Choosing a Building Information Modelling (BIM) consultancy can be a daunting task. AEC magazine looks at the pros and cons of independent advice.
Increasingly, every month, I am approached by expert Building Information Modelling (BIM) users explaining that they have left practice ‘x’ to set up a BIM consultancy or join an existing one.
With the edict mandating BIM usage in all UK government construction projects by 2016, it has obviously put BIM in the industry spotlight. But perhaps what is more surprising is how quickly it has become an issue in non-governmental projects. There has clearly been a change in demand this year, with more pilot projects and planned BIM adoption. With that has come an increase in the need for support services.
I put the question of BIM consultancy ‘overload’ to two industry insiders, David Light of CASE Inc. (very recently formerly of HOK) and Nigel Davies of Evolve Consultancy (who was at Whitby Bird and others prior to setting up Evolve).
I asked why there seem to be so many new BIM consultancies. It struck me there may be more consultants than users. David Light explained: “There is a big knowledge gap and therefore, naturally, it is a business opportunity. While I agree there are many [BIM consultancies], we will see some rise and others fail. From what I’m seeing, contractors are helping drive this move. They see an obvious benefit to their bottom line of deploying BIM and this is pushing back on architects. The contractors actually might not invest in hiring a team of BIM experts and instead outsource this to consultancy firms, depending on project scope.”
Evolve’s Nigel Davies agreed and added: “There is certainly more competition and if you are an AEC consultant you really need to state that you do offer BIM services. We have tried to resist this as much as we can, as it would limit our niche. We do a lot more than BIM consultancy, the industry’s process is still very 2D driven. We consult on design technology, which incorporates BIM.
“This year has certainly brought a lot more firms coming to us for their first BIM projects. Architects are now being asked at the feasibility stage if they can ‘do BIM’. We are helping many put together BIM statements for their proposals. Firms can’t really get away without having some stand on it. It’s either that or lose potential business.”
BIM software first went mainstream when Autodesk sold Revit through its channel. At the time I wondered how something so different and challenging to the existing design process could be sold by dealerships that had never really seen a project through from start to end, using a technology that was relatively untested.
Dealers are the traditional supplier of software and training and latterly have also added consultancy capability. But why should a firm consider a consultant over a dealer for support?
Both Mr Light and Mr Davies agreed that independence was the primary issue. Consultants do not offer or sell the software. They look at the firm and can suggest tools from any software developer.
“The BIM consultancy space is and should be platform agnostic, it’s really important that we don’t sell the solution. Who would you want to suggest the best product for your business, an independent or a reseller who can only sell you a one size fits all brand. For me that’s putting the cart before the horse,” said Mr Light.
Mr Davies added, “There was a time when I could say that the dealers had little experience in completed projects but these days that’s not so true as they have recruited people from the industry. The bottom line is that BIM is a process not a product and that process can’t really be delivered by a single ‘one-size fits all’ product from a single firm.”
Training is seen as being another competitive advantage. Mr Davies said: “We do not do three to four day training courses and then leave you. We do project workshops and work with teams on projects for the life of projects. This includes setting up standards and really working on developing better BIM processes.
Mr Light reinforced Mr Davies’ approach. “I’ve heard some cases where firms get sold as many as ten days’ training, which is ridiculous. People won’t remember anything after the second day. Another issue is that dealers tend to offer generic training on building types that might not be applicable to the trainee. Firms need to think about why cheaper training is cheaper and assess if it’s a false economy.”
But do practices have unreal expectations from the BIM software and their staff? “The problem is BIM can be as big and as wide as you want it to be,” said Mr Light. “If you are modelling some walls, doors and windows and creating 2D drawings, that’s BIM. But it’s only the start of benefitting from that data and process. It’s important to know what’s involved in moving from AutoCAD LT to Revit and exactly what you are asking your employes to undertake.
“Owners’ expectations of BIM also need to be broadened. BIM is great at producing co-ordinated 2D drawings but BIM offers architects an opportunity to regain the ground that has been lost in the last decade. BIM offers new business opportunities and, when cost justifying the move, principals should not go into BIM on a whim, to get on a bandwagon and throw it at their staff to get on with it. BIM is an incredibly important business decision.”
Mr Davies suggested that architectural practices need to know where they want to be in three to five years time to fully achieve all the benefits from BIM. “BIM is not just about delivering drawings any more and here it really pays to get a consultant that has experience in the specific field that you operate in. Someone that worked at a signature architect is not going to know much about structures, [for example].”
It seems 2012 is the tipping point for BIM takeup, with both Mr Davies and Mr Light receiving more calls from new customers.
But there are pitfalls. “Newly adopting firms need to be aware that, frequently, workarounds are required in BIM tools as there are instances where there won’t be an obvious way to solve a modelling problem and users will ‘go off piste’,” said Mr Davies. “So, there will be times when you could break the BIM methodology, which will have short term gains but may mean the model can’t be used for quantification.”
New users should also be aware of BIM standards. Evolve has been active in standards development and set up the AEC (UK) committee in 2000, which published the AEC (UK) CAD Standards document in 2002 and the AEC UK BIM Protocol in 2009. The AEC UK BIM protocol has since been adopted globally in edited forms. “Structured data is important, always was and with BIM ever more so,” said Mr Davies.
The UK Government has mandated BIM delivery from 2016 onwards. As an industry watcher, I have to admit that while the goal is clear, the map of how to get there is not. Having sat through many presentations from the team handling the roll out, BIM seems to be about delivering a spreadsheet in the form of ‘COBie’ (Construction Operations Building Information Exchange), a US standard that has been adapted for the UK.
COBie appears to be a let down, in terms of what is actually needed, or what BIM systems are capable of. Mr Davies explained: “It’s great that the government want to improve efficiency in the UK building industry. However they seem to have given the project no budget … and the government doesn’t have anybody inside it with the necessary knowledge, [instead] employing industry consultants.
“From our point of view [the government] look like they are still finding their feet and we don’t think they will find that the projects delivered in 2016 will prove to be the BIM utopia they were aiming for.
“As BIM consultants we have to help clients deliver against what is practically possible versus the messages that the rumour mill is pumping out. For that reason we aren’t pushing COBie as a delivery mechanism, but we have developed ways of dealing with it should it become requested.”
Mr Light echoed Mr Davies’ reservations. “I am glad that the government has nailed the flag to the pole but we need a better way to deliver information. I’m not keen on COBie and see it as a short term solution to a long term problem. The counter position is ‘what else is there’ and I accept that, at the moment, there isn’t anything, but it is far from ideal.
“I am of the opinion that not everything needs to be embedded in the model and in the past have been happier aggregating files if necessary to have a BIM database.
“Given that projects will need to be delivered in three years, there’s a hell of a lot to learn for firms and I agree that I don’t think the aspiration and targets will be achieved on time.
“While the software firms are reacting to developing COBie plug-ins, I’m still not convinced it’s the right solution. If you look to the USA, where it originated, I am not too sure how well it’s being used even there, where it’s mandated on some government buildings.”
For decades the construction industry suffered from a blight of interoperability. With 2D drawings and competing software vendors, it seemed to take years before we could successfully share drawings. With the move to 3D BIM, we are bombing ourselves back to the stone age of interoperability, where models become increasingly hard to share.
“Interoperability is and always will be a problem until the software companies start to talk to one another,” said Mr Davies. “Many look to Industry Foundation Classes (IFCs) as a solution but it’s a schema and there are loads of different versions supported by different products and companies. We have definitely gone back to the early days of the ’90s with all that DGN/ DWG issues but now with models.”
Mr Light sees that products are becoming “information silos” with not many ways of getting the information out. “We spend a lot of time trying to get information out of these silos through experimentation. The industry finally fixed the 2D interoperability problem with DXF (for all its shortcomings). With BIM, IFC is not the Holy Grail, it’s getting there but it frequently doesn’t give you the results you expected.
“If you send another company an IFC, it might render well but fall apart when you start taking sections and elevations.
“There are good free viewers like Tekla BIMsight, so you can examine the quality of an IFC input or output.
“I actually tried to explain this to my wife and she couldn’t understand how it didn’t work like Word where you can copy and paste the text from it anywhere and get a predictable outcome.
“People have been saying that ‘IFC will get there’ for a very long time and it’s still not there. Interoperability is very problematic.
BIM consultancies are obviously in vogue, but how can a potential customer choose which to use? I would suggest going with a trusted recommendation and be aware that the cheaper the price the more likely you are not getting someone who has worked at a high level with BIM.
Despite spending on training, hardware and software, there are BIM implementation failures. It is important to get the best advice and help to make the transition work to get the downstream benefits.