BIM must be properly adopted sooner rather than later if the sector is to fully benefit

Sarah Richardson

The lively debate about BIM has been an inescapable feature of construction over the past few years. But behind the torrent of technical discussions, government advocacy and “beginners guide”-style seminars sits one slightly uncomfortable and largely unaddressed question, which is more crucial to many companies than any amount of technical detail.  Is BIM an unstoppable juggernaut, or a bandwagon which will run out of momentum before its potential is realised - and before investment in it pays off?

Take-up of BIM is undoubtedly significant, and is growing quickly. Earlier this year, the third national BIM survey by NBS showed 54% of construction firms had experience of using BIM - a massive increase on the 10% with that experience back in 2010. But there is a more complex story around adoption of BIM than these figures immediately suggest.

A fresh survey by Building, published this week, found that among firms that had used BIM, two-thirds are using it on less than a third of their work. In addition, many of those who have used the technology have used it only to a basic level. Just under a third of Building’s respondents had reached level 2 - the standard which will be mandatory on public sector projects from 2016.

So while take-up is on the rise, it seems that many of those firms that say they are using BIM are dipping a toe in the water rather than taking the plunge. In many ways this is understandable. The technology costs money to adopt, and at a time when the industry is still recovering from recession this is not easy for many firms - particularly smaller ones - to justify.

This is especially the case given that the demand for BIM from clients is patchy at best. It is still perfectly possible to fill order books in the short term without taking too much of a risk on BIM. On top of this, the fact that almost half of those surveyed believed BIM’s benefits are - for the moment at least - more hype than substance suggests that any director trying to make a business case for greater BIM adoption right now will not have an easy ride.

The trouble is, this cautious approach risks seriously undermining the potential offered by BIM, both for individual firms and for the industry as a whole. There is a clear opportunity for firms to set themselves apart - and earn extra fees - by taking on the role of managing BIM information on behalf of a project’s whole design team, or becoming a BIM co-ordinator. And yet, this week’s survey found that dedicated BIM consultants were more likely to do this work than anyone else in the project team, with the exception of the architect. Even they only took on these roles in around a third of cases.

The piecemeal take-up of BIM, by both construction firms and clients, is also in danger of undermining the initiative’s potential to be the game changer in terms of efficiency that its advocates believe it can be.The real benefits of BIM are widely believed to be offered when it is used to a more advanced level or in the FM stage of a building, where it has the potential to make maintenance requirements more predictable and therefore cost effective to execute. But for these benefits to become reality, BIM needs to be far more ingrained in the industry’s working practices, and its use far more widespread than it is now.

If clients believe the promised savings are worth exploring, they need to push the use of BIM now. Otherwise, it risks becoming the new offsite manufacture - a technology with real potential to change the sector for the better, but one which is not adopted anywhere near consistently enough for those benefits to be realised.

Sarah Richardson, editor