Last October, Enterprise Ireland and the country’s Construction IT Alliance (CitA) conducted a survey into the Irish industry and digital construction. The results came as a pleasant surprise to many industry observers: 67% of firms surveyed were confident in their skills and knowledge, and 27% had grasped the fundamentals and were steadily improving.
When the 2015 NBS National BIM Report asked the UK industry a similar set of questions, it found that only 48% of UK firms were using BIM, and the same percentage were aware of it but were not using it.
However, the Irish survey was restricted to the top 100 firms, divided into the largest 20 contractors, architects, engineers, QSs and specialists, whereas the NBS took a larger cross section of the UK sector.
So did the Irish survey reflect the real state of play? Alan Hore, one of the founders of CitA and assistant head of the School of Surveying and Construction Management in the Dublin Institute of Technology, told BIM+ that, in reality, Ireland is perhaps five years behind the UK, but is fully aware of the advantages and energetically attempting to catch up.
Hore says: “CitA was formed in 2005 and we were looking at things like mobile computing, e-business and cloud computing, but when BIM came to our shores in 2011 it was almost the knight in shining armour, and we grasped it.”
The reasons for Ireland’s lag are not hard to diagnose. The collapse of the Irish property market in 2008 poleaxed the entire economy, and forced the government to apply to the International Monetary Fund and the EU for assistance. As a result, neither the government nor the industry had any attention to spare for plans to catalyse digital construction.
But those days are a fading memory. “It took us seven or eight years to get over the bank crash and now we have one of the fastest growing economies in Europe,” Hore says. “Month on month, the government is taking in more money than they imagined in taxes – we’re back to building again.”
Once again, Ireland is attracting foreign investment, and acting as a magnet for the EU’s data centres. So the attention of industry leaders is now more focused on BIM.
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One thing that’s unlikely, however, is to mandate the use of BIM on all public sector schemes, as has been done in England and Wales (with Northern Ireland following suit, with some variations), even though Hore thinks it would “bring the whole industry forward”. The reason is partly because the government and industry are organised so differently to England and Wales, and partly because there is a sense that there’s still a “lot of fragility in the market if you go beyond the M50” – Dublin’s equivalent of the M25.
But other initiatives are in train. In March, government and industry are planning to form the National BIM Steering Committee of Ireland. To begin with, this will be formed of “three wise men” drawn from the senior ranks of government and industry, but it will grow by stages to nine. The job of the committee is to develop a national road map to BIM Level 2.
At the same time a separate two-year project called the BIM Innovation Capability Programme (BICP) will embark on research to assist the steering committee. This will look at how other countries have gone about setting up their BIM policy frameworks, then set up a series of workshops to engage with industry and universities, and finally to identify mechanisms to measure the benefits of BIM, supported by pilot projects.
These two groups will be supplemented by a client group, which will be composed partly of multinationals such as Facebook, Intel and Microsoft, and a contracts and procurement group “because presently our contracts don’t work with BIM”, says Hore.
The speed is helped by the fact that Ireland has already benefited from other countries’ experience: larger Irish firms, including those that responded to last October’s survey, are almost all active in the UK, and so are responding to the 2016 mandate.
There are also obvious similarities between Ireland and Scotland, in terms of size and culture. Hore highlights the resemblance between Ireland’s implementation strategy and Scotland’s “Five Horizons” plan, announced last autumn.
He says: “Of all the programmes around the world, the one that’s really quite exciting is the Scottish one. I say that because the Scots have taken a lot of ingredients from the UK and then they seem to have fitted them around their local needs and their procurement rules and so on.”
He adds that “just about anyone who’s anyone” in the English and Scottish BIM world has been to speak at Irish conferences, and close relations have also been established between the Irish BIM community and Northern Irish universities such as Ulster and Queens.
For Hore, the future for BIM in Ireland is certain: “There’s a sort of inevitability to it – companies that don’t embrace it will be left behind.”
But he also mentions barriers such as training costs, an issue for his own profession of quantity surveying. “One of the biggest problems that the QSs have is getting the confidence that the information they’re extracting from the model is accurate and that they can check it. You can’t just say, ‘oh, that’s fine’, because we rely on those quantities, so someone has to validate it. QSs need to be able to interrogate the software and they’re not trained to do it.”
He concludes: “There’s a real cultural shift needed, and we’re going through the added complexity of a government change, so it’s going to take a little while, but we still hope to have the road map ready by the end of this year – and we’ll be talking a lot to Scotland and England.”
There’s a real cultural shift needed, and we’re going through the added complexity of a government change, so it’s going to take a little while, but we still hope to have the road map ready by the end of this year – and we’ll be talking a lot to Scotland and England.– Alan Hore, Dublin Institute of Technology