Interview: Karen Alford, EA – ‘Firms will really need to get into gear’

Karen Alford, BIM and GSL programme manager at the Environment Agency, on being ahead of the game on the April mandate, and lobbying Autodesk to upgrade BIM functionality in Civil 3D.

What progress have you made towards the April Level 2 BIM mandate?

In April 2015 we introduced Employer’s Information Requirements and an Information Delivery Plan in line with the government standards for all capex construction work, or projects or going into detailed design, on our major works framework. This covers all projects over £250,000.

We are now going through BIM Execution Plan responses from suppliers, and beginning to discover some of the complications, although the process is working.

From this April, consultants and contractors in Lot 3 and Lot 4 of our Water and Environment Management framework must be compliant with Level 2 or they will be disqualified. On minor work frameworks, BIM requirements will be introduced at the next stage of framework renewal.

We are a bit ahead of the game and hoping that with more clients asking for Level 2, firms will really get themselves into gear and realise that this is not just a requirement from one customer, but a group of customers asking for information in a consistent way.

What key benefits has BIM provided so far? 

On projects with a fully integrated model the key advantages are clash detection at detailed design, and having visualisation fly-through models we can make publicly available to demonstrate the impact of schemes. The 3D makes detailed engineering solutions understandable by a wider range of people.

One problem we often encounter when building or improving walls at the backs of houses is residents wanting different treatments for the fascias. It often happens at a late stage, sometimes during construction, but BIM fly-throughs make it more transparent for planning, people see what fascias will look like and we can work with them to make sure they are happy before we start building.

In what areas are you struggling with BIM, as a client? 

Cascading skills down the supply chain is an issue. It is difficult getting acceptance from suppliers that they have to respond to an EIR, not just deliver what they want to deliver. For example, a supplier might be used to delivering an operation & maintenance manual in a certain way, now we are saying we want it done differently.

It’s a trait of the industry that the client has had to bear the burden of having different suppliers deliver things to us in different ways. Now that’s going to change.

Full collaboration is difficult to achieve. The industry needs to raise the bar to get to a place where it can be confident that the data and information being shared is agreed and appropriate for projects, it doesn’t mean sharing the intelligence that sits behind it.

Are consultants or contractors charging a premium for BIM services? 

Some have tried, but we have knocked it back. We have made it clear that we are not picking up charges for their learning requirements, we are happy for them to work with us to learn how to implement it on projects. We want to be pushing our suppliers to upskill, but not in a way that increases costs on projects.

Is the infrastructure sector lagging behind with BIM, technologically speaking?

Yes, we have been lobbying Autodesk, the key software vendor used across our sector, regarding Civil 3D, which was built on a different basis to Revit and is not currently able to generate asset data. My understanding is that they are looking at it and we are hopeful the 2017 release will be able to deliver the asset data we require, through Navisworks.

In anticipation of that, we are already providing suppliers with COBie data on our asset attributes so they know, in a structured form, what data we require.

BIM object libraries are not very well developed for infrastructure, we have been working on this and now have all our 57 asset types represented in Uniclass 15, which is a big step forward. We are also working with our supply chain to identify the asset objects that could have value when shared in a library.

Will BIM become the main driver for efficiency on your projects?

It will enable most of the other efficiencies. If you look at the Government Construction Strategy as a whole, the ability to benchmark and drive efficiencies through procurement routes, improve client intelligence etc, those are all achievable by thinking about how you introduce BIM Level 2.

If clients are very clear about what they want and how they want it, suppliers can have confidence in being able to deliver that more efficiently. The tools and technology are there, it is now just about how they make the best use of it.

Are you aware of the stretch BIM data validation target, in October?

Yes. As part of our Information Delivery Plan we are building a validation tool, using COBie information, that includes the must-have information we will be validating against. It’s a very important aspect and we are trying to make it uncomplicated.

In future, we will be examining any of our documents that contain data and looking at how we can turn that into a data requirement. That advancement will mirror advances in the technology side of the business, identifying the data we need to go into systems and how can we define it so we get it direct from the point of entry.

Is the BIM Task Group’s target of Level 3 BIM by 2025 realistic?

Yes, in the next four years we are going to see a considerable change in the industry’s ability to collaborate, coordinate and deliver more efficiently using BIM. We are not fighting a technology battle anymore, now it is about harnessing the benefits and cross industry working will be essential to achieving the 2025 goal. We can’t afford to operate in our own individual silos anymore.

The key benefits of Level 3 will be around asset management, having the ability to bring data in from other asset owners, such as management authorities and third-party asset owners, onto a shared platform to run analysis and to incorporate new technologies, like sensors, to provide us with better intelligence on asset performance.

The growth in open data and global knowledge sharing will be invaluable to help us build intelligence about how assets operate and perform in different conditions. It could transform our operations.

Full collaboration is difficult to achieve. The industry needs to raise the bar to get to a place where it can be confident that the data and information being shared is agreed and appropriate for projects, it doesn’t mean sharing the intelligence that sits behind it.– Karen Alford, BIM and GSL programme manager, Environment Agency

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