Paul Morrell on BIM adoption, part 1: “Government must do more, but the industry can do better”

The Government Construction Strategy recently reached its 10th anniversary. Paul Morrell OBE led the drafting of the strategy, during his second term as the government’s chief construction advisor. BIM was, of course, at the forefront of the strategy. In 2016, the government mandated the use of BIM Level 2 on all centrally-procured construction projects. But every year, every survey tells us that BIM is not gaining ground as fast as most in the industry would like.

With that in mind, BIM+ talked to Morrell (via a video-conferencing facility, naturally) about the genesis of the strategy, its reception, and the government’s and the industry’s progress to date. The interview was conducted before Morrell was appointed as co-chair of the independent review of the system for testing construction products.

It’s 10 years since you launched the Government Construction Strategy. How would you mark the industry since then on its BIM progress?

I think it’s fairly important to set the context: namely what we really expected 10 years ago. There was a massive amount of hype quite soon after the launch, which we then spent most of the time trying to calm down.

The reality is that some were looking for the revolutionary moment in construction, but there’s no such thing. There’s a Rudyard Kipling poem, A Truthful Song, that I’m fond of quoting, which is a conversation between a Victorian house builder and one of the pharaohs. The pharaoh says that apart from a bit of the plumbing, he recognises everything that the house builder is doing: “How very little, since things were made, things have altered in the building trade.”

How very little, since things were made, things have altered in the building trade.– Paul Morrell (quoting Rudyard Kipling)

It’s a very slow industry to move from low tech to high tech. And so we knew it’d be a slow process and also didn’t expect the whole industry suddenly to revolutionise. Those who worked on the mandate didn’t invent BIM: it was already around.

It just felt like a moment in which the available technology, the beginnings of adoption, and the market moment of a government having no money for new build but needing to build and the industry having no work but needing the money meant there was the basis for a sensible conversation in 2010.

We did not expect to move everybody: the market leaders were already on their way, while the trailing edge would always be years behind. We were really aiming at people who were not on the podium, but would like to be. So you can move the central mass of the industry, those people who typically build projects of £5m-£10m and above.

And on that basis, while we could have done more, I’m finding it hard to think of a decade in which more actual change and the promise of further change has been achieved. We started a conversation; that conversation is still running.

And of course, people will always express disappointment and frustration that it’s not moving faster, including me. Of course it’s so slow: how long is it since Egan, how long is it since Latham?

However, I think it’s close to miraculous the potential it’s already started to demonstrate.

If we see as much change in the next 10 years as we’ve seen within the last 10 years, we’ll be a bit happier, but it won’t be a revolutionary change. It’ll just be that some people will be doing a lot better.

The BIM level 2 mandate for central government clients came in during 2016, but now the term ‘level 2’ has been dropped and the industry grumbles that the mandate hasn’t been widely followed anyway. Do you think public clients could be doing more to help progress BIM? Does the industry have a job to help educate them?

I do feel very strongly that the thinking has jumped from level 2 to what I call the ‘train set’ approach to smart cities: that is you can run the whole city like you could run your childhood train set. And that’s hugely appealing to politicians. But it’s just too far away for people who are still picking up digital adoption.

The government doesn’t think of itself having assets, it thinks of itself as having liabilities. And it doesn’t traditionally manage and maintain and take care of them, other than through PFI.– Paul Morrell

There were some simple principles around in 2010.

We defined level 2 as what we know how to do now or what we could do with the technology that’s available now. And the parallel I used was Kennedy’s ambition to have a space shot by the end of the 60s. He already knew they could do it. But you can’t say “We are going to put a man on the moon – now, anybody got any ideas for designing a space rocket?”

I would like to revisit that moment and say, with exactly the same thinking, “what is level 3?” And level 3 is about getting into the lifecycle. So it’s about carrying more data through the model. And I think that the reason that that’s kind of got a bit unstuck is partly the fascination with the train set and the massive bureaucratic structures that need to be built around that.

The government should be recreating the moment of 2010 – and we have at least managed to recreate a recession. You would hope that the government would now say, “We want a model delivered to us in this form”, but not tell you how to do it, because government has no business to say “we want everything in Revit”, or whatever: that would kill innovation.

The big question we were asking 10 years ago, of the supply side, was “How little do we need to mandate to drive [adoption] without killing innovation?” so that people have the confidence to start something without thinking they’re going to get Betamax the following day, and find they’ve invested a huge sum of money in the wrong system. That became about standards.

I think the next move for government is to be very clear about the data it wants, what data should be in models, so that we can manage building safety, maintain the golden thread, and predict and deliver a low carbon result.

The government doesn’t think of itself having assets, it thinks of itself as having liabilities. And it doesn’t traditionally manage and maintain and take care of them, other than through PFI. And one of the reasons they didn’t like PFI maybe was they saw so much money they were tying up in the commitment to care for assets, rather than letting them rot and building new ones.

I said for years inside government: “If you want a more intelligent answer, you have to ask a more intelligent question.” And the question isn’t, “just give me a price for the thing”, it’s “I want a product that will perform in this way over the whole of its life, whether maintenance, energy, safety, or whatever”. So I think the government’s role now is to say how that can be demanded of the supply side.

And do you see the Value toolkit as the route to that?

Doesn’t that show you how complicated this is? It seems like we’ve disappeared down a rabbit hole. I think we are years away from a universal system by which government can capture a value and stick to it.

An industry that doesn’t know the value of its product has a big problem – and that is construction.– Paul Morrell

If we can move any part of the calculation into whole life, that’s where value is – and spectacularly so. If you own a building for 25 years, maybe 5% of the cost is the building and designing it, 15% running it, and 75%-80% of it is the people in it, using it, servicing it. And that’s true whether it’s a hospital or school or office.

So it’s absolutely tied up with the value agenda.

I think BIM is an enabler, rather than something that will drive change. But government can drive change by demanding a digital product that has certain data in it. And that’s what it needs to do.

And the industry doesn’t necessarily help educate government. It used to drive me mad when people would say, “Why does government buy value badly?” And I said, “When did you last try and sell by value? Do you know how to sell by value? Do you know the whole life value of your product?” And the answer tends to be “No”.

[As a government client] if I discipline myself to use only one door – not by manufacturer but by specification – what are the gains? 10%? A third?

The industry does need therefore to start knowing a bit more about the value of its product. An industry that doesn’t know the value of its product has a big problem – and that is construction.

Capital cost is easy and transparent [for government]; once you get into value, it’s a lot more complicated.

If you want to avoid the lowest common denominator – capital cost – come up with a superior denominator that works. Or start finding a few things that are the most important drivers of value, or low carbon or building safety or whatever the government’s priorities are.

The second part of this interview will be published on 23 June.

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