Paul Morrell on BIM adoption, part 2: ‘Interoperability may be a trap’

In the second part of our interview with Paul Morrell OBE to mark the 10th anniversary of the publication of the Government Construction Strategy, the former government chief construction advisor reflects further on the barriers to BIM adoption, whom he thinks is doing BIM well and what it takes to successfully advise government ministers.

Read part one of the interview first:

Let’s look at some other perceived barriers to BIM adoption: esoteric jargon, interoperability and the investment in software for example.

Some of the language is not so much esoteric as deliberate project jargon, [designed] to show how smart we are.

I recall I was due to give a presentation at an event; I listened to the presenters before me and I hardly understood any of it, because it was all in acronyms. I’m sure that the presenters impressed the hell out of themselves.

But anyone [in that audience] that wanted to know where they wanted to get to, but weren’t quite sure of what to do next, would have been absolutely bamboozled. Get rid of jargon; plain language business thinking is how to move on: the business of making your living in construction, using a digital approach.

I saw the stories [earlier this year] about the Back to BIM Basics campaign ( and I’m absolutely with that.

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The biggest barrier to change is that in construction you can make a perfectly good living by being inefficient.– Paul Morrell

I think interoperability might be a trap. We are never going to get to the stage where everything talks to everything. The only way you would do that is by saying there’s only one software house to use, and you’re never going to do that.

I think software houses are working on how information that needs to be connected can be connected. Honestly, I think the interoperability thing is an excuse.

And that is part of the train set thinking of a world in which everything will talk to everything. I think it’s a dream.

I don’t think software is expensive.

The biggest barrier or the most significant reason for the lack of incentive to change is that, probably almost uniquely, construction is an industry in which you can make a perfectly good living by being inefficient because of the absence of international competition.

One of the things that PFI was designed to do was to develop a market for a particular product, so that people would invest in developing better solutions for that product. You’re never going to spend a lot of money producing a better answer to a question you’re never going to get asked again.

The diversity and the volatility of workload [in construction], the absence of international competition, and the fact that it’s very hard to innovate when you don’t control the whole process are most of the reasons that we don’t do better in terms of innovation and progress.

In short, we don’t innovate because we don’t have to. Which is what got Egan to thinking about integration. The barriers are easier to overcome when people drive integrated answers to their problems. If you want to ask a whole life question, you have to ask an integrated team.

I think the Construction Leadership Council has a big role to play in promoting discussions in the industry. It should be saying: “Get involved in this conversation and what comes out of it will be the way we work.”

The government can endorse that and say that’s what we want in the package of information that we demand of the industry.

The whole effort of government should be to be a good client.

I think digital is slightly understated in the Construction Playbook. There are references to post-occupancy evaluation. I think there was a reference to soft landings. And that’s all just making the connection into the life, the operation of the building. That has to be what happens in the next five or 10 years.

Who do you consider an exemplar BIM client and what exemplar BIM project(s) spring to mind?

I think some of the major agencies of government are doing well: Highways and the Environment Agency, for example. HS2 is another exemplar. We can’t quote Crossrail as an exemplar anymore. But it certainly was a project that recognised that digital delivery was where they should be heading.

Not surprisingly that list is clients with big programmes, long and repeatable programmes: they’re not asking a different question every 12 months.

In the private sector, Hinkley Point C is an example.

Of course, again, if you’re lower down in a project, and someone tells you they want to build this job for £50m and your answer is, you can have it for £50m, but there’s another million for the BIM bit, they need to be persuaded that there’s a payback. In other words, it still needs to be £50m.

But at the moment, the supply side tends to regard BIM as an added extra, and pockets the change. I’m convinced the savings are being made, but where they accrue on projects is still questionable.

An issue that main contractors have got is the more efficient the environment they create, the more money their trade contractors make, I suspect. Maybe it’ll drive us to reduce the amount of subcontracting in the UK?

Were the government to recreate your role, what skills and background would someone need to succeed in it?

I think there are certain qualifications for the job that are not very common. You probably need to come from consultancy or something like it because if you lead a big PLC, with a chauffeur-driven car waiting for you out the front, and every time you have a problem, you talk to somebody and say: “Make it so”, like Star Trek’s Captain Picard, you aren’t going to survive for long in this role.

The supply side tends to regard BIM as an added extra, and pockets the change.– Paul Morrell

Whereas if you’re in a partnership, like I was, with all the owners around the table in every meeting, life is one long negotiation.

You need, as I did, to have no other interest, commercial or otherwise. I was meant to be seconded from my firm, but I realised I would need to sever every single tie apart from with the government, so I was seconded from the Construction Industry Council.

You kind of need to be at the end of your career – unless you’re planning on using it as a revolving door and going back to industry with all your good connections, which is not a good thing.

You need to have the breadth of understanding of the industry, to have the ability to cope in an environment that’s in negotiation, to settle for the things that you can’t change, and to have sufficient clout to be able to persuade ministers of certain things without totally p***ing off the civil servants.

I probably p***ed off a few. It’s difficult in government: if you’re not careful, you may sound like a minister, but you’re not one, you don’t have those rights. It’s a significant position for a civil servant to handle. If you ask a civil servant, “Do you want to pay one chief construction advisor £120,000 who’s difficult to manage or would you rather have two or three staff at £40,000 or £60,000 each?”, they’ll take the internal staff.

So it is a real difficulty to find somebody who can do the job. But the government doesn’t hesitate to have a chief scientific advisor or chief medical advisor.

The industry demands a construction minister with real clout. But I always used to say to people: where do you think they would sit? And the answer I remember getting from one chief executive was “We don’t give a s**t”. Well you should because the moment that they’re sitting in one ministry, they’re not in the other. You need to understand the tension between government departments.

The one sure-fire way to ensure everybody is in agreement against you is to be in the Cabinet Office or the Treasury. I floated between Cabinet Office, Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the advantage of that was that I wasn’t in any one of those places to the detriment of the others.

That’s not a plea for the old job back!

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