BIM has the potential to change the face of the construction industry, but will it?


We have heard much about Building Information Modelling (BIM) over the past year or so. Not surprising, as it forms part of the government’s Construction Strategy, which has as one of its aims that all government projects will be using at least level 2 BIM by 2016. Nor is it surprising that the government latched onto BIM, which has much potential for avoiding waste, increasing efficiency and, above all, saving money.

Current use levels of BIM reflect the slowness with which the industry generally embraces developments in IT. Although a few at the cutting edge had taken up the challenge to advance BIM beyond its basic form, the mainstream had not. The industry needed a jolt to get it moving. It is also right that the government does not take a prescriptive approach as to how BIM should be developed: it is far better that the market is encouraged to do this within an appropriate conceptual framework.

One problem to be grappled with is that BIM can be viewed as both a concept and a tool. As a concept it can be seen as a part of systems theory, as a tool it has application in a way that is limited by our existing operational frameworks. Recognising this distinction enables one to appreciate why reference is made to three levels of BIM.

BIM is about visualisation and providing an efficient system that takes a project from inception through completion and into its operation. It is about taking waste, in all its forms, out of the process: this is principally achieved by providing and using common data at the appropriate time. Use at the appropriate time is a vital part of the success or otherwise of BIM and remains dependent upon the participants. Technology and systems can only go so far.

BIM as a tool will be seen primarily to work within current disciplines and to modify practice through a largely evolutionary process. As one works in this way it will become apparent that although much may be improved, complete integration using a single database requires a step change. Such an approach is like driving slowly towards the quay and then finding we need a boat, which we then have to build, in order to reach our destination. An amphibious vehicle is a possibility, but it is a compromise that neither achieves the best on land nor water.We need to do things differently.

Current use levels of BIM reflect the slowness with which the industry generally embraces developments in IT

There is little doubt that working with BIM will move us closer to a fuller integrated approach and in doing so it will build up our knowledge of how best to deal with the potentially difficult issues of legal liability for errors, ownership of intellectual property rights, controls regarding access to the system, insurance and the confidentiality of commercially sensitive data. How and when the ultimate step change will be widely achievable is difficult to predict because it necessitates a different approach to aspects of procurement: one that requires some different behavioural actions on the part of its participants.

Such a procurement system would suggest new forms of contractual relationship to reflect those changes. Whether this inevitably means a single multi-party contract is a moot point, because other contractual arrangements are possible and may be more desirable.

What is clear is that any step change would not immediately affect the whole construction industry because funding and the necessary learning curve will mean that the smaller end of the construction market will be a long way behind such a development.

BIM has the potential to re-shape the industry by creating larger integrated companies, primarily driven by funding, intellectual property and liability issues. Whether it will or indeed should is an open question, partly because of the wide range of construction works; at present, one cannot see the larger companies wanting to embrace smaller-scale building operations. Nevertheless BIM will affect the structure of the industry, procurement and the standard forms of contract, but in ways that are not entirely predictable. The way a project is developed might result in pre-construction (model building) and construction on site being dealt with separately under pre-construction agreements and building contracts.

In the light of the obvious difficulties, moving with BIM in an incremental way is understandable and although such an approach may militate against the ultimate step change, it is preferable to diving into unknown water with neither a boat nor amphibious vehicle nearby.

At present, despite much of the rhetoric regarding collaboration, the main driver is self-preservation and is likely to remain so for a little while yet. Nevertheless I believe we will get to a position where we are able to make the step change that systems theory points towards and for which the BIM tool provides the means. If past performance is anything to go by, this will be some years off but we hope that in this instance past performance will not be a guide to the future.

Peter Hibberd is the chairman of the Joint Contracts Tribunal