Wherever you might be in the construction supply chain, BIM is becoming hard to ignore. But how far away are we from a universal solution? Elaine Knutt reports, and gathers opinions on progress so far from a cross-section of the industry. Illustrations by Tobatron
Is your company building BIM? That probably depends on where it is in the supply chain. For major contractors and top-flight project managers, BIM could already be a reality in pre-construction, and just a short stretch of the imagination away from being an A-Z solution. For the middle ground of contractors and consultants, BIM might be gradually taking shape in the minds of the more IT aware, but its outlines will still be shadowy. And for the massed ranks of SME contractors, BIM is probably as realistic a prospect as the tooth fairy.
In fact, talk to a cross-section of contractors and construction managers — and even some software providers — and it becomes clear there’s an emerging segmentation into BIM-active, BIM-aware and BIM- worry-about-it-later.
Talk to clients, however, and there’s a different segmentation going on. For them, it’s not a question of when — it’s already about the different flavours and preferences. Open “agnostic” BIM or proprietary platform BIM? BIM in the cloud, or sitting on in-house servers? Mandatory for all, or voluntary for those who can make the most of it?
But there’s no doubt that BIM awareness is growing fast in the post-recession climate of “more for less”. It’s being formed in conferences, workshops, and industry working groups, such as those run by Constructing Excellence and the UK Contractors Group. Most of all, BIM awareness has been boosted by chief construction adviser Paul Morrell, who has indicated that public sector clients on projects over £50m should build BIM. And in Low Carbon Construction, published late last year, he recommended that government and industry set up a collaborative BIM forum.
Trial teams looking at seven different subjects — Contracts and legal; Delivery Standards; Training and Support; BIM standards in the USA; Data Management; Cost Benefit Analysis; Communications, Knowledge Transfer and Institutions — are currently examining the use of BIM in government projects and will report their findings to the Construction Clients’ Group in March (see John Lorimer, right). “With the endorsement of Morrell, there’s an added impetus to get things moving,” says Alan Baikie, UK general manager for CAD and BIM vendor Graphisoft, and a member of the trial team.
But whatever pace they’re adopting, contractors and construction managers are lagging behind design consultants and clients. In a multi-disciplinary design team, the benefits of integrated design, clash detection and the possibility of interrogating the model on different design options are clear. Likewise, for clients, having the keys to a real building alongside the information, data and drawings for a virtual doppelganger is a clear advantage for planning maintenance, upkeep and refurbishment.
Meanwhile, contractors already have IT solutions for scheduling, programming, estimating, and no urgent need to link these to designs ab initio. In fact, it’s possible to take someone else’s 3D CAD drawings, or integrated BIM design model, adopt it for communicating issues to the team or client, but essentially build it the old-fashioned way. Essentially, this is the point many major contractors have reached. “There is a line, and we haven’t crossed it yet,” agrees Mace director Rob Owen, who has responsibility for pre-construction at the firm (see box).
But BIM consultant Ben Wallbank argues that it’s contractors who have most to gain from releasing the cost and quality advantages offered by BIM.
“We’ll see a race between the large contractors to grasp how to use the information,” he says. ”From their point of view, it offers the opportunity to control the process from competition to completion — the supply chain, the consultants and the sub-contractors. Some people will become powerful because of this, but there will also be casualties along the way.”
There are two ways of defining BIM: in terms of process, and software. In terms of the former, BIM creates opportunities for collaboration and integration beyond anything the industry has experienced before. Think of a partnering or framework project, where early collaboration and discussion results in a more robust design and programme, with fewer mid-project disputes and changes, and — in theory — enhanced margins. Then think of the possibilities unleashed by having everyone involved pool their project data in a BIM model.
Contractors can forget about re-engineering the design proposal, or simplifying 3D CAD models for use on site — it’s not necessary and you’ve chalked up your first efficiency savings. Consultants can move through more solutions faster, resulting in a better-designed project for the same fee. With full transparency and certainty on what’s being proposed, trade contractors won’t have to price an extra margin for “unknown unknowns”.
The project goes on site clash-free, de-risked, with more accurate quantities and a more robust programme. During construction, better information directly contributes to cost and time savings. “I’ve seen technical queries on site drop to 10-20% of what they used to be,” says Aecom consulting engineer Steve Ferguson. “At Anniesland College in Glasgow, BAM had 35 Requests for Information — previously it might have been 150. For me, it’s the contractor who realises most benefit from BIM,” he adds.
With carbon issues coming to the fore, BIM allows the contractor or design team to “take off” data and run it through an environmental package. And while benefits will accrue over a single project, further efficiencies will emerge in the longer term, with the transfer of know-how between different parts of the industry. “It’s ultimately wasteful if each link in the supply chain owns the knowledge,” says Nick Deeming, partner at architect FaulknerBrowns.
Clients can expect upfront cost savings, but the real return will come from harnessing efficiency savings over the building’s lifetime. For instance, Aecom’s Ferguson describes an FM manager arriving at work to find a leak. Instead of sending someone up a ladder, he consults the BIM model to find a pump directly above the damp patch. Clicking on the “object” will bring up a full design and construction history — and the mobile number of the servicing technician.
John Lorimer is director of capital programmes at Manchester City Council and a member of the industry team advising Paul Morrell on BIM. “For a client, getting the capital costs down, whether it’s by 15% or 30%, is clearly a good thing. But having a model that allows you to manage the building at a different level of efficiency — that’s a no brainer,” he says.
However, these process benefits are also determined by softer “cultural” issues. Will the parties in the supply chain trust each others’ calculations? Does the architect want all their information to be available to the contractor? And although BIM reduces the potential for disputes and claims, things will still inevitably go wrong. “One of the big issues is not the technology, but the way it starts to infringe on intellectual property rights, and professional indemnity insurance,” says Graphisoft’s Alan Baikie.
FaulknerBrowns Deeming questions whether the industry’s diverse supplier base will be able to engage with BIM. “We need to get suppliers of materials and components to describe them in a way that can be incorporated into the model, including information about their future maintenance. Contractors need to be able to ask suppliers: “can you supply doorsets that match this specification data?”
According to Rob Owen, director of preconstruction at Mace, some suppliers are offering BIM-compliant data and those that don’t get up to speed will miss out.
Then there’s the technology aspect to building BIM: the software to adopt or specify, and how to link design information to time and cost data (known as 4D and 5D BIM) and other data sets, from carbon to pedestrian flows. There are two emerging schools of thought:
l Either the weight of market opinion — perhaps given added momentum from key clients — swings behind certain software products, the file formats they dictate and add-on tools compatible with them. The result would be smooth interfaces between different data sets, but could “lock out” any firm that didn’t have the right software;
l “Open” BIM, where each player uses the software that fits their needs best, and software providers work towards 360-degree interoperability. Essentially, this is the goal of the industry standard-setting body BuildingSMART, which advises the software and construction industries on generic file formats. However, it’s likely that some detail and accuracy will always be lost in translating files from one format to another, resulting in glitches and slower response times.
The product making a play for market dominance is Autodesk’s Navisworks, which is already in use at Laing O’Rourke and Skanska. It opens designs from the main 3D CAD tools and links them to contractors’ “back office” enterprise resource planning programs, such as those offered by Microsoft Primavera, Sage or SAP. “It’s a project review application, it allows the project manager to do clash-detection or scheduling,” says Peter Thompson, senior director for the construction business line for Autodesk.
But Navisworks doesn’t have a cost or carbon dimension, and can’t yet issue a works order to a contractor.
At online collaboration provider BIW, chief executive Colin Smith is edging towards the biggest-is-best theory. “We suggest Autodesk Navisworks will work best with our software,” he says. “BuildSMART might be promoting supplier independence, but standards don’t usually emerge through independent bodies,
it didn’t happen with email,” he says. However, he also suggests that a competitor to Navisworks could emerge, in the same way as Google toppled Yahoo.
Meanwhile, Autodesk rival Graphisoft, argues for a software-agnostic approach. “I think it’s inevitable we’ll end up in an open environment. If it’s based on one software product, then the competitive nature goes out of software production and people get held to ransom,” says Alan Baikie. “So much procurement is done by government, and it won’t risk having just one supplier,” he adds, pointing out that the US General Services Administration, said to be the largest procurement body in the world, has adopted “open BIM”.
Consultant Ben Wallbank (see box left), who has an association with Graphisoft, says that generic file formats have moved on in leaps and bounds. “For different packages, there are different export file formats, but these have really improved in the past few years. Exchanging data using
.ifc or .gbxml is almost seamless now. Companies like Graphisoft have made a huge effort in making sure they can work with sector-specific software such as IES [M&E services ] Autodesk Revit [architecture] or Tekla [structural design].”
Aside from the question of which BIM platform to scramble onto, there’s also a new level of choice opening up: between BIM as a Service (BIMaaS), hosted by online collaboration vendors such as BIW, Unit4 or 4Projects; and BIM that physically sits on servers owned by the client or contractor. “I’ve got developers beavering away on the tools and frameworks required to support it,” says BIW’s Colin Smith. “We should have the full product available by late 2011,” he adds.
Rob Owen of Mace also believes that online collaboration providers could evolve into BIM-providers, but thinks they will first have to re-engineer their product. “They provide data storage and data exchange, but it’s more about transferring information upstream and downstream, whereas BIM is about bringing it all together. It’s a filing cabinet solution, with everything stored separately.”
But would clients be willing to pay data-hosting fees for their building’s lifetime? Smith believes they would. “Sainsbury’s would pay for the model in perpetuity, then the maintenance or refurbishment contractors can access it and feed changes back into the database.” And public sector clients? “We already host their projects, and they’re very exacting clients,” he argues.
The question of where BIM sits is linked to another fundamental uncertainty: who owns the model and the data? (see Construction Professional p26-27). At Manchester City Council, John Lorimer has a neat answer on the consultant-contractor-client conundrum: the building owns the model.
“The model drives different efficiencies at different stages of the project, so ownership has to change throughout the life of the project. I liken it to the people who live in National Trust properties, we need different ‘custodians’.”
However, he acknowledges that aligning ownership with the benefits of BIM takes the industry into uncharted legal territory. “How do you translate that into a contract? It might take a lot of work to get a framework that doesn’t trip people up,” he says.
For many in the industry, BIM’s potential for slips, trips and falls are more front of mind than the advantages. But others are grasping the opportunities. “It’s a big learning curve, but we wouldn’t approach a project differently,” says Aecom’s Ferguson. “It’s more interesting for staff, it’s easier, and we’re designing with fewer errors.” Not many contractors or project managers could say the same. But the ones that do manage to top-out their own BIM structure will enjoy a perspective that’s more efficient, more profitable and more tuned to the future, leaving the rest of the field struggling with all the old inefficiencies.
John Lorimer, capital programme director, Manchester City Council
There are two strands to the work of the trial team for Paul Morrell: users and practitioners are focussing on the delivery side, and software providers are looking at the technical side. We will deliver a report at the end of March, to inform central government’s thinking.
I personally don’t think that BIM needs to be mandated. Since last year, everyone’s interested, and organisations are starting to invest, so I think we’re moving so quickly there’s no need.
People in the public sector are very used to collaboration. In Manchester, we already have frameworks and target-cost contracts, so rolling out BIM will be relatively straightforward.
We’re already trialling BIM on the library and town hall extension project, with Laing O’Rourke, which is 100% committed. The project office is in our buidling, so that’s where the data is stored. That’s where I have a problem with mandating it – we’re in the right place to make it happen, but some people wouldn’t have a clue!
People bidding for projects talk to us about BIM. And while they might actually only be using it at level one or two (see Mark Bew’s comment piece, p12), at least BIM is being de-mystified, and we’re having open discussions. In Manchester, we’ve been pushing BIM for years – now it’s on its way.
Rob Owen, preconstruction services director, Mace
We’re using BIM at the preeconstruction stage, pulling together CAD designs, the time and construction aspects, plant and logistics, and cost data to create an integrated model that can be tested, challenged and communicated. At the Shard for instance, we’re using it for safety inductions, to look at clashes, and for walk-throughs. But at the moment, there is a line we haven’t crossed. Utopia is when we take the model forward through construction to FM and demolition – but the industry isn’t there yet.
How BIM works in practice will depend on the contractual arrangements. A partnering agreement, where you’re all in it together, perhaps with a shared pain/gain mechanism, could work well for BIM. But if it’s a hard-nosed traditional contract, it would be difficult. Change management would be difficult, as would design evolution. There will also be data security issues – we’re certified to ISO 27 001.
We’ve just started going over to look at projects in the USA, there are things happening there that will no doubt happen here in a few years’ time. Learning about IPD [Integrated Project Delivery] could help us improve the way we deliver projects.
What CAD was to drawing boards, BIM will be to CAD and specifications. If you think where we were 20 years ago, then 10, I’d say full BIM will be here in 5 years.
Jason Warde, senior vice president, 4Projects
In the US, there’s pressure to deliver projects better, faster and cheaper, and IPD [Integrated Project Delivery] is being driven by clients and owners. The American Institute of Architects has published the best definition. The General Services Administration, which commissions federal buildings, and healthcare clients are the biggest adopters. But the likes of Turner Construction and Balfour Beatty are also really pushing it – they can’t afford re-work or delay penalties.
Here, we see BIM as a process that helps deliver efficiencies in the IPD model. Traditionally, the clients contracts with the architect, and then the responsibility is on the contractor to deliver what the architect designed. Now, everyone has to collaborate, so BIM helps to bring the parties together, and reduces re-work.
But there are still barriers to IPD. The US is very litigious, so it’s asking people to completely change the way they work. Standard contracts are set up to protect the contractor from liability, so we’re seeing more use of “Consensus Docs”, a suite of contracts drafted by the AIA.
4Projects helps facilitate communication between the different organisations: we manage the inputs and outputs of BIM. Companies can view the model through a tool, or model viewer, so they don’t need to have the native software.
Steve Ferguson, Aecom
All our projects are delivered in a 3D BIM environment - that’s how we designed the BBC Scotland HQ in Glasgow, in 2004. But I’ve noticed a change in the past couple of years. Fabricators now have much more confidence in the BIM process and using our 3D model. In the past, they took our model and then built their own. Now, they have more confidence in using ours.
Contractors can take the virtual model we produce, and “walk around” in it. There’s a free downloadable link from Navisworks that gives you “read-only” access. If the contractor clicks on a component, it’ll bring up all the related data about it. The model is used for communication and co-ordination [rather than co-ordinating construction]. Or some contractors use it as a health and safety tool – you can visualise where the risks might be, or where people will be working on top of each other.
We can also link the virtual model to a 4D timeline for a visual representation of the programme. But you need real collaboration between the designer and contractor, which needs to produce the programme early and in a certain way.
You can’s say “steel erection will take12 weeks”. The programme has to be broken down into functions, so we can link a particular number of columns and beams to each week.
There is a perception that BIM is a technological problem. But people should be thinking, what direction do we want to take the business in, and what technology do we use to do that? It might be you want exact costings, or better co-ordinated jobs, or jobs that run better on site, or all three. Or you might have a PFI/PPP interest in the building for the next 30 years. Different contractors are aiming at different things, and how you approach BIM depends on what you want to get out of it.
It’s not the case to say there are packages out there available off the shelf. For instance, for taking costings out of the job, a contractor would have to link costs from your supply chain onto the elements in the model, and keep it up to date. Or if you get your consultants to model in BIM using suitable protocols, they can link it to a material costs database – but that doesn’t factor in the supply chain. So the contractors need to think through the process and workflow issues.
I’m trying to show architects and contractors that they don’t have to be prescriptive about software. For example, I recently showed Skanska an exchange between [Graphisoft] ArchiCad and [Autodesk] Revit. People should be thinking “we want to use this architect because they’re the best”, not because they’ve got a particular software package.
Some contractors – such as Laing O’Rourke and Skanska – who had previously been talking about a single platform route, are now saying they want to use other packages as well.
People have to realise this is a game-changer, and we’re on the cusp.
Wes Simmons, general manager, Sage Construction
BIM doesn’t really come up in any of the conversations I have with my customers. You’d think it was self-evident that BIM would be of use to people, but contractors will use it when someone makes them – they’re not being very pro-active about it. It’s the same as e-commerce - it can save you money, so why aren’t more people doing it?
The team who work on Evaluate [Sage’s new estimating and cost analysis program] have sketched out how it might be implemented in a BIM system. But we’re a customer-driven company, so we give customers the stuff they’re asking for.
We have data ports and integration gateways all over our software, and we could adapt our products fairly readily. We also have Autodesk integration on some software. But I feel it’s a VHS v Betamax situation – we will see a couple of standards then one will win out.
When BAA built Terminal 5, all the costings were on one model. But every single contractor entered the cost information twice, once for the central system and once for their own benefit. From an IT-perspective, I think that could happen again.