Building’s annual BIM survey shows a growing gap between those embracing its potential and those still holding back. After a spike in interest coincided with last year’s BIM Level 2 mandate, take-up has slipped. But, Debika Ray reports, experts remain convinced that digitisation will continue apace

Building’s fourth annual BIM survey suggests uptake of building information modelling is stagnating. Last year’s excitement over the government’s Level 2 mandate – requiring fully collaborative 3D BIM on all centrally procured public projects – appears to have faded, as the challenges of digitisation become more apparent.

Since April 2016, central government departments have required all projects they procure to be compliant with BIM Level 2, a set of standards that include collaboration and digital sharing of documentation. Last year’s BIM survey, which took place six months after the deadline, showed a sharp rise in respondents saying they were using BIM, from 66% in 2015 to 73% in 2016. However, one year on, that number has slipped back to 70%, with 40% of respondents saying they consider the benefits of using BIM “overhyped” (up from 35% last year) and 12% saying they do not commonly derive any benefits from using BIM (up from 10% in 2016). And despite last year’s government mandate, the proportion of people using BIM to Level 2 fell from 44% to 43%, with several respondents saying the definition of BIM Level 2 was vague.

Given the unstoppable march of artificial intelligence, digitisation would appear to be inevitable in all sectors. In construction, nevertheless, resistance – while ultimately futile – appears to be having a moment. How can the industry ensure it is continuing to move forward at a swift pace?

It is important, of course, to treat this survey as a limited snapshot of the construction industry at a particular moment, rather than an unequivocal statement about its direction. The levelling-off of enthusiasm certainly does not point to a rejection of BIM – indeed, more than two-thirds of respondents are using it. Mark Bew, chair of the government’s Digital Built Britain programme and of engineering consultant PCSG, is adamant these figures represent a success story that has been possible thanks to the government’s work leading up to the BIM mandate: “Seventy per cent using BIM in five years is amazing; without the intervention [of the government mandate] it would be more like 30%.

“Seventy percent have made the jump [to using BIM]. You will always have people who don’t want to jump because they believe they can make a profit without BIM, but that won’t be the case for much longer.”

His view is backed up by some of the survey results, with more than half of respondents saying they find BIM improves clash detection, and 44% that it boosts collaboration. More people than last year believe BIM leads to better design and improved ultimate built performance, and that it reduces overall risk.

And more than 51% of those surveyed said they see the potential to secure higher fees by developing their firm’s expertise in BIM, up almost two percentage points last year. There was also a rise in people saying that dedicated consultants are now most likely to co-ordinate BIM initiatives and manage the associated information, suggesting that companies are committing resources to the transition.

1. BIM usage
Have you made use of BIM on any of your projects?
Year %
2015 66
2016 73
2017 70
2. Level 2 uptake
Have you used BIM to what the government describes as Level 2 on any of your projects?
Year %
2015 32
2016 44
2017 43
3. Top six BIM benefits
Which benefits do you commonly derive from BIM on projects in which it is utilised?
Benefit %
Improved clash detection 52
Improved collaboration between project team members 45
Better design 37
Reduced delivery risk in construction phase 32
Time savings in the design process 29
Time savings in construction delivery 27
4. Top six BIM problems
Which problems do you commonly encounter with using BIM on projects?
Problem %
Increased time spent in the design phase 39
Difficulties securing staff or other project team members with requisite expertise 38
Increased cost in the design phase 33
Difficulty managing additional volume/complexity of digital information 30
Difficulty using BIM model to aid building’s operational/FM phase 20

But the results of the survey also make clear that simply obliging project teams to use BIM will not be enough to win over those who are not already enthusiastic. “In many ways, we are still a very traditional industry and, while the early adopters of BIM are seeing tangible benefits and rarely turning back, it seems to be taking longer than some expected to bring the rest of industry along,” says Paul Swaddle, head of business solutions at research body NBS.

Ben Wallbank, BIM strategy manager at construction software company Viewpoint, believes the findings reflect a bit of a reality check. “As people start to face the challenges of delivering digital data for the management of the assets, there’s a realisation that there’s actually [a lot of] work involved and of course there’s likely to be some drop-off from the initial enthusiasm. I would also suspect that a lot of people who previously said they were doing BIM were not really delivering anything more than 3D models, which is the relatively easy bit, whereas the data to go with those models is only just being tackled. The enthusiasm is somewhat tempered at the moment, but I think it’s because of a growing realism about what it entails.”

Despite pockets of resistance, the prevailing view is that digitisation is inevitable. “It’s going on in all industries, from manufacturing to retail to utilities,” Wallbank says. “The idea that the construction industry can isolate itself is fanciful.” And indeed, research by NBS indicates that many firms do expect to start adopting BIM tools within the next five years. So, what are the barriers to adopting BIM?

A question of education

The respondents to Building’s survey cited a lack of skilled staff and high up-front costs as two factors proving a hindrance. But the primary challenge seems to be educating the industry as a whole about the benefits of BIM – particularly clients, whose lack of interest in using BIM was again pointed to as the biggest barrier to change. Swaddle says: “We need to communicate to them that these benefits may be across the entire life of a project, not necessarily in the design phase, and that the increased time and effort at the design stage is worthwhile later.” There are signs this is happening: while respondents cited increased cost and time during the design phase as among the biggest hassles of using BIM on projects, there was a rise in people saying they believe it results in better design, time savings in the delivery and reduced overall commercial risk.

Swaddle also suggests BIM may be suffering from something of an image problem. “It can feel like an academic subject – a process that’s mandated and is limiting creativity – it’s not. I’d like it to be seen like the processes that exist in the aeroplane or car industry, where not everyone needs to fully understand the standards and process involved, but everybody is invested and has a role. I also think there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of communicating things like environmental benefits – those that the public are more likely to be interested in. It should be on BBC news in a couple of years’ time – that the government saved this amount of money on the Houses of Parliament using digital technology.”

Digital Built Britain’s Bew argues that the government has already done a lot to promote BIM and that now individual construction firms and clients need to be more proactive about their own BIM learning. “We can always work harder at communication and understanding, but there’s a lot out there already,” he says. “People who don’t start learning will be left behind.”

Édonis Jesus, BIM lead at contractor and developer Lendlease, believes many people are struggling to see the benefits because they still look at BIM primarily as a technology, rather than as a new methodology. “Major education needs to be done in terms of raising awareness. On a daily basis, I come across people who think BIM is just a tool, but the full benefits are in using the technology to reduce project risk, time and cost, and increase quality and safety.”

A lot of work Jesus does as chair of industry group BIM for Heritage is in disseminating case studies and sharing knowledge. Getting more positive case studies into the public domain could help persuade reluctant clients, which tend to be those with smaller portfolios or one-off projects. But Andrew de Silva, associate director at architect DMA, a practice that invested in BIM a decade ago, says the lack of understanding extends even to government bodies themselves, which are supposed to be taking the lead.

He says: “An enlightened client is crucial when it comes to achieving Level 2, but one of the things the government didn’t do so well is sell it to their own [public sector] clients, in terms of what they would need to do to drive it – they didn’t create their own soft landing.

“For example, we work with a lot of local authorities, who say ‘we need this to be BIM Level 2 because of the mandate’, but unfortunately they aren’t actually informed enough, so you get a situation where people don’t get the clarity they ask for and just carry on as normal, feeling like it’s all a bit of hot air.”

Ultimately, Viewpoint’s Wallbank believes this dip is inevitable but will only last for a short period. There are certainly hints in the survey results that this is true. Among these is the rise of almost three percentage points of people saying the ultimate building user or occupier was most likely to push for the adoption of BIM. This may reflect the fact that construction projects, and therefore processes of change, must be viewed in the long term – it takes a while for the benefits of BIM to become apparent, and post-occupancy studies that reveal them are perhaps only now starting to filter through. It’s a small statistic, but it bodes well for a shift in opinion in the future towards the use of BIM becoming normalised and expected. Wallbank also says it is crucial to take a view beyond BIM itself to the wider digitisation of the construction industry, which is continuing apace. “When you look at things like data collection on sites on iPads and so on, the uptake is very strong indeed.”

While we may be going through a rocky patch, it seems likely that, when a digital-native crop of construction professionals ascend to the upper ranks of the industry, and as AI and automation became normalised, talk about whether BIM is overhyped may become a distant memory.

Key findings

  • Uptake  Use of BIM slipped downward slightly, with 70% (compared with 73% last year) having used it. Level 2 use also fell slightly, from 44% last year to 43% this year. The survey showed further growth in the divide between those who use BIM not at all or very little (around 27% of respondents), and a significant proportion (34%) who now use it for the majority of their workload.
  • Benefits  As in previous years the key benefits are in clash detection (51%) and greater collaboration within the project team (45%). Better design (37%) and reduced delivery risk in the construction phase (32%) take third and fourth place.
  • Problems  Securing staff with the right experience is no longer the greatest challenge in using BIM, cited by 38% (down from 39% last year). The biggest problem is now the increased time spent in the design phase, mentioned by 39% of users, while increased design cost is the third greatest problem, experienced by 33%. The biggest barrier to adoption remains lack of client interest, followed by higher up-front technology or training costs and higher up-front project costs. Other significant problems include lack of skilled staff and hostility from contractors, subcontractors and consultants.
  • Hype vs reality  The proportion who see the benefits of BIM as real and substantial rather than overhyped has fallen from last year’s clear majority (52%) to 46%. Those who say they are more hype than substance have grown in number from 35% to 40%. Over half of businesses now see BIM as a commercial opportunity, a similar figure to last year.

Methodology

More than 580 people completed the online survey during October. The majority of respondents were either architects or other consultants, with a smaller number of clients (3%) and contractors or subcontractors (14%). About 44% of the survey respondents were from companies with turnover under £5m, however a significant number (around 22%) came from very large companies with turnover of over £100m.