We need to talk about BIM

Mark Bew, the man responsible for making government clients “BIM-enabled”, clearly likes to keep busy. Early last year, Bew masterminded the BIM report that fed into last May’s Government Construction Strategy. This essentially said that all centrally funded public sector work would be delivered using building information modelling by 2016. At the same time he was still doing the day job as director of business information systems for engineering consultant URS Scott Wilson.

Meanwhile, Bew also started a PhD at Salford University – in BIM, naturally, and also found time to chair Building Smart, the organisation developing much-needed universal BIM protocols and standards.

“Last year went by in a bit of a blur to be honest,” recalls Bew. “But lots of good things have come out of it and we’ve had much positive feedback on the strategy.” Chairing the government’s BIM Work Stream Steering Group has become his day job and he’s now based in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, reporting to chief construction adviser Paul Morrell.

But getting around 20 government departments and the supply-side industry to adopt BIM technology to bring about a more seamless, more efficient, and therefore less costly way of working requires an endless reserve of energy, patience and a head for technical detail. That’s on display in abundance as he unfurls a giant chart jam-packed with boxes, critical paths and codes to illustrate the complicated world under the bonnet of BIM, whereby all the data needs to be formatted in the right way and available at the right time.

BIS has been key to the delivery of the BIM agenda and has collaborated with the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Justice to ensure a joined up effective Government Construction Strategy which is now starting to deliver more than the sum of its parts. Things are already moving fast: the first contract using BIM – a new buildhouse block at Cookham Wood Prison in Kent — is out to tender from the MoJ.

BIM has been mandated as part of the government’s drive to shave 20% from construction costs. But it’s widely acknowledged that the barriers to its adoption are as much cultural as technical. “The big challenge really is changing the culture and bringing people on side,” says Bew. “We’re talking about bringing about change across a programme which has a multi-billion pound capital and operations budget. It’s a massive exercise.”

Bew, no one will be surprised to hear, was an early adopter of BIM, using it on rebuilding of the Baltic Exchange in 1994 after it was destroyed by an IRA bomb. (Before Scott Wilson, he was business systems director at Costain, and he has also chalked up spells with John Laing and Trafalgar House, which later became part of Skanska). If it was saving money and helping streamline projects nearly two decades back, why has it been so slow to take off?

“The technology has matured; people have learnt how to use the tools and we’re at a point in time where we couldn’t carry on as we were,“ explains Bew. “We’ve just got to reduce costs.”

BIM men: David Philp, Aran Verling (below) and Martin Chambers (bottom) get down to matters at their meeting. Photos: Ed Tyler

A recent survey from National Building Specification shows the message is getting through: almost a third of professionals are now using BIM, compared with just 13% in 2010, and three quarters of those who are aware of it predict they will be using it in 2012. However, the survey also indicated that BIM remains poorly defined and understood with four out of five of those questioned agreeing that the industry is not yet clear on what BIM is.

Bew’s job is not about defining BIM for the whole industry, but for the needs of government clients. However, the complexity of the management structure he’s overseeing confirms the difficulty of the task. He talks of a small battalion of folk “pushing” and “pulling” BIM adoption. A group made up of representatives from government departments with input from local authorities is doing the “ pulling” or setting out its expectations, how they need to operate and structure their own departments and to use BIM services. It’s almost forcing clients back to first principles of procurement.

Meanwhile industry groups are doing the “pushing”: the professions, the contractors, and software suppliers, and academics, to name four of the working groups involved. These groups are working through the impact BIM will have on the industry’s administrative infrastructure and training requirements. For example, how does BIM work with professional indemnity insurance? How might contracts need to change?

A task group led by Simon Rawlinson, a director at EC Harris, is to look at any changes that may be necessary to insurance and contracts for implementing Level 2 BIM. The MoJ pathfinders will use the PPC2000, but the partnering contract has been slightly updated. Bew is confident, though, that any contractual changes for Level 2 won’t amount to more than a few lines.

All of these “push” and “pull” committees report into Bew’s steering committee, and from there into the Government Construction Board, and finally the Efficiency and Reform Group in the Cabinet Office.

Central to making Level 2 BIM construction projects run smoothly is ensuring that everyone starts using the same data formats and timings on data delivery. The government has specified the format that has to be adopted – called the Construction Operations Building Information Exchange or COBie, a piece of open source software that can be downloaded at

Mark Bew: “We’re talking about bringing about change across a programme which has a multi-billion pound capital and operations budget. It’s a massive exercise.”

Plans of work

However, much of what this entails, in terms of the supply of information to the client, runs counter to what’s currently specified in the various industry plans of work. (These set out what documentation is meant to be delivered to the client and when. Stage B, is the design brief and so on). So one of the biggest challenges is the unification of the plans of work across the professions. In the world of COBie and BIM some of these so called “data-drops” – or stages at which clients or organisations receive information – are now redundant. This new unified plan of work has now been agreed by the by the CIC and being tested.

In Level 2 BIM, information on specifications and drawings say, passes into a shared BIM model, but the information remains proprietary. Some BIM experts claim the government is wasting the potential of the technology by not encouraging full information sharing – perhaps based on “cloud computing” – where there is one model that is updated at will.

Bew says there are two reasons for this. “Software vendors may be keen to sell capabilities, but really the true definition of Level 3 has yet to be achieved in practice. The second and, certainly as important is the maturity of the current commercial models. The existing contracts have yet to grasp basic electronic trading and the very concept of cloud processing leaves the existing contract models far short of what is required,” he says.

“Level 2 might appear rather basic but it allows us to maintain the existing contracts and arrangements with only minor amendments. In Level 3, because everything is shared in a non-proprietary way it’s tantamount to ripping up the rule book, and we need to be ready for that with a plan. Level 2 will help us write that plan.”

Rise of social networking

Bew says it’s not unlike what is happening in the media. Press regulation, libel laws and how information is released has been thrown into chaos by the rise of social networking sites like Twitter. “True integrated systems will come and over the next couple of years we hope to have properly established what Level 3 is. Part of our plan will be to engage in the debate and we are funding a team of academics to look into this type of operation.”

It’s all very well for government and others to argue that BIM adoption might save the industry money in the long run, but lean times make it hard to invest up front. Bew says that one of the rules the government set itself when making the demands for BIM is that the investment need shouldn’t be greater than the savings made. There is five years to get geared up, during which most companies would have to invest in new kit anyway.

In fact, any main contractor capable of drawing information from a shared design model could deliver a Level 2 BIM project with little changes to their internal processes – although Bew wouldn’t recommend it. “Theoretically, Tier One contractors could bypass BIM and simply specify that their designers and specialists pass information between them to the client – but then they add no value,” he says.

The prize, after all, is “more for less” for everyone, whether on the client side or the supply side. “Anyone who invests in BIM should get a payback,” says Bew. “Our key message is get involved. Come and engage and be part of the process.”

In just 18 months, BIM has moved from an aspiration on a PowerPoint slide to a mandated contractual requirement on a live Ministry of Justice pilot project. But the speed of implementation – and the small dictionary of jargon accompanying it – has inevitably left unanswered questions bobbing in its wake.

So CM gave two contractors an opportunity to clear up a few uncertainties clouding their view of BIM. In a rooftop eyrie at the Treasury building, Aran Verling FCIOB of specialist subcontractor Byrne Group and Martin Chambers PPCIOB of Midlands contractor Shaylor Group met David Philp, head of BIM implementation at the Cabinet Office. The meeting, briefly joined by Mark Bew, was a chance to bypass protocols and ask direct questions.

To use some of the jargon, Byrne Group and Shaylor Group are at different points in BIM “maturity”. Verling was speaking for a company that’s well-versed in the use of integrated 3D design models in relation to the design and manufacture of concrete components. “We see BIM from all ends — the main contractors are asking us [for BIM], at the same time we’re selling it at the model and product end,” he said. “But it’s very fresh in the contractor market – and sometimes we feel we’re pushing water uphill.”

Shaylor Group, on the other hand, is just starting its first BIM project. “We’re still at the moment of going into live fire, we’re just starting to work out where the bullets are coming from,” said Chambers. “But in reality you learn to duck and dive pretty quickly. Invariably we’re learning because we’re working with designers who’ve already done a lot more than we have.”

But both welcomed the way the government had seized the initiative on BIM, and its role as a change agent. “Somebody had to make the step to create the platform, and the exciting thing for the construction industry is you’ve now taken that step,” said Verling. “There’s a framework for the industry to adopt. What you’ve done is put the coat hooks there, for the industry to hang something on.”

Chambers is looking further ahead: “It’s not just about government, it’s major private sector clients starting to become a force for change. It doesn’t have to be government procured, but government has a major control over it.”

As the discussion got under way, Philp was no doubt relieved not to be fielding questions on software, file formats, intellectual property, legal liability or even COBie. As he pointed out, a year’s worth of BIM conferences, seminars and articles have clarified many of the purely technical and business-case issues. “It’s now about lessons learned and process,” he said. “But one issue is scaleability. It’s not just the £50m jobs, this also has to make sense for the £1m-£2m project.”

Chambers’ and Verling’s questions instead took the discussion in some unexpected directions, including integrated project insurance, the risk of BIM models becoming bogged down with unnecessary data, and the scale of the cultural change required.

A key issue was the practicalities of tendering and pre-qualification; and a wild card was whether data managers are to BIM what planning supervisors are to CDM – a proliferating new profession extracting yet another fee.

The discussion also elicited some surprising admissions. If you weren’t too sure what is actually involved in Level 2 BIM, for example, then you might be reassured to know that the Cabinet Office team is still working on an approved definition — in “plain English”.

But the fact that BIM is almost at the contractual coal-face is an achievement everyone in the room recognises. As Philp says: “We’re at the point where it’s almost BIM with muddy boots – it’s real now, the first tenders are out. It’s about BIM out on site, how we actually realise efficiencies.

“It’s also the point in the agenda where we’ve got to keep staying ahead of the game. We [in government] have got to buy services and we want to buy from the UK and keep the UK industry ahead of the game and start to export its BIM skills. It’s how do we keep UK Plc the BIM champion?” An ambitious target, but Bew, Philp and the rest of the BIM implementation team are nothing if not ambitious.

What they said:

1. Changing culture and integration

Aran Verling We’re sitting in a fragmented industry that makes money from fragmentation, that struggles to see the value in integration. You need that collaboration, coordination and integration in people before you can actually get it into the systems and processes.

David Philp I 100% agree. There are three things that make up BIM. First you need the technologies to build the models. The second is process throughout the entire project life cycle. But what sits right above those two is changing people’s culture and behaviours. So 60% is about changing hearts and minds, the technology is maybe about 20%, and the process is 20%. As people start to build BIM models, we’re starting to get over the hump of changing cultures and behaviours.

Martin Chambers I think you’re kidding yourself! If I look back 10 years, PRIME contracting had come through, we were talking about integrated project teams back then. Yes, today there are pockets of the industry where people have adopted it and are actually true believers and disciples. But they’re like rain drops on a pond!

AV We’re subcontractors, and we’re still seeing main contractors sending us subcontract packages and asking for it back in four weeks. Why would you do that? If you wanted a co-ordinated integrated package back to get your cost base down, then you would sit down with the contractor and work it out. There’s a whole industry of dysfunctionality and people who thrive on it out there.

DP I agree it’s not gone away. The basic element in this BIM project is very much the intelligent client, that sets the environment for collaborative working. It’s about collaboration throughout the project life cycle.

AV There are success stories, like the Olympic Stadium, where it’s an NEC contract, and the contractor brings a team of people together with a single goal. In fact, you could do COBie on paper if you have the right behaviours, and that’s before anyone opens their laptop up and starts talking about software. That’s what you’re looking for – the process that allows for the right behaviours.

DP You’re right. We’re hoping to set the rules of behaviour, the rules of the playground if you like. With the early adopter projects we’re looking at KPIs, forms of contract and what we need to do to propagate that cultural change. We have a series of working groups looking at this — it isn’t just us as a client saying “this is what we’re doing”.

2. Dealing with the data

AV For government, what are the key metrics – over six months, a year, five years – that you actually want? That’s one of the dangers with this thing – you give people a new target and suddenly the information people can add to the model starts exploding. When we started getting into DFMA [Design for Manufacture and Assembly] you got every subcontractor and manufacturer putting lots of details into your model, every possible detail about widgets you didn’t need to know. So what are the top metrics for BIM?

DP It goes back to the intelligent client, who should be briefing for BIM. They should be articulating what outcomes they want to achieve from it, and then leaving the how to and detail up to the supply chain to allow people to innovate. We still have to stipulate, but there is still flexibility.

MC The difficulty is that Aran’s business you could say is in the vanguard, while people like ourselves are still coming to the races. It’s people like us who need a bit more skeletal shape to help us. Once you’ve been there, you’ve probably got a picture. But when you’re just about to jump in…

AV So if you’re jumping in, what do you have to measure? What KPIs do you need as a business? Where it’s a government contract and you’re expecting to get the asset back, what are you expecting in terms of data?

DP Contractually we want three things. COBie UK 2012, that’s the data set, the format we want it in, the common language. Then we want the models because we want Level 2 BIM. That’s where we’ve got to define, in plain English, what Level 2 BIM is. And we want the 2D PDFs of the drawings as well.

3. The scoring system

AV Picking up Martin’s point about contractors that aren’t fit and ready, [what will you do] when it comes to a scoring matrix to decide between getting a project and not getting a project? A bidder might be lowest cost but they’ve got no BIM facilities, or they’ve got great facilities but they’re quite costly, how will you balance that?

DP We’ve got a series of working groups, and one of those is looking at legal and commercial issues, including looking at PQQ sets. But once you go beyond that stage, when you tender for the project, you can either supply that [BIM capability] or you can’t  – it will be very black and white.

MC So do you see it as being a PQQ differentiator, rather than at the final tender?

DP It will be part of the PQQ set, but then once you’re into the tender stage it will be binary – you can either do it or you can’t.

AV But as we take public sector projects more “online”, we detach the human interface. We’ve already said that in the industry, people don’t talk to one another. Now we bid through these portals – we don’t bid through people any more. I’m not saying it’s a challenge for you particularly, but it’s a general challenge for the industry.

DP People interface with technology, but they integrate with other people. I use the analogy that BIM is a 21st century camp fire — it brings people together. Technology is good but it should be able to bring people together.

4. Finding a wider audience

MC What about housebuilders? Building a house is the smallest project , but it’s got the greatest repetition.

DP That’s one of the biggest prizes. We had a briefing session last week, and some of the architects were starting to engage [with BIM] on the housing side. In terms of government role, any contract that is procured by central government will be part of the mandate, which takes in the HCA.

MC The government has a fantastic opportunity through things like Building Regulations to influence the adoption of BIM.

AV But we’re still playing catch-up, we’re still waiting for the BIM structures through things like PAS1192, we still have to align that with the RIBA design stages, and that doesn’t happen until about 2013.

DP You’re right, but the Construction Industry Council has been working really hard with the [professional] institutions to give us our BIM overlay — where the data drops should be in terms of plans of work. We’re hoping round about April we’ll have the BIM overlay which should start to give alignment. It’s fair to say the plans of work have been built traditionally for the designer, this will be the first time the industry has a plan of work that’s written for design and construct, back-to-back with the client’s business case requirements.

5. Integrated project insurance

AV One area where government is needed is to influence the insurance market. Before you can work properly in that [integrated] environment, we need a PI policy we can work to. Right now you can’t even buy it.

DP Yes, some of the challenges around Level 3 BIM aren’t to do with the technology, it’s as much to do with project insurance. The legal and commercial working group is having that conversation with insurers.

MC This is where government could be incredibly brave, because it could actually self-insure. On government projects, the government is picking the bill up, which includes premiums, which also raise the question of cost of entry. But if the government says “we’ll self-insure this project”, the game all of a sudden changes.

AV you could have a government-backed project with government-backed insurance. If you also use the project bank account model, then you’ve got an interesting dynamic because the contractors know the money is somewhere and they’re going to get paid.

MC For the whole eight years we’ve had the Strategic Alliance, government has never held retentions, and that’s washed all the way through the supply chain.

DP Yes, it’s important to see BIM as only one part of the government’s construction strategy. It’s when you bring all these things together that you achieve efficiency savings.

6. A charter for new consultants?

MC People have been talking about model managers and the likes. Do you see this becoming some kind of new profession? Is it the next generation planning supervisor?

DP For me, there are people out there, design managers and such like, who actually manage the data management process anyway, especially on larger projects. There’s no reason why the people who exist at the moment can’t be these data managers.

AV I think it’ll be a subtle change towards more of a production integrator role.

Martin Bew I think we have to be careful. What we’ve actually got to do is get the people doing the kind of jobs that exist today to do them properly and better. You’ve been asking for the right design information for ever, you’ve been asking the specialists for the correct data for ever, so what’s the difference? Do what we asked you to do, but do it properly and check. And then suddenly you are where you thought you were 30 years ago. That’s a much better way of looking at it… rather than creating a new role.

AV I don’t disagree, we’re not looking at a new person. But if you just call that person doing the same role a different thing, nothing’s going to change.

MB The idea is not to grow the thing, but shrink it. It’s not about growing a new professional layer.

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