Closed BIM Vs Open BIM - PCSG’s Steve Thompson’s Take on the Future

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PCSG is a leading international built environment consultancy, and its key focus is enhancing the sustainability of its clients’ businesses across a variety of fields- including socially, financially, and environmentally.  The business also provides specialist services including BIM and digital data strategy implementation, information management, and bid management.  Specialists from a variety of fields ranging from asset owners to designers can take advantage of the services PCSG provide.

The business is heavily involved in the BIM industry, and frequently works on smart city development, and aids government strategies on implementing BIM to help the construction process.

The culmination of these services allows PCSG to help its clients work towards the businesses slogan of “Infinitely Smarter Futures”.  Steve Thompson is the Senior BIM Consultant at PCSG, and is an architect by profession.  He oversees a lot of the BIM related services the business provides, but he also heads up the manufacturer stream at the company.

Regarding the present BIM landscape, what do you feel are some of the shortcomings of traditional, closed BIM, and do you feel that a more open, transparent and collaborative approach based on open standards and workflows can resolve some of these concerns?

The traditional, closed, proprietary systems are reliant on everyone else using the same solution, which clearly limits their adoption. Whereas with open BIM, using a common language such as IFC encourages a more transparent and collaborative approach. An open BIM approach alters the balance in a positive way, it will hopefully stop the need to religiously buy a particular piece of expensive software that will no doubt need to be upgraded and will not necessarily be compatible where it needs to be.

One of the challenges of BIM is to keep the information consistent and up to date, and to keep abreast of the latest regulations and best practice initiatives. With open systems the correct information is shared and if changes are to be made, they are consistently distributed.

It is simpler for individuals and organisations to develop new, innovative working methods & technologies when using a standard language, and the likelihood of success is increased as a result – it doesn’t require starting from scratch each time. Another issue that can limit realisation of the benefits information management can offer is only thinking of single disciplines or lifecycle stages. The biggest challenge in moving to a more collaborative, digital environment is certainly cultural, rather than technical. There are a number of data templates out there, but most are restricted either by lifecycle stage (for example design stage information or obtainable product information), and don’t allow for the flow of information between stages. We need to break out of traditional silos and roles, which see different disciplines trying to deal with BIM in their own ways or adding to their roles unnecessarily, thereby taking them away from their core skill set.

We really need to consider the flow of information through the lifecycle of assets, and this is much harder to do using proprietary solutions, which typically only relate to either individual disciplines or lifecycle stages. We need to be thinking from the manufacturing side where information can be optimised to enable mass customisation, from designers confident that their designs meet requirements and specifications, to contractors confident their products are available to asset owners confident they have the right information to maintain and replace their assets. This underpins our on-going development of a circular economy, where products are re-used, recycled, and remanufactured. We need to look at the full cycle, not just the construction/design phase.

What benefits can see you a transparent and collaborative workflow, with a common language and translation, bringing to construction projects, both in comparison to those already utilising BIM and also those which are perhaps not?

At PCSG we are already seeing some of our clients realising the benefits of working more collaboratively via a common language. In particular, our international clients are realising that closed, proprietary solutions are not going to work and slowly the barriers of different cultures, countries and sectors are breaking down as the wider benefits of BIM, and the particular sharing of a common language become clear. Steve’s international experience includes his current role BSI representative on the CEN Working Group for Data Dictionaries (CEN/TC 442 WG 4). This sets the European standards for defining and exchanging information. The international environment is changing very quickly and we are seeing people coming together across Europe to find a solution that works effectively from one country to the next. There is an understanding of the need for a common language and approach. If we work together and develop clear governance to ensure the whole asset life cycle is considered, and terminology can readily be adapted to local requirements, we are much more likely to add real value, provide more effective service, more innovation and a better built environment.

This is particularly the case when large scale projects are involved. When we are not just talking about the delivery of a single building but part of a wider city development or transport infrastructure.  These need an open solution to BIM and a common language approach to realise full benefits.

The amount of product data that needs to be shared and the variety of formats in which product information can be provided can cause confusion and slow things down which is why the UK industry, led by the Construction Products Industry, have developed LEXiCON. Whilst data dictionaries and product templates exist elsewhere, never before has there been such broad industry engagement and governance, with over 70% of UK trade associations signing up to become Relevant Authorities and managing how their products are defined.

LEXiCON works on the principle that if someone needs information, they should be able to ask for that information in a language they are familiar with. There should be no need to understand a new language in the virtual world. If someone is providing information, the same should apply. LEXiCON then uses a set of core properties to translate between the different plain language terms, to exchange information and present it in a format that can readily be used.

The tool will be freely available through the Construction Products Association’s website and is governed by recognised industry bodies known as Relevant Authorities, to ensure the language being used is correct and consistent.

What limitations or challenges might you also see stemming from collaborative workflow, and can you see this means of working being one to stunt creativity and relationship development, or perhaps complement it in the alternative means of working, with clear controls over personal design data?

I’ve always seen collaboration and better information management as facilitating creativity and the built environment, limiting or defining it. Having the information to hand to support decisions, or even being able to automatically generate solutions, should mean that designers and others have more time to carry out their core roles. There is also likely to be more certainty that the designed solution will be delivered, as implications on other disciplines are considered through the development process.

How do you see openBIM altering the landscape with relevance to small and medium enterprises, the alteration or boundaries to entry, and potentially increased competition from smaller software vendors and the impacts of this on those already-established core brands.

Open data, not only open BIM, provides a huge opportunity for SMEs (Small and medium enterprises), and for new players throughout the built environment. Whether that be designers, cost consultants, software developers or subcontractors, digitalisation of the industry can certainly level the playing field, but there needs to be collaboration between smaller organisations to benefit. Wienerberger for example, the global manufacturer of clay construction products, have developed the e4 house concept. They have pulled together the Home4Life consortium of manufacturers and consultants, many of whom are SMEs, to ensure a whole house solution can be delivered. These houses are all delivered using BIM Level 2, and have demonstrated that using these approaches housing can be delivered up to 40% quicker and 30% cheaper, using the same construction methods. The same applies with software vendors, we are seeing small software houses developing solutions that have real value, either as add-ins to larger software solutions, or in some instances to displace larger players for certain activities.

At which points of the project lifespan do you see the primary effects, be they negative or positive, of openBIM on any given project? This could include anything from initial concepts and plans all the way through to the asset management and planned renovation of structures in future years.

As mentioned earlier, I think the key benefit of openBIM on the lifecycle of a built asset, project or even product, is in the ability to transfer information readily between phases and disciplines. Clearly BIM is currently still predominantly used at the design and construction phases, but going forward it’s the ability to share real data between actors at any stage of development, and at any scale (products to cities) that I find most exciting, and I believe adds the most value.

In which areas, be they part of the lifespan or with regard to throughout the supply chain and partners, do you perceive challenges with regard to the implementation of openBIM, and how can you perhaps see these challenges being overcome?

Quite often the term BIM itself can be a blocker to progression. We prefer to look more at information management strategies, so how can information be used to add value?  We also need to ensure that the whole team are able to use, and benefit from better information management so that there is no break in the chain.

What experience have you personally had with openBIM? If this is somewhat limited, could you instead entail experiences with traditional BIM and purvey opinion on how the openBIM approach could have changed, be that positively or negatively, project outcomes or experiences? This could, and perhaps should, include any case studies you have on both notes.

At PCSG we have a breadth of experience of using openBIM through the whole life cycle, and in developing open information management strategies for organisations at many different scales.

Most of my personal experience of openBIM has been on the product side, having worked for a global manufacturer for 10 years and developed their BIM strategy across over 40 countries. Without a common structure that can be applied locally, the task of managing data would be challenging to say the least, if not impossible. This is another reason why I wrote the UK’s Product Data Definition document (available from the BIM Level 2 website), and why I’m involved with LEXiCON. Product data is a key part of the challenge, but we also need to be able to translate between whole asset requirements and product requirements, and everything else in between, using a core set of properties to enable that to happen.

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