“BIM has made construction a more collaborative process. The whole team has to sit down together again and examine the way we’re working.” Michael Earley, technical architect and software developer at Scott Tallon Walker Architects has been using BIM at the firm for approximately five years.
The UK government mandate on BIM and the fact that the firm has an office in London led to the strategic decision of implementing the software across the board. “We saw it as a potential opportunity of securing more work in the UK, especially with the downturn in Ireland. Having BIM is a way of getting into markets that wouldn’t necessarily have been open to us without it.”
It’s a decision that’s paying off for the firm; at the end of March 2014, a planning application for Phase 4 at University College London Hospitals was approved by Camden Council planners. The scheme is a flagship BIM Level 2 project and includes cutting-edge Proton Beam Therapy treatment for cancer patients, which will be provided below ground in a state-of-the-art facility in central London. Work is also ongoing on a Low Containment CL2 Research Facility at Pirbright Institute, a 5G Research Centre at the University of Surrey and in Ireland, the Business and Innovation Hub at Trinity College Dublin and the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast.
Adopting and implementing BIM has opened doors for the firm and led to new work but change is never easy. “There’s no doubt that the software is very good but changing ingrained work practices is always going to be a challenge and I think the industry is struggling to make that change. Certain companies and individuals are doing it very well but on the whole, I think it’s a transition that will take time.”
One example Michael cites is how the software requires the QS to cost elements from the model. “Previously the architect wouldn’t have engaged with the QS in how he carried out the task of quantifying and costing from drawings, he would have only come to us if there were errors, omissions or clarifications with our drawings and more often recently to engage in the value engineering process. So now we really have to go back to the drawing board. On top of that, quantity surveyors have different pieces of software and in principal, they’re all meant to work in mostly the same way but there are always little differences that we have to deal with. We can’t assume any longer that we can just deliver information and everything will be grand.”
The initial financial outlay of purchasing BIM and upskilling staff is without a doubt a consideration for firms, although the benefits to be recouped long term can’t be overstressed. Many companies opt for BIM on a yearly subscription basis. “We find it’s probably a third more expensive than AutoCAD. Getting the skills and training is actually more expensive as an upfront cost. BIM requires a lot of upskilling; there’s using it and then there’s using it well.”
A significant number of larger architectural practices in Ireland are already using BIM, but how useful is it to smaller practices? “I’m not convinced it will make a big difference in the daily lives of small practices. From my experience, it’s extremely useful for medium to large sized projects where you’re sharing large complex models and you have efficiencies of being able to look at that and produce better information.”
Where the benefit may come for smaller clients, according to Michael, is in projects like schools. “In the UK there’s a standardised system developed by the NHS for briefing and tendering furniture, fixtures and equipment in hospitals. Items such as beds, mattresses, chairs, bins, etc. right down to the sockets on the walls have been developed as a database of components which can be included in a BIM model providing a combination of 3D and data. A similar model could be applied to government funded buildings, so where the government wants to build ‘another one of something else’ like for example schools, there could be benefits there but it will take a bit of joined up thinking from departments to do that.”
It may not be mandated here but according to Michael, a significant number of Irish clients are showing interest in BIM. With the UK on a two year deadline to ensure all centrally procured projects achieve Level 2 BIM by 2016, the Irish industry will be keeping a watchful eye on progress.
“What’s starting to happen in the UK is firms are starting to find it difficult to get work without BIM. The next phase will be a situation where you’ll be asked how many projects have you done in BIM and after that it will be how many projects in a selected sector e.g. healthcare that were completed including examples. I think that if we don’t get with BIM, it’s just going to end up being another layer of bureaucracy on top of the old systems we have. It’ll be important to see how the UK government deals with it. Whatever change happens it’ll have to be a step forward.”
One of the things BIM does extremely well is that it produces a digital model which, if properly managed over the whole lifecycle of a project, can result in the client essentially being handed over a complete digital building. In the UK, firms are mandated under BIM Level 2 to produce Construction Operations Building Information Exchange (COBie) information. This data format helps capture and record important project data at the point of origin, including equipment lists, product data sheets, warranties, spare parts lists, and preventive maintenance schedules. “It’s hugely rich in data, it’s basically equivalent to the big data concept they’re talking about in the IT industry. It’s a lot of very good information and there’s currently a lot of talk from clients on how do we use that straight away so it doesn’t degrade or get old.”
The effect that the UK BIM mandate will have in Ireland is of particular interest to Michael. “I think a lot of what’s being done in the UK will become the standard here. I’m involved in a committee in the RIAI where we’ve been looking at the standards in Ireland. We started to develop our own and then we realised we’re not going to keep up with the British standards which are changing and evolving at the moment. We’re now working on producing a set of guidance documents saying this is how we interpret British standards. There are roles and responsibilities in the UK that don’t exist here and these documents offer guidance on how to deal with that.”
One of these roles is that of the “information manager”, the person who’s charged with ensuring the rest of the design team deliver the information needed for the BIM model at various points in the project. The information manager is also responsible for ongoing coordination between the teams. “For the first time you’ve got a person who’s responsible for both the delivery of the information and the quality of information delivered to the client. It’s certainly leading to more collaboration but the old attitude of ‘but this is how we’ve always done it’ does come up. The construction industry is traditional in many senses, people don’t want to change. It’s happening slowly, but it is happening.”