BIM can improve the industry’s efficiency but more firms need to adopt it before the full benefit can be realised

Sarah Richardson

Given that 2016 brought us President Trump, the vote for Brexit and the death of David Bowie, it may well have escaped memory that it was also the year the UK government mandated BIM. As far as construction was concerned, however, this was to be the game changer – the move that would lead the industry to make the leap into a digitalised, more efficient, more productive future. So, 12 months after it became mandatory for firms to use level 2 BIM – collaborative working with digital 3D models – on centrally procured government projects, has the ambition become reality?

Unquestionably, BIM has become a mainstream concept in the industry: the latest annual survey from technical information provider NBS finds just 3% of respondents, which are predominantly architects, but also consultants and contractors, are unaware of its existence. Actual use still lags significantly behind, but take-up shifted gear last year: 62% said their firms were now using BIM, the biggest jump since 2014.

So, good progress – but it’s not universal. SMEs are still being put off by the upfront investment costs, and if that pattern is evident among architects, it is even more so in the contracting supply chain.

Frustratingly, it seems that progress is being stunted partly because the government lacks commitment to its own mandate: more than half of those polled by NBS said government departments were not making BIM use a requirement when hiring firms. The picture becomes even worse at a local government level, where BIM is not mandated – architects don’t believe many local authorities understand what BIM is, let alone procure it. Ditto private sector clients: 72% said clients in general did not understand the benefits of BIM.

In short, then: clients don’t get it, the industry is split between those who do and those who don’t, and the government is failing to enforce it; all of which slows the pace of change. It’s an analysis that could apply to any number of initiatives designed to modernise construction over the years.

So what happens now? Does BIM remain where it is, stuck on the second level with sporadic uptake, or has it got the traction to keep moving forward?

The reality is that the case for BIM is startlingly clear. That the construction industry is inefficient and plagued by poor productivity is a widely acknowledged problem: the sector lags far behind counterpart industries like manufacturing in terms of productivity growth. Meanwhile, project and cost overruns remain commonplace.

It would help if the government stuck to enforcing the mandate it believed in enough to introduce

BIM does not offer the whole solution to these issues, but it could present a big part of it. More than two-thirds of those using BIM believe it will reduce construction costs and whole-life costs of buildings; 60% say it will enable faster delivery. Meanwhile, the potential for more advanced use of BIM to better integrate data on a building’s performance with its management, and to digitally link systems of different buildings together in smart cities, offers a key not only to more efficient buildings, but also to using them to improve occupants’ health and wellbeing.

With these headwinds, logic dictates that BIM should – eventually – become as accepted a part of a delivery process as pouring concrete or laying bricks. And it would benefit the industry, and the built environment in general, if that were to happen sooner rather than later.

To get there, it would help if the government stuck to enforcing the mandate it believed in enough to introduce. Beyond this, the government’s backing for level 3 BIM, through its Digital Built Britain initiative (see below), has the potential to spur firms to invest further in BIM in the way that its public championing of level 2 has done.

But while the government can still drive BIM forward, it has, to an extent, played its biggest part already, in creating the confidence to drive early take-up.

The real barrier that needs to be overcome now is the lack of buy-in for BIM among private clients. As Great Portland Estates’ James Pellatt put it neatly this week, he doesn’t see many clients taking a lead on BIM, or “completing projects on time either”. If that were to change, the 38% of firms not using BIM might suddenly have a reason to do so – particularly the contractors and SMEs who can still fill order books with BIM-free projects.

BIM offers more efficient delivery, and more efficient buildings, while giving firms using it less exposure to financial risk and a competitive advantage that can be exported around the globe. Or so those who use it believe. It’s in their interest now to convince their private-sector paymasters of the same – and it will be in the UK’s interest too.

Sarah Richardson, editor