Building back digitally

There are calls to ‘Build Back Better’ as we seek to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Hywel Davies describes the role digitalisation has to play in making buildings safer and more cost efficient

In 2011, the government’s Construction Client Group Building Information Modelling (BIM) Working Party produced a strategy paper for the UK. It came to be known as the UK BIM Strategy, and led to the creation of the UK BIM Task Group and the ‘BIM Level 2’ mandate for central government construction projects.

Adopting digital working practices in construction is commonly referred to as ‘BIM’, but this can lead to undue focus on software and insufficient attention on adopting digital working practices to transform processes and outcomes.

The BIM Task Group commissioned a series of standards and Publicly Available Specifications (PAS) to support the BIM mandate. These included the PAS 1192 series for BIM in the capital and operational phases of a building.

The BSI BIM committee brings together stakeholders from industry, government, and professional and trade bodies. In 2013, it decided that the UK interest was best served by taking the emerging PAS 1192 series to ISO, to develop an international standard for digital information management in construction.

This resulted in the ISO 19650 series of standards. These are now adopted as European standards – which means they are British Standards, too. While the UK has left the EU, BSI remains a member of CEN and we continue to adopt European Standards under the rules of that European standards body. 

The BIM Task Force was stood down in 2016 and the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) set up at the University of Cambridge to lead development of digital thinking for the built environment and wider UK perspective. Its Gemini Principles report on digital twins was published last year.

Effective information about a building can deliver lasting benefits and significant cost savings

The UK BIM Alliance is an industry-funded body of digital practitioners committed to the adoption of digital technologies in construction. After adoption of the first two standards in the 19650 series in 2018, it worked with BSI and CDBB to create the UK BIM Framework to replace the BIM Level 2 concept. The guidance supports and explains the new standards in terms of UK practice and process. The fourth edition was published in April 2020.

CDBB recently led a review of digital interoperability in UK construction. It recommends a renewed mandate for BIM to drive development of open interoperable data, with a steering group to lead, and champion, the development and implementation of this new mandate.

One benefit of adopting BIM, proposed in 2011, was to measure ‘how well a construction asset meets the target outcomes’. If meeting legal or specific building safety requirements is considered to be a target outcome, then BIM can certainly help to measure outcomes.

This concept relates closely to provision of the data required for the ‘golden thread’ of information, a key strand of the building safety programme. This is a great opportunity to embrace the huge amount of work and investment already made by the UK BIM Alliance, BIM Task Group, CDBB and BSI to develop the existing UK BIM framework.

We have the capability to deliver essential information about a built asset, whether that be on fire safety, ventilation or water systems, or other areas of particular interest as we seek to reopen buildings safely.

Effective information about a building can deliver lasting benefits and significant cost savings in operation. The Gateway process envisaged by the Hackitt Review offers an ideal framework for achieving that. Access to that information at appropriate stages during design and construction can allow regulators and building control professionals much more insight into a design.

Regulators working digitally and interoperably with the design and construction team could reduce delays and improve information exchange.

In the new socially distanced world, there is also an opportunity to reduce site visits or meetings by working online. It needs investment in software and training, and in implementing the UK BIM Framework effectively – but if we build back digitally, we can build back much better.