Why Building Information Modelling is not working ... yet

B&ES, Andy Sneyd, BIM, Building & Engineering Services Association, Building Information Modelling
Driving massive change in the way we all interact and exchange information —Andy Sneyd.

It is high time the industry got the Building Information Modelling (BIM) it actually needed and not the one foisted on it by software providers, according to B&ES president Andy Sneyd.

Contractors are not being asked what they want from BIM models or how they want to use the model to increase efficiency during the construction and commissioning stages. As a result, many companies are developing their own versions, which is far from ideal at a time when we are trying to improve collaboration across the supply chain.

There is a bit too much tail wagging the dog here. If we don’t get the models we need, how can contractors be expected to make the system work — particularly with the fast approaching 2016 deadline for Level 2 BIM to be adopted on all public-sector projects? The software providers need to consult closely with the contracting community to ensure we are getting models that allow us to fine tune designs and hand over buildings in good operational shape.

We should be able to use the models to track and manage resources and materials at the construction phase as well as monitor work-phase completeness. Detailed and high-quality commissioning data should also be included alongside the design information. More and better data from the design team is essential if we are to satisfy clients looking for better performance standards from their buildings assessed against progressively more ambitious financial targets.

Louise Ellison, head of sustainability at the retail developer Hammerson, told the recent CIBSE Leadership in Building Performance conference that clients were now looking ‘under the bonnet’ in orderto identify the long-term management risks for their companies when buying a building.

She said, ‘We need better data from the industry. You have the information — please share it with us so we know what we can expect and so that we don’t simply design just to comply with legislation.’

Many buildings suffer from a ‘performance gap’, which means they use a lot more energy than they should. There is also an expectation gap whereby clients hope to get a building that works well, but are often disappointed and left confused about why things have gone wrong.

Often the explanation is that decisions are based on lowest first cost and merely doing enough to comply with legislation. In this day and age, we simply have to do better than that and hand over buildings that are safe, fit for purpose and comfortable, but which will also deliver long-term operational efficiencies. However, if there is a data vacuum, you can’t really blame clients for basing their decisions on the path of least resistance to basic planning and legislation compliance.

The Government, in its role as the industry’s biggest client, expects BIM and other industry modernisation programmes — including better collaboration across the supply chain — to deliver 20% capital-cost savings along with faster delivery and lower carbon emissions from the built environment. BIM is regarded as crucial to delivering long-overdue efficiency improvements.

As part of its industrial strategy, the Government identified construction as an ‘enabling sector’ delivering around £69 billion GVA (£107 billion output) to the UK economy employing around 2.5 million workers and, as such, is a key contributor to UK growth.

The strategy noted, ‘The UK has a comparative advantage in certain construction services — primarily engineering, architecture and activities associated with low-carbon built-environment solutions. This advantage will be important in creating opportunities that are driven by technological change, increasing environmental awareness and emerging economies.’

BIM has the potential to deliver impressive cost savings during the operational phase of buildings. The price we, and our clients, have to pay is investing more in the design and construction phases. More clients now get this argument because they are improving how they measure and monitor ongoing building performance — so they are looking to the industry to deliver the data necessary to implement longer-term efficiency strategies. We have some catching up to do because the construction industry is still at a relatively early stage in its technology revolution.

Technology is powering ahead, buildings are becoming increasingly sophisticated’, and clients are waking up to the importance poor building performance can have on their profitability and productivity. However, our supply chain is still not functioning in a way that supports their ambitions and expectations. It still looks far too much like it did in the Victorian era when the ‘builder’ called the shots and everyone waited in line for their instructions. That traditional hierarchy is not suited to a modern, fluid, collaborative industry, which is what is required to work in a BIM-enabled environment and hand over fit-for-purpose buildings.

The great irony is the very presence of sophisticated technologies aimed at reducing energy usage and improving comfort actually can make a building more complex and, therefore, hard to manage and control. Some of that complexity can be ironed out through better collaboration and communication at the fit-out and commissioning stage, but that depends on having the right BIM model with the data where (and when) we need it.

A commissioning plan also needs to be built into the model. In far too many cases, that crucial commissioning time gets squeezed in a last-minute bid to get the project over the line. That can be the fatal for the operational strategy. You cannot just switch these systems on and expect them to work properly, but it is ridiculous how often that happens in multi-million pound buildings, effectively rendering the technology impotent.

We need a new mindset at the design stage so that the ‘professional’ team is thinking about how the building will be operated from a very early stage. This is as much about changing the ‘culture’ of the industry as it is about adopting new technologies and investing in expensive software.

BIM might one day save us money and make our processes more efficient — it isn’t doing that at the moment — but it will first drive massive change in the way we all interact and exchange information. If we can’t keep up with this change, we will be dropped from the process, and other people will step in.

BIM sits very neatly with off-site fabrication, which is an obvious way of simplifying things and taking out some of the most risky elements of a design package because everything can be built and tested in factory conditions. This minimises commissioning time and speeds up delivery. It is the interfaces between specialist trades that can produce complexity and create conflict so, while we need to recognise our role in the bigger picture, by also focusing hard on the potential pressure points we can smooth out the whole process.

That all sounds pretty much like common sense, but contractual obligations can be where things go off the rails. One legacy of the ‘traditional’ supply chain is the way contracts are produced and work is packaged out, with contractor set against contractor in the competitive bidding process.

The membership of B&ES recognises that new ways of working must take us across the old boundaries and out of our traditional silos to ensure a more collaborative, BIM-enabled future. However, to be successful we must have the right models and the right information to work with.

Andy Sneyd is president of the Building & Engineering Services Association (B&ES) and head of design at Crown House Technologies.

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