Comment: Raj Chawla – Let’s talk about ‘digitising the built environment’

Raj Chawla, vice chair of BIM4SME, makes a plea for BIM-ers to stop talking BIM, and start talking about ”digitising the built environment”.

The government’s construction strategy has mandated the use of the BIM process for its projects from 2016. At the heart of this strategy is cost savings and efficiencies. But 99% of the industry is made up of SMEs and it this group that will be instrumental in making this strategy a success.

Firstly, SMEs wishing to engage are asking a very basic question – is BIM for me? This uncertainty stems from the various definitions or interpretations of the mandate: at various times we’ve heard that BIM is to be used on “all central government construction procurement” or “all publicly funded projects greater than £1m” or ”the adoption of BIM technology by both public and private sector involved in the procurement and delivery of buildings and infrastructure”. There’s a need for clarity and tidying up mixed messages, as it deters participation and more significantly, the necessity to participate.

The very acronym “BIM” is also a culprit here. It was contrived by software vendors and sends the message that BIM some kind of software. It might be better to shed this acronym and adopt the term “digitising the built environment” – in fact it is a delight to see that the next evolution in this journey is referenced as “Digital Built Britain”.

While a lot of us know that BIM it is about migrating structured information and data seamlessly, it is not that obvious to “the masses”. But once this point is driven home, people become more receptive and realise that how this information is migrated is academic.

Software vendors are providing environments for the migration of this information, some do it well and some not so well. But when it comes down to it, information can be migrated using a spreadsheet. But there is still a huge impression that software is BIM. For the avoidance of doubt, software are tools to support the implementation of BIM.

When described, not as BIM, but a technological advancement in digitising their business processes, the reception is very different. With that analogy, the BIM process is like quality management – it is embedded in a business as a back office activity and is considered daily in the work place.

The SME community is wide and encompasses lawyers, financial institutions, consultants, professionals, contractors, a huge supply chain, operators and not forgetting clients. These are the masses and the masses are very significant in ensuring that “digitising the built environment” is a success.

First, clarity must ensue in the definition of the mandate. Second, the staged delivery of information for use in “construction” must be structured as prescribed in the various process documents and standards, with a focus on being able to migrate this information accurately and error free into a database. If you can do this, you are starting to practice BIM.

There is a lot of hype about cost savings with BIM. These benefits are felt up the food chain and not ordinarily at SME level. What isn’t explained is the savings and benefits that arise due to lean working.

When talking to SMEs, I use a simple analogy. At present the industry is using a hammer, all that is being asked is to use a nail gun. It does the same job, but with enhanced speed, and more accuracy and consistency. Now you have to make the investment in the nail gun and the air cartridges. For BIM, this is an investment in time, resources and educating oneself to continue to better oneself.

There is a philosophy of Kaizen which has been around for years and is the practice of continuous improvement. Kai (change) zen (good). Change for good.

But trying to convince businesses, especially in the construction industry, is not easy. There is too much jargon, mixed messages and distracting pollutants.

Each business needs to test itself to see what level of investment is required. The majority of the SME businesses I have visited recently already have most of the essential components in house. A little bit of restructuring of their business processes and appending the BIM process is usually what is required. It is a business strategy, with the mantra, do it once, do it right.

On another topic, BIM seminars and conferences are becoming like old school reunions and incidentally also becoming very incestuous. There is a desperate need to have a wider appeal. But how to achieve that?

Digitising the built environment, Digital Built Britain and not BIM should be foregrounded. Conferences should be advertised and published in the national press. In addition to the architects, engineers, contractors and facilities managers, events should capture the interest of financiers, lawyers, IT professionals, ontologists, telecom and telemetry specialist, instrumentation specialist, mathematicians, systems and solution architects etc – because they are all becoming stakeholders in digitising the built environment. The conference organisers need to change direction and become agnostic.

There is a misconception that collaboration is a deterrent to BIM as it exposes how people work. Projects, no matter how large or how small, do not get delivered without collaboration. There are joint ventures, alliances and coalitions being formed to deliver projects on a daily basis. If this is not collaboration, then I don’t know what is.

But if we trickle down to the SME level, this is not so apparent. There is a tension, in particular in the construction and maintenance arenas, that collaboration is a one-way street that goes from the smaller firms to the larger, and there are many cases where this is true.

Collaboration is a sociological and human trait and it is not necessarily enforced by applying processes or legal structures. The basic idea of collaboration is to mitigate risk and not migrate the risk. The idea of migrating risk is very endemic in the construction industry. The legal structures in the construction industry haven’t attained maturity in how to handle risk. There has been a short fall in the understanding of how to mitigated and not migrated risk.

What BIM brings to the party is a high degree of visibility, more resilient information and the ability to test and mitigate risk without migrating it. The measure of collaboration is the ability to mitigate risk between the stakeholders and where the stakeholders are able to do this, collaboration ensues. 

Raj Chawla is vice chair of BIM4SME, and chief technology officer and project director at Nunelah Labs

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