Openness all round is the key to BIM

Michael McCullen, executive chairman of Asta Development, on why open should mean open.

In focusing the industry on the target of achieving Level 2 BIM on all projects by 2016, the government is successfully keeping the construction industry moving firmly forwards. The recent NBS National BIM Report 2013 shows that around  39% of the building industry is aware of and currently using BIM. In 2010, when the survey team asked the same question, the figure was 13%.

While this is positive, it fails to highlight the fact that in today’s challenging economic environment, budgets are stretched and BIM requires investment not only in IT, but also in process change and training. For BIM to become a reality, understanding what wider changes are needed to improve project management as a whole is just as important as having the right tools to use.

At its heart BIM is about changing the role that information plays, and how it is handled. Information must enable workflows that span the entire construction value chain to drive better quality, timeliness and cost-effectiveness in the development of our built environment. It is not just about technology, although this is a key enabler of process change. It is about business, about reducing risk to every party, transparency and good communications, creating a win-win for all. 

But while the industry is progressing with a shared sense of purpose, there are different perspectives among IT vendors working on BIM solutions.  CAD vendors argue that the key is creating 3D models that can endure and evolve throughout the construction process, eliminating wasted time and effort, while “best of breed” software vendors see information exchange and application interoperability as more vital, eliminating data gaps and discontinuities. We would put Asta into this category, as it delivers a project and portfolio management platform to support the vital role of maintaining timelines and information integrity from end-to-end. 

The reality is that BIM is all these things and more, and any data standards designed to support BIM must support it completely – they should cover BIM driven by 3D models and BIM viewed as a project-wide process.

So we applaud BuildingSMART’s Open BIM initiative to develop open data formats. The initiative aims to support the very foundation of BIM and, in our view, is a vital enabling step. Openness is central to any culture or process model which purports to break down barriers, ease communication and increase collaborative working for shared benefit – but it must be ‘hard-wired’ in.

Openness also advocates technology agnosticism over proprietary, closed approaches. Businesses should be able to use software tools that suit their needs and fit seamlessly with current infrastructure. Making BIM-driven changes should become more affordable and easier to implement for all sizes of business.

There is real concern that the big IT vendors looking at BIM may be pushing a total solution rather than supporting openness. Such a solution may not be open, will probably come with a hefty price tag, and requires a “big bang” approach to replace existing systems.

We believe it is vital to maintain a flexible, affordable and open approach: firms should be able to enhance but continue to use existing “best of breed” systems for specific parts of the process such as estimating, project management and CAD, to extract maximum value from existing investment, thus mitigating cost and risk.

Open means open. That spirit should be part of any software vendor’s BIM development path. We intend to support the spirit of OpenBIM, in all its work to create data standards for the use of BIM on buildings and infrastructure. Open, flexible products that work together mean customers can decide what they need rather than having solutions forced upon them. In this tough economic climate and beleaguered industry every penny of investment counts.

This is also something that all governments should consider. For reasons of convenience and scale, public sector construction contracts may specify a system from a large vendor.  Not only does this freeze out smaller, sometimes more agile and innovative, software firms but it also disadvantages UK software companies since many of the largest enterprise vendors are based elsewhere.

A change of attitude and habit would be an enormous opportunity: not only for British software businesses, but to support the very changes that BIM is pursuing: to encourage competition, openness and renewal in the UK construction industry.

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