BIM can genuinely fix our ills

As BIM becomes mandatory in public projects, Richard Shennan says re-thinking the boundaries between consulting engineers and contractors is a key step in realising BIM’s benefits.

The end result of several decades of ‘progress’ in procurement systems for building services systems is a situation where waste is rife, in time as well as materials, confrontation is common, trust between consulting and contracting sectors is often low, profit margins are low, and perhaps worst of all, performance of buildings in meeting the needs of the owners and occupiers is poor, precisely when delivering an efficient and sustainable built environment is the primary duty of all of those in the built environment industry. 

BIM provides the opportunity to fix what is broken.

The work of consulting engineers is often re-done once contractors have been appointed, final choices of manufacturers and suppliers was pushed ever backwards by a ‘best-buy’ notion that is usually anything but for the building owners, important choices are made out-of-sequence, and poor co-ordination can lead to inadequate provision for maintenance leading to increased cost and yet more waste over the life-cycle. 

The problem has been recognised, and work in BSRIA such as BG6 and Soft Landings have shown that the building services community itself understands the direction in which we need to move, but the problem persists.

The starting point for fixing these problems is PAS 1192-2:2013, and more specifically the information delivery cycle that it involves.

The employer needs to clearly state what information they need to answer their key questions along the way, and when they need it. All parties involved in the project delivery need to work out how they are going to deliver that information as part of a fully integrated process, whether they are consultants, contractors or suppliers. The project information model is developed through a series of levels of graphical detail and non-graphical information, with all parties working on shared and current information with a known status. 

Only that detail required to produce the information outputs needed by the Employer is provided at each stage. Decisions on specific solutions, suppliers, and manufacturers are made in a logical sequence. 

At handover a complete and accurate set of organised information is handed over to the owner in a way that allows them to make sense of it and use it effectively to optimise the performance of the building in use. This may not sound new, but the difference is that we have a clear over-arching vision and a name that is focusing everyone on the urgent need to bring efficiency to our industry at all stages in the asset life-cycle.

The technology is the enabler, and what an enabler it now is, with a wide range of software addressing all of the potential ‘dimensions’ of BIM. Interoperability is increasing. Collaboration in the cloud, visualisation, generative design components, data capture for existing assets, and much more, it all seems to work with increasing reliability and at reduced cost as the technology firms compete for advantage. This is not where the main problem lies. The challenge is to re-imagine the way in which the diverse and complimentary skills that I mention above are brought together in a way that encourages enterprise and innovation but also builds in practical experience and accumulated wisdom.

There will never be one universally accepted procurement system, as owners and developers have varied business drivers and appetite for risk, as well as different experience and personal preferences. There are however some key common elements related to BIM that are becoming increasingly apparent as key to overall efficiency whatever the procurement method. These relate to all aspects of the built asset, not just building services systems:

•Consider how things are physically put together at an early stage in the design. This is essential to allow opportunities for efficiency through DfMA and modular design to be assessed and incorporated where appropriate. The parties involved at that early stage, from whatever firm or combination of firms they are drawn, must collectively have the ability to make this assessment.  The BIM environment is a great enabler, including model-based simulation of sequencing of operations both on and off-site and use of model based information to manufacture components and assemblies with confidence that they will fit together as part of an on-site assembly process.

•Design for safe and effective operation and maintenance from an early stage. The principles are already set out in both Soft Landings and the 2015 CDM Regulations, as well as ISO 55000:2014. Model-based visualisation is increasingly used to make consultation with operation and maintenance teams more engaging and effective. Thinking is beginning to extend to adaptation and ultimate de-construction of built assets.

•Exchange model-based information between parties, and steer the common data through different software packages as it moves from outline right through to fabrication and on-site assembly. Dumbing down model based work and handing over drawing sheets or information schedules in an attempt to step back from responsibility for what might be in the model will not be a sustainable strategy. Suitably skilled practitioners can lead this process, whether they are employed within consulting or contracting firms.

•Establish a collaborative approach to innovation. The balance of risk and reward relating to use of technology to find savings in construction and operational cost and carbon emission or reduced risk is often skewed by current procurement systems and contractual configurations. If a consulting engineer makes additional effort to develop capabilities in BIM technologies such as generative design components, use of model-based methodology to assess more efficient construction techniques, or development of data structures that can connect to data collection from assets in use to enable optimised performance over the life cycle, there is often no connection to a commercial return if these efforts bring benefits to contractors or owners. Contractors may also be deterred from innovation if for example they are required to submit their ideas as part of a competitive bid process where their ideas may end up being passed on to others if they are not successful, and may also have no incentive to invest the additional time that is often lacking in handing over a complete set of integrated asset data and helping owners in the early stages of operation to achieve complete transfer of all knowledge required for optimum asset performance.

One thing is for sure; there is a great opportunity for individuals and firms that can deliver these elements. It will take imaginative thinking and a measured approach to risk in the supply chain, from both consultants and contractors, to bring these benefits to owners, but I believe the urgency and the prize is too great for the opportunity to be missed.

Richard Shennan is global buildings sector leader at Mott MacDonald.