December 17, 2014 | By Ben Cronin
You’d have to have isolated yourself in a fairly large hole over the last few years to ignore the implications and the arguments around Whitehall’s decision to mandate achieving Level 2 building information modelling (BIM) on central government projects by 2016.
The announcement has undoubtedly created a significant challenge for the construction industry and there has been no shortage of politics and, dare we say, a fair amount of sermonising around the subject. But arguably there are fewer tangible examples of people completing projects using BIM and then sharing the lessons they have learned.
As BIM Academy chair John Lorimer, so succinctly put it: “Getting BIM case studies is a nightmare. I think there’s just a culture of not wanting to be bottom of the pile. We’ve got to be realistic and that we should be sharing the bad stuff as well. It’s not all good news, is it?”
Lorimer was speaking at an NCE round table event in London last month, the purpose of which was for some of the winners at the recent British Construction Industry Awards (BCIA) - a collaborative blend of engineers, construction firms and architects on the delivery teams - to share BIM best practice tips and other helpful observations about the “B” acronym.
The presence of David Hancock, deputy director for construction at the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority, also provided the group with an opportunity to establish a clearer sense of what the government wanted to achieve with BIM.
“Government has mandated BIM for all its construction projects and now it’s the time to hand over to the industry, for the industry to pick up the gauntlet and take it forward,” said Hancock. “We want to go beyond the capital side of it, because we think there are more savings to be made in whole life than there are in capex, while obviously still supporting BIM from the centre.
“We see BIM as a catalyst for change. If you believe it’s an IT system, you’ve failed, you’ve missed the point. We see it as a catalyst for contractor collaboration, early involvement and a way of bridging the gender divide.
Digital should mean there is a take up from a diverse range of people because it’s no longer a case of having to stand out in the rain digging trenches.”
There was a consensus in the room that BIM was certainly beginning to change the profile of the personnel that companies were looking to recruit. Morgan Sindall engineering director Tony O’Donnell said: “We’ve seen a number of the smaller consultants are recruiting people who’ve grown up in the 4D gaming world. We’re seeing even with our graduate engineers people from a different generation who are just more comfortable in the 3D environment.”
Matt Blackwell, head of BIM, Costain, suggested that BIM in construction was providing computer programmers with an attractive alternative to the low pay and cut throat culture of the computer games industry.
“There’s a guy on our temporary works team who programmes the Oculus Rift for one of our major schemes [a virtual reality app that helps client to visualise a project],” he said. “So certainly it’s diversifying. ”
But Atkins structures team lead, highways and transportation Chris Brock said it was important that no single group took exclusive ownership of BIM. “That’s an interesting subject: there should be a discussion about who does BIM,” he said. “I know some people are very keen on BIM being developed by the technician community but others are very keen on developing this through the wider community. For me, if you don’t get the wider audience you’re never going to get the benefits, it’s still going to be so compartmentalised.”
URS director of technology and data solutions, David Glennon, argued that companies would need to blend the skills of different groups to get the most out of BIM. “Traditionally an experienced engineer would check and approve others’ work - in an online environment this still must happen. Less experienced team members are very good with the tools and can understand how they improve things. But you can’t always trust the computer is right. It’s therefore important that more experienced engineers can replicate best practice in the new world.”
At the URS office in Sweden the company has adopted an innovative team structure. Glennon explained that it has hired a gamer and somebody from a manufacturing background precisely because their approach is slightly different. “They work alongside engineers with varying levels of experience and we’ve seen some great results,” he says.
Ben Feltham is the BIM manager for the Costain-Skanska joint venture for the Paddington Crossrail project, which was highly commended in the BCIA’s BIM project application category. He also felt a blend of talents was fundamental to using BIM successfully but also stressed the need for leadership. “Having an integrated team helped us to integrate design meetings, which was also really successful. We had a lot of young engineers who had a thirst for technology and they really drove the process and also a senior director who was superb. If there was an issue he would say: “‘Let me see it in the model,’ or ‘Let me see a clash report’ to force the engineers to go down that route. For me, having that behaviour at a really high level was the key to implementing BIM.”
Feltham thought that the client’s belief in innovation and sharing of best practice was embodied by the Crossrail Innovate18 platform - an online hub that allows Crossrail employees to share their innovations. “That enabled us to trial a lot of processes and to back those processes with new technology, and it gave us that opportunity to use the project as a test bed,” he said.
Bentley Systems industry marketing director for construction Anne Busson shared her take on BIM and best practice. “BIM is about integrating data, people, and processes in a unified environment. Technology is the enabler and supports BIM processes.”
She said collaborative BIM was all about working smarter together to enhance information mobility across engineering disciplines and improving information quality, from design through construction and into operations and maintenance. She cited the example of the Crossrail-Bentley Information Academy, which was launched as part of a technology partnership with Crossrail, Europe’s largest infrastructure project.
“The goal of the Academy is to educate participants in the people, processes, technology, and workflows required to achieve the Crossrail target of delivering a world class asset, and is one of the innovative initiatives helping Crossrail become among the first organisations to reach BIM Level 2.”
Costain’s design and BIM manager David Owens broadened the idea of sharing best practice to include social media. He said he has taken to posting BIM questions on Twitter when he encounters a problem on a project.
“Knowledge sharing in general is a key issue for the industry: writing something down and saying: ‘I made this work by doing this.’ However, if you’ve got a problem and you go on Twitter and ask how to do something on Microstation, somebody’s going to answer you back there and then. That’s different, that’s immediate.”
Offering an alternative perspective, Robin Partington Architects studio leader Niall Monaghan felt there was a need to demystify BIM. He wasn’t even sure that the Park House Project in Oxford Street, London, which had been shortlisted in 2013 BCIA awards, was using BIM by the strictest definition. “It had a 3D workflow which we had been using for 10 years. The discussion was whether it was BIM or not because we hadn’t complied with all of the requirements for BIM level 2 or even BIM level 1. But it was a properly co-ordinated building in three dimensions and our computer model travelled the world to various specialist subcontractors. We wouldn’t have been able to build it without being able to communicate in that way.”
Monaghan felt that even making the transition from a spread sheet to a multi-authored document could still be classed as BIM. “We are all communicating through a form of BIM; it just might not be the sort of multi-layered 3D co-ordination BIM that everyone imagines,” he said. “Ultimately, it is the quality of the information that is important and that is down to the quality of the individuals involved, which is what construction has always been about.”
Skanska Technology BIM co-ordinator Karl Henderson, concurred: “My biggest problem is people thinking BIM has to include a 3D model and that everything revolves around the 3D model. What we’ve seen in the water sector on infrastructure projects where there are only a couple of assets, is that there is really no benefit to model them. We were still able to capture data because we gave the engineer an iPad to actually collate that data in a digital form and use it to monitor progress and export to the client’s asset registers,” he said.
Elsewhere it was felt that visualisations could play an important role in client engagement. The head of the nuclear BIM task group for the department of Business Innovation and Skills, Philip Isgar, said: “Something that Sellafield Ltd and the Cavendish and Balfour Beatty JV used successfully on the Sellafield Silo Maintenance Facility project was to show their crane build drawings on the screen,” he said.
“They actually got approval through the visualisations rather than through just a written report. That for me is a real game changer. The cranes committee said ‘we like this, we can see it, we can understand it’. For me, it’s not just BIM, it’s about visualisations and about how you put the right message across to the people who make the decisions.”
Early client engagement
But Skanska Infrastructure Services BIM co-ordinator and technical lead Emma Hicks said engineers didn’t always have the luxury of engaging with clients early. “We work on a lot of small projects with very short tender periods, which do not give you much of an opportunity to have those initial discussions with the client and find out what their information requirements are,” she said.
“I suppose it’s a process of educating the client to bring their understanding levels up, so that a valuable tool can be created for use throughout the project lifecycle - in particular in the operational phase.”
The company’s design manager Noel Kirby thought the supply chain would also have to get up to speed and be included in the collaborative process. “The F2 deliveries are starting to come through, and the supply chain is adapting and picking up on our F1 and taking that forward and using the same software tools. They’re struggling a little bit, naturally, but you need that connectedness right through to completion to maximise the advantage of BIM.”
For this to happen, Skanska head of BIM Malcolm Stagg thought there were obstacles to overcome. “I get the sense that companies prefer to compete rather than collaborate,” he said. If we’re all using the same supply chain but asking for different things, that’s just going to confuse matters,” he said.
ICE vice president Tim Broyd tried to counter the suggestion that the industry was only interested in shouting about its own achievements rather than learning from others.
“In the next couple of weeks a meeting will be held at a very senior level for a large current project where the leaders of that project are going to be taken through the lessons from the Olympic legacy story,” he said.
However, he too conceded that the prevailing culture was still to talk rather than listen.
“I agree, a lot of people like to talk about what they’ve done but far fewer people accept that what they’re doing is similar enough to what has happened before to learn lessons from it.”
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