While big firms are embracing BIM and the benefit it brings, a large section of the industry is made up of SMEs that are struggling to see the point. It’s time to make sure everyone in the supply chain is part of the BIM process

Richard Steer 2014

Sometimes I despair at the inertia and apathy that seems to inflict those working in the creation of the built environment.

We are one of the largest industries and demonstrably most professional of sectors when it comes to getting things done.

However, it seems to me we are also one of the most conservative, nervous and risk averse when it comes to embracing change. This was my first reaction upon reading coverage of the recent NBS survey, which showed that building information modelling (BIM) seems to be a lot less popular than many had hoped.

Just under half of those questioned said they had failed to embrace BIM and still needed to be persuaded of its benefits. Three-quarters of the 1,000-strong survey commented that our industry was not ready to meet the compulsory new requirement that it be adopted for all work tendered by central government departments.

There is growing evidence that private clients and main contractors are starting to make BIM a necessity of doing business as well. So why the resistance?

Many reasons have been put forward by commentators for the lack of adoption of the new technology by construction, including cost and the amount of time it takes to train, while some even cite lack of awareness.

I think it is much more basic than that. The consultants, big brand contractors and architects by and large adopt advances in technology quickly, often seeing the payback in efficiency and staff savings. The clients will happily embrace something that genuinely helps them de-risk a project. The trouble is that our industry, and most likely the bulk of those surveyed, are not large organisations – they are the SMEs that make up the majority of those working in the industry.

The Federation of Small Businesses says that of the firms it estimates work in construction, 96% have less than eight employees and 86% of employees work in SMEs. If true, then these are the people that make up the bulk of our industry and, frankly, it would appear that they feel they neither need nor want to invest in new technology. But they are the workforce that most need to engage with BIM if the industry is going to develop a supply chain that works on a partnering model.

Hang on, I hear you cry, BIM is not designed to manage the construction of a one-bedroom extension constructed by white van man. It is a sophisticated, collaborative tool designed for complex projects. This is true and indeed BIM is a vital and necessary advancement in our sector for projects of a certain size and, as a result, Gleeds was one of the early adopters. It has undoubtedly made a big difference to our business and improved performance for the benefit of our clients.

Hang on, I hear you cry, BIM is not designed to manage the construction of a one-bedroom extension constructed by white van man

But, even if we should not be surprised by the current perceived apathy towards BIM by some of the smaller firms in the supply chain, I don’t believe that we should be apathetic towards this Luddite-like approach. It is up to us all controlling and managing the supply chain to move the conversation on and to find a way to promote the benefits of BIM.

Frankly, if the results of the survey are accurate, something has gone seriously wrong with the messaging over the last five years of build-up and preparation.

Technology will only be adopted if those naysayers see an immediate and quantifiable benefit. To take an exemplar, our industry, like nearly all others, is now dominated by mobile communications technology from SMS texts to WhatsApp. This quickly established itself as an indispensable tool of the job when first launched.

Phones may have originally been the same size as the bricks that our subcontractors were laying on site but quickly they moved on and became the “tool de jour” for most people operating in the built environment. We need BIM to be perceived in the same manner.

Perhaps one answer is a carrot and stick approach with a government backed registration scheme for construction-related SMEs of a certain size with a licensing system that incorporates a compulsory element of BIM training.

If they complete the training they get a training grant to teach others in the business. Ideally we want to persuade firms but if not, like health and safety, maybe we need to mandate.

We need to work with those who still fail to understand the benefits of BIM and seem to see the acronym as standing for “best ignore Muppets” rather than something to bring long-term business improvement.

Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide