BIM is a breakthrough, says the outspoken boss of H+H, but how do you avoid backing the equivalent of Betamax

Will BIM be the solution that many people in the industry expect it to be and will it be relevant for all types of building? Similar types of collaborative working have been commonplace in areas of submarine and aerospace design and assembly for many years, but only where it is cost effective and where it can add value.

My own non-expert understanding of Building Information Modelling (BIM) is that it provides a multi-dimensional repository of shared structured information to design, build and then run a built environment asset.

As well as 3D design, additional ‘dimensions’ such as cost and time can be included making it 4D, 5D, 6D and beyond. A model can also hold more intelligence than a 3D CAD drawing such as the physical characteristics of components.

In the case of a wall built using our aircrete storey high wall elements, the BIM model can hold information about the length, breadth and thickness of each element, the material density, compressive strength, thermal performance and sound insulation properties as well as how it is installed, how it can be finished and how you fix things into it.

In theory BIM ensures all parties involved are working off the same hymn sheet, cutting waste, saving time and cost and making life easier for everyone. But will it really revolutionaise construction?

I first saw a CAD computer in 1982 where four designers worked shifts to ‘sweat it’ 24/7

Not every part of a submarine is designed in a model. Should every part of a building be modelled or indeed every building be modelled? What is it about BIM that leads us to believe that it will make interested parties collaborate more than they do when using current technologies? Will BIM be more revolutionary than Project Extranets, 2D CAD or 3D CAD? And will our industry adopt BIM faster than these technologies?

I first saw a CAD computer in 1982. It was in the structural design office of Anglo American where four designers worked shifts to ‘sweat it’ 24/7 to get the most out of the huge investment that had been made in it. It then took about two decades for the use of CAD technology to become more widespread in the design of buildings and infrastructure.

My own recollection is that a decade later in the early 90’s less than 40% of building design was performed on CAD software and it only reached 80% adoption twenty years after it was first introduced.

I am unsure of what the level is today, but as an example around 10% of the drawings we receive into our technical services office at H+H are still hand drawn and of those received as CAD files, the vast majority are still 2D rather than 3D.

The adoption of new technologies is getting faster and faster (think mobile phone adoption versus landline) but I still think the adoption of BIM could be a lot slower than many people think or hope it will be. There will of course be early movers and at H+H we are busy developing BIM objects for our products and solutions for innovators to download from our website and upload into their models.

A decade ago we did a similar thing by making CAD details available for web download, but they are still not as widely used as we expected them to be. Many designers, who either like to start each design from scratch or copy one of their previous bespoke designs, haven’t yet changed behaviours to exploit the technology.

With BIM, where multiple users will work on the same model, there probably needs to be a different concept of the ownership of a design

Online collaboration tools like BIW and 4-Projects, also known as Project Extranets, have been around since the dot-com boom at the end of the 90s. Engineers, architects, cost consultants and others involved in designing, tendering, constructing and maintaining a building can share 2D and 3D drawings and other unstructured spread sheets and documents by saving them in an organised online repository, which is often referred to these days as “cloud computing”.

In theory by adding work-flow they achieve many of the benefits of BIM such as everyone working to the most up to date designs and being able to comment on and mark-up design drawings.

Now more than ten years on, the vendors of these systems claim adoption levels of over 80% which, if true, is around twice the adoption speed of CAD. However I suspect that we are not quite at these adoption levels and I know, from personal experience running BuildOnline, that take-up was very slow in the early years and it was not due to the lack of Broadband access.

I saw a reluctance to share information and collaborate. There was resistance from architects who didn’t like the technology enabling others to red-line and post comments on their designs and drawings. With BIM, where multiple users will work on the same model, there probably needs to be a different concept of the ownership of a design.

Currently most architects would probably be reluctant to have a structural engineer change their drawings, and likewise a structural engineer is unlikely to be happy with the M&E designer adjusting their designs to enable better pipe runs.

Most architects would probably be reluctant to have a structural engineer change their drawings

And if there are multiple owners of a design, who is ultimately responsible and whose professional indemnity insurance will be liable if there is a problem? Will a change of technology change engrained working practice across the industry? Or do we first need to change the working and insurance practices so that we can fully exploit the technology?

Because of these hurdles, we may find that the take up of BIM doesn’t initially start at the front end design stages. Constructors like Laing O’Rourke are already using BIM in their tendering and pre-construction work to model build ability and identify design changes that could be incorporated to make assembly easier and faster.

Success in the construction phases of a project may then lead people to question why we aren’t using BIM up front in the conceptual and detailed design phases. This could encourage the transition to designing in a single model rather than different parties using multiple models or multiple 3D or 2D CAD files and then the builder redesigning for manufacture and assembly half-way through the process, which appears to be happening quite frequently at the moment.

Most people agree that we need greater levels of collaboration in our industry - there have been a series of studies recommending this since 1994 when the Latham report was published. We have got better, but the fragmented nature of our industry continues to make it challenging and there is still a long way to go.

Motivating individual industry sectors to change their working behaviours will be critical to the success of BIM

The 2010 Low Carbon Construction Innovation & Growth Team report also called for greater collaboration but, unlike earlier reports, it recommends that BIM is mandated and many people in the industry have jumped on this bandwagon. But can a technology like BIM make the difference we hope it will?

I believe that behaviours and attitudes are at least as if not more important. Motivating individual industry sectors to change their working behaviours will be critical to the success of BIM. Perhaps an analogy would be useful at this stage. I am not very good at speaking Italian, so when I used to go to Italy on holiday I would take a phrasebook with me. Now, I have a PDA and can use ‘Google translate’. Does it make me any better at communicating with Italians? Probably not, what matters more is my desire to converse with them in the first place, the means I use to do so makes less difference. Might we find the same with BIM?

Also, just because better technology exists doesn’t mean people will necessarily jump to use it. Fax machines first became available in the UK in 1979, but usage didn’t take off until 1988 with the onset of the postal strikes. And whilst on the subject of redundant technologies, which of the multiple BIM software systems and protocols should we all be using? If there was only one choice it might be easier, but nobody wants to invest in the Betamax or V2000 equivalent of BIM…

Which of the multiple BIM software systems and protocols should we all be using? Nobody wants to invest in the Betamax or V2000 equivalent of BIM

Whilst it has its challenges, I do believe that BIM is an important breakthrough technology and as a product manufacturer I do believe that its adoption will bring benefits. Many times we have worked to a drawing but turned up on site to find that things didn’t fit at the interfaces. Constructing a building in virtual reality a few times before doing so for real on site will undoubtedly cut out a lot of waste and re-work.

Moving forward, I think getting everyone together in the flesh first before going away and using BIM to design and plan would be good idea. This means all parties meet in person and understand the overall aim before going back to begin work at their computer terminals. This immediately fosters a great spirit of collaboration which can be built upon further if the team are actually co-located when working on their computers rather than back in their own offices.

When I have seen this work well, the different professions “hang their hats at the door” and then work together to solve problems and develop solutions in a collaborative way. I have seen this recently with the H+H involvement in the Technology Strategy Board sponsored AIMC4 project, researching how to build homes to the carbon emission of level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes.

We hosted days when different manufacturers came to our premises to discuss in practical workshops and “sand-pits” how different products could work best together as a whole solution. We, as aircrete block manufacturer, worked with an insulation supplier, a window manufacturer and a sealant firm to work out how to best integrate our products to form the most airtight and thermally efficient fabric solution.

BIM may not be the silver bullet for revolutionising the construction industry but it could be an excellent energiser if it catalyses behavioural change. With Government fully behind it, several clients mandating its use across all of their new projects and a number of main contractors using it as a source of competitive advantage, it will be extremely interesting to see how the uptake of BIM progresses.