefold. First they must devise a “digital plan of work” that will nail down a standard definition of the actions and information that must be delivered at each stage of a project. The construction industry has always had plans of work but each discipline uses a slightly different type, which often leads to grey areas over when exactly a particular milestone has been reached.
Their second task is to create a grand, unifying classification system that gives common digital definitions to up to 3,000 separate construction elements, so that the BIM model knows what the different participants – who may already be using different types of BIM software – are talking about.
The third task is to combine the digital plan of work and the classification system into an open digital tool that anyone can access and use.
The teams are impressive. One incorporates all the major professional built environment institutions of the UK. Another comprises leading universities, one of the UK’s biggest contractors, Laing O’Rourke, and Microsoft. The third is research firm BRE Global in partnership with BuildingSMART UK.
Each has been awarded $84,000 (£50,000) to develop their ideas for this digital tool. In September one will be chosen to go away and develop theirs, with a contract worth up to £1m. It should be ready by Spring 2015, giving the industry around a year to test it before the BIM deadline of 2016.
Those involved in the implementation of BIM in the UK say it is helping British firms win work overseas.
Richard Saxon, a member of the executive board of the UK’s Construction Industry Council and author of last year’s Growth through BIM report, has said that UK BIM policy and toolkit development had “won admirers around the world” and that this had opened doors for British consultants and contractors to win work on the basis of advanced BIM working.
Writing in Building magazine, he said that a standing conference of interested EU countries had formed to learn from the UK’s BIM experience.
This view was echoed by Rick Holland, lead technologist at the UK’s Technology Strategy Board, which is running the competition for the digital tool on behalf of the BIM Task Group.
“The UK already exports seven billion pounds worth of architectural and engineering services,” Holland told GCR. “By bringing the BIM agenda into that domain, which is what’s happening at pace, we’re strengthening our abilities to export on those services.”
He added that the new digital tool would help further: “By putting in place a consistent framework we’re enabling UK practices and global practices to collaborate to a far greater degree,” he said. “That will open doors for UK practices overseas, and it’s already doing so. Companies we work with report that their overseas clients are motivated by the implementation of BIM.”
Meanwhile, the flipside of this dynamic has been flagged up by a BIM promoter in Australia, who has warned that companies there risk losing lucrative infrastructure projects to foreign firms because they lag behind when it comes to BIM.
Rob Malkin, the Asia-Pacific BIM director at vendor Autodesk, told a newspaper that more advanced overseas firms are likely to trump Australian firms in capitalising on Australia’s infrastructure boom. He said BIM is now mandatory or in the process of being mandated in countries Britain, Sweden, Norway and Finland.
“Infrastructure companies in these countries are sometimes maybe three to seven years ahead in using technologies to improve workflows, so as people bid on projects down here they can demonstrate things that local firms may not have started to think about yet,” he told Business Spectator.