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The BIM Supremacy

A government commitment to have all public buildings constructed through building information modelling (BIM) from 2016 has created a rush to understand what BIM means for construction in general.

23 February 2012


Facilities management could, and arguably should be the key to the success of building information modelling. At a conference held by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) just days after its strategic FM event (see page 16), speakers claimed, among other things, that building information modelling (BIM) could “break the cycle of buildings being perpetual prototypes”, forcing operational and life-cycle issues to the top 
of the agenda for all construction projects in the future.

That’s quite a claim, and, on the face of it, quite an opportunity for the industry. Last June, the government announced that any supplier wanting to be involved in public sector construction projects would need to have transitioned to the use of BIM “tools and techniques” by 2016. In a strategy document outlining how all such projects would need to be BIM-led from 2016 onwards, the logic of this decision was outlined: “the government as a client can derive significant improvements in cost, value and carbon performance through the use of open, sharable asset information.”

Now, the government is using the procurement of four prison projects through the Ministry of Justice as a trial BIM project. Mark Bew, chairman of the government’s BIM working group, told the RICS conference that an extension to Cookham Wood prison in Kent would be going out to tender before the end of February.
The government’s commitment to BIM in the public sector has heralded a headlong rush to understand the ramifications, as the standing room only at the RICS conference made clear. But what’s also clear is that despite the 2016 deadline these are still early days indeed for BIM.

So, what does it all mean? The idea is that individual component parts are no longer simply elements in a CAD drawing. Instead, everything from bricks to plasterboard – every individual element that combines to make up a structure – are individual objects with their own data sets. These data include dimensions, operational information and vendor details. Supplier cost databases will be linked to these component items, so that specifiers will be able to see, at individual brick level not just 
the dimensions of the product 
but also the price of it from different vendors.

Each construction project will be developed from these individual pieces of construction DNA, with the logic being that during the design stage it will be possible to calculate not just the quantities and prices of an individual component, but its operational effectiveness. An effective building information model will comprise data that can be evaluated post-construction in a far more transparent way, with lessons learned being easily adapted to future projects. This has potentially huge ramifications for the designing-in of energy efficiency measures.
At the RICS conference, architect Paul Fletcher said that the construction industry needed to learn how to work very differently. Indeed, Fletcher was scathing about the way the construction sector had managed its own information flows to date. “We urgently need to grapple with this issue,” he told the audience, “how we currently manage information is not sustainable.

“Every building we produce is effectively a prototype, and not enough credence is given up front to the outcome we’re looking to achieve with each construction project,” said Fletcher, who is also the co-chair of ‘CIC task force 3.6’, a pan-industry group set up to implement recommendation 3.6 of the government’s Low Carbon Construction Innovation Growth Team report (concerning the delivery of low carbon buildings).

“We don’t know how the buildings we design are going to perform,” he continued. “We need to realise that BIM is about information processing, and our current information processing skills are pathetic. We need to start using information and tools in a completely different way. For too long the construction sector has profited from fragmented, incomplete information.”

The ability to manipulate BIM data sets gives designers, architects, construction companies and other stakeholders the opportunity to produce simulations of building performance, thus de-risking projects, said Fletcher. “Simulation of outcomes could significantly affect energy use”, he continued. “Retrofitting photovoltaics is all very well, but what if we’d spent more time getting the initial orientation of the building right?”

Major challenges
Several RICS conference speakers broke BIM down into three distinct levels. Level 1 is where most projects are now – using just 2D or 3D information for each component item. Level 2 is where the data on specification, vendor and operation is added to each component. But level 3 is the big one – complete transparency of data for each component. For this to be achievable, data will need to be centrally served to all who need access to it. This means storage in the cloud of huge swathes of data. How this can be achieved is a question for considerable debate.

In a picture of uncertainty, one thing seems clear. If BIM projects are to be carried out as expected, there will need to be a central co-ordinating function to oversee all aspects of project delivery.

Although most speakers at the RICS conference cited the value of facilities management in the development of BIM over the coming years, there was little discussion about how it could be practically involved. Martin Roberts, partner at law firm Pinsents Mason, observed that there was a requirement for some kind of BIM information manager to take charge of projects and liaise with all stakeholders in a BIM construction project. “Is this a role for quantity surveyors,” he asked, 
“or project managers? Who will take the lead?”

The prospect of whether perhaps facilities management could be the obvious sector to take on this critical role went unmentioned.