All in it together

Despite survey results to the contrary, Melanie Robinson says that the industry uptake of BIM may be lower than everyone thinks

As construction professionals, we are experiencing an exciting period for our industry. As well as witnessing radical changes in how we approach the design, construction, and management of  buildings, we are also having to adapt our built environment to be resilient against the effects of climate change.

This is nothing new – the UK industry has consistently been subject to scrutiny, with projects often delivered over budget and late. It was underperforming in its capacity to deliver value.

The government’s Construction Strategy 2011 called for procurement and delivery mechanisms to change and paved the way to capitalise on the potential offered by adopting digital technologies.

Digitisation is often synonymised with building information modelling (BIM), the introduction of which has fundamentally changed how projects are managed.

We risk a market split between those who can and those who can’t

However, BIM encompasses more than technology. We should think of it as an overarching process underpinned by intelligent models and facilitated by enhanced collaboration between stakeholders.

As the drive for BIM strengthens, one year past the Level 2 mandate for public sector projects, it is important to take stock of how far we have come on our journey, why we are doing it, and future implications.

So, is BIM delivering the reform we need to see within construction?

The answer lies in its ability to deliver time and cost- savings through the elimination of inefficiencies. This is attributed to the higher levels of collaboration that have replaced typically adversarial environments. 3D visualisation and clash-detection analyses have also been identified by building professionals as central benefits, and have been shown to reduce cost and effort significantly.

However, in a period of growing concern about global emissions, it remains crucial to align current efforts to digitise the industry with achieving sustainable design.

Environmental benefits of BIM can be categorised as:

  • Implicit – those realised by the use of technologies, such as a reduced need to travel and the use of tablets onsite
  • Explicit – those gained from specifically using tools and building data across the project life-cycle to achieve sustainable outcomes, so-called ‘green BIM’.

Green BIM applications identified in academic literature include the development of decision-making tools to aid the process of sustainable design, such as the seamless integration of energy modelling and LCA tools, and aids to help professionals understand the impact of design decisions earlier in the process.

Work is also being undertaken to consider the automatic generation of environmental assessment method credits, and to explore the growing role of digital technologies for facilities managers.

For the built environment to see real reductions in emissions, we need to start exploiting green BIM capabilities beyond the requirements stipulated by regulatory gateways and certification procedures.

So, we’re seeing time and cost benefits and, if we can adjust our industry culture to design with sustainability to the fore, we can see environmental improvements too.

If BIM is not adopted, we could lose these benefits and be unable to reap the rewards that will ensure the reform we need to fix the credibility of our industry.

Six years after the publication of the Strategy, and over the first year of the mandate [to use BIM Level 2 on all publicly-funded construction projects], we should be seeing BIM use filtering down the supply chain. The prevailing issue, however, is that we are unable to monitor the progress of the government’s so-called ‘push-pull’ strategy and its spread into the private sector.

The most comprehensive studies published so far are the annual NBS National BIM Surveys. The latest survey of more than 1,000 respondents reported that about two- thirds have adopted BIM, with the rest set to follow suit within three years – overall an encouraging result.

However, surveys could potentially mask a damaging lack of understanding of BIM maturation, and uptake may be lower than we think.

The industry has to make some difficult decisions soon and they need to be based on hard facts. BIM needs to be fully adopted across industry, otherwise we risk a market split between those who can and those who can’t.

While the ‘adopt or die’ approach is seen by many as weeding out the less-capable organisations, it is likely to be to the detriment of SMEs, given that the most cited barrier to effective implementation lies in the significant capital costs associated with BIM.

The question is: do we continue hurtling along the current path towards ‘Digital Built Britain’, or are we putting the cart before the horse?

We are in ‘exciting’ times but we could argue that the term ‘turbulent’ has also never been so applicable.

  • A Technical Symposium poster on this subject is available here.
  • Melanie Robinson is a postgraduate research student at the School of Engineering and Built Environment at Edinburgh Napier University