BIM: what your government wants

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The message is out: Building Information Modelling (BIM) will be mandated on all UK government building projects by 2016. AEC Magazine reports on what that means for the construction industry.

Whatever your view of Building Information Modelling (BIM), it seems that the UK Government has bought into the vision hook line and sinker. As a result by 2016 all major projects carried out with public money will have to have a BIM-relevant process and data delivered in additional file formats.

The BIM mandate is to be phased in over five years beginning this summer. At the moment there is no preconceived notion as to a limit in the value of projects that it is not applicable to, but with such a major client demanding a change in working methodology the idea is that it will become the industry-wide norm for all projects. Herein lies the fear for the vast majority of architects that have not yet bought into a 3D collaborative approach.

Both Autodesk and Bentley ran BIM conferences recently. Autodesk repeated its excellent day of talks from the previous year, although this time the Autodesk messaging was stronger and the ‘warts and all’ presentations seemed to have less warts than before.

In reference to the UK economy, the government’s chief construction adviser Paul Morrell used the popular refrain ‘up shit creek without a paddle’. He explained how the government was looking for ‘paddles’, and in his industry BIM was the paddle

Bentley’s first BIM event was smaller and not necessarily 100% about BIM, with an example of the benefits of Generative Components thrown in and a comprehensive description of the Bentley product suite, which actually was very useful.

Both events shared two industry speakers, chief construction adviser to the government Paul Morrell and chief information officer, Business Systems, at URS Scott Wilson and chair of the BIM working group Mark Bew. While Mr Morrell put the government’s decision in context, Mr Bew spelled out the process of deliverables and the timeline for standards, guides, classifications documentation and delivery, commonly referred to as the B/555 roadmap.

Morrell’s home truths

Paul Morrell’s guiding statement is that BIM is not about a specific technology or product, but a process to give clients all the data that is of use to manage the facility after hand over.


To do this the client must be very specific about what the deliverables are and the government is currently defining what information it wants at each stage of design and construction and in what format. These protocols will not stipulate a specific BIM system or proprietary file/database format.

Mr Morrell is a great speaker and frames the decision for mandating BIM by going back to first principles. For the UK that started with the financial crash of 2008. David Smith, chief economic reporter at the Sunday Times, ran an article at the time stating that, according to the UK Treasury, it would take until 2031 – 2032 to get back to borrowing figures that were previously known as prudent (40% of GDP). That would only happen if a generation of excessive debt could be wiped out — and this was before the problems in the Eurozone countries kicked off.

In a reference to the popular refrain ‘up shit creek without a paddle’, to describe a hopeless situation, Mr Morrell said that the government was looking for ‘paddles’ and that BIM was a big paddle.

However, despite this healthy dose of cynicism, Mr Morrell does believe that there are opportunities through mandating BIM. Population growth is demanding investment in infrastructure globally. Many of these projects will need to manage and efficiently use finite resources — offering potential work for UK companies.

We are living in a world of “too little cash and too much carbon”, according to Mr Morrell. We have to “think our way out of these new metrics of design and try new ways of working”.

The UK undoubtedly has world-class design in the AEC space and the government considers that this should be part of an integrated offer of construction, as opposed to the traditionally fragmented approach to design and construction that we have suffered from for far too long.

Mr Morrell typified the UK approach as being ‘the least possible work, at the last possible moment at the highest cost’ and that clearly is not fit for purpose

Mr Morrell typified the UK approach as being “the least possible work, at the last possible moment at the highest cost” and that clearly is not fit for purpose.

We now need to take leadership at delivering projects that “modernise the world”, he said. This means we have to do the basics well and be able to repeat it — a major challenge. Mr Morrell cited the London Olympics as an example of how it could be done. However, he tempered that praise by saying that other countries do the same, more frequently, citing a major road repair in Japan after the tsunami, which only took six days — less time that the project scoping investigation would take in the UK.

Mr Morrell said that the UK still takes a “very 19th century” hierarchical approach to projects, where everyone knows their “place”, but disputes are commonplace and data is not shared, is lost in the process and ultimately not delivered to the client for downstream use. Because of this, Mr Morrell sees BIM as being a way to fix the process as it forces collaboration and data sharing and turns the hierarchy upside down.

On top of that, clients are fed up of getting buildings that do not perform as they were original specified to do. In some studies, 40% of new buildings still miss their original efficiency targets. It seems very little thought is given to maintenance in the design phase, increasing the cost throughout occupancy. This can equally be applied to existing ‘as built’ assets — with 25 million homes in the UK needing energy retrofitting by 2050.

Mr Morrell admitted that the government needs to build but has no money and that the industry wants to build but has no work. That should lead to a “great moment of change”, according to Mr Morrell, who urged the industry to take full advantage.

The government sees BIM as a way to drive efficiency during the economic downturn so that UK companies are best placed in five to 10 years time to compete on the international stage. “BIM is hard” recognises Mr Morrell. “But never mind how hard it is to build a digital model and to get all the uses out of it and to get the systems to talk to one another — it must be surely easier than what we do now, which is a 1:1 model, out in the wind and the rain, loaded with risk.”

Previous governments have tried to push the industry to change its ways, most famously with the 2004 Latham and 2008 Egan reports into driving construction industry efficiency improvements, and spending 20 million in the process. But nothing has changed.

Mr Morrell decided that, in order to change a business you have to change its drivers, not just preach to them; so the decision to adopt BIM moves the debate from preaching to practicing. Now, both clients and practitioners have to change and Mr Morrell’s task is to build the structure to support this with steering committees from within the industry, meaning that the private sector is assisting in deriving government policy.

However, Mr Morrell did admit that this move to BIM was akin to JFK’s ‘We are going to the moon’ speech — we have a destination, but still have to work out a way to get there.

Mark Bew

Mark Bew, chair of the BIM working group, is the ‘details man’ in the drive to get UK practicing BIM in the next four years

The working group actively chose to not define what BIM is; but to work out what the needs of the government were in mandating BIM. It was decided that BIM is all about data and where data could be shared, and commercial targets.

The group is not allowed to specify any one technology from a vendor for BIM software. The process has to be open and observe the various BS standards. However, the group has carried out benchmarks on BIM technologies and if significant benefits were not seen then the technology would be retested.

The government sees BIM as a way to drive efficiency during the economic downturn so that UK companies are best placed in five to 10 years time to compete on the international stage

Mr Bew believes we are very much at the thin end of the wedge when it comes to fully understanding the working processes that will be required in four years’ time.

The first move is the mobilisation of the industry to consider the task in hand, then in phase 1, the early adopters deal with the cultural issues, derive consistency through experience and become familiar with the ‘packaging’. Here COBIE, a US spreadsheet formula, is the main BIM deliverable on top of traditional drawings.

Phase 2 will take us to the five-year mark and will include delivering a data repository of some kind with COBIE enriched data on live projects.

Phases 3 and 4 call for web data and process driven deliverables, with a possible ISO standard for BIM.

Mr Bew’s roadmap looks to be very complicated, as one would expect with such a Herculean task and there is no single ‘file’ that will do the job. BIM will mean that data is ‘filtered’ out of various systems depending on the requirement.


Mr Morrell makes a great case and I think most people agree that the industry could work together better. Heads needs to be cracked together in order to change the culture of the industry, and perhaps this latest move by the government will be the one to achieve that. However, talking to a few architects at the Autodesk and Bentley events, many still admitted to being there out of fear. On current margins and with current work levels, the cost of buying new software, hardware and training is simply not an option for them, but they fear their clients will demand BIM more out of hearing the buzzword than actually wanting the deliverable.

Similarly, in the US I have met architects who are told by the government to use Revit, but all the client wanted was 2D drawings. This clearly puts a huge economic strain on many practises.

Education and mandates cannot be just for one side of the equation.

I have said it before and I will say it again: one of the main benefits being sold here is the advantage of silo removal and collaboration; but the core BIM tools from the various vendors do not play well with one another. It took 20 years to get 2D CAD systems to sort out data sharing and most of it was done by reverse engineering Autodesk’s 2D DWG standard. Now the software companies have an opportunity to sell a completely new CAD system or enhanced capabilities to the same customers again (at a hefty profit) and in the process data interoperability is going to be bombed back to the stone age.

COBIE is a lowest common denominator — it is the ‘I’ in BIM but not the geometry. Industry Foundation Classes (IFCs) are too limited and not guaranteed to be anywhere near 100%.

The UK is a nation of builders and designers. This was a great opportunity to get the software vendors to actually work together and improve a problem that everyone can see coming. At the moment it seems the only way to remove the problem of interoperability is for everyone to use the same system.

As such, architects I have talked to are worried about a) investing in the wrong system until a dominant player comes to the fore, and b) investing full stop.

In the meantime we will keep watching and seeing how the roadmap develops.


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