A digitally-built Britain

Adoption of government-backed digital technologies signals a new era for the construction industry which promises greater efficiencies and cost-savings

Data-driven digital technologies have the potential to completely transform the sector, by helping to solve the efficiency issues that have plagued construction over the decades. But with the March 2016 deadline for level 2 of the government’s building information modelling (BIM) requirements, how ready are architects, contractors and clients?

In the ideal BIM-enabled world, the architect, structural engineer and contractor work together from the earliest design stages to identify potential issues. This integrated project team work closely together sharing information electronically to build up precise 3D visual models containing geospatial information and data about different building elements to ensure there are no conflicts in the design, such as girders being in the wrong place.

It is the biggest opportunity to improve the way the construction industry operates so that we realise efficiencies the manufacturing and service sectors have made over the last ten years

Armed with this detailed digitally held information, the contractor can construct the building more efficiently, without error, on time and on budget. Crucially, the BIM model and all its data is handed over to the client and used in the management of the building throughout its lifetime, helping to reduce operational costs.

Little wonder that Nick Tune, chief executive of BIM software provider coBuilder, believes BIM holds the key to transformative change. “It is the biggest opportunity to improve the way the construction industry operates so that we realise efficiencies the manufacturing and service sectors have made over the last ten years,” he says.

Yet is the notoriously adversarial construction sector ready for better collaboration? David Philp, BIM director at AECOM and head of BIM at the UK BIM Task Group, which is leading the government’s BIM drive, recognises the issue. “Construction 2.0 needs new behaviours, including the intelligent client, that will encourage collaborative forms of procurement and a supply chain which recognises that integrated concurrent working will drive better productivity, making them more competitive in the marketplace,” he says.

Mr Philp remains positive that companies will take advantage of the new digital technologies and the increasing amounts of data to improve their bottom line. However, crucial to the success of digital collaboration will be the ease by which data is shared across different platforms and whether or not that is via open data formats.

Mr Tune, who is also director of buildingSMART UK, says that open BIM data will have to become the de facto engine of BIM, though he concedes that many businesses are still settling on proprietary data solutions such as Revit.

“But as they gain experience they will realise that the most efficient way to collaborate is to engage with open BIM standards, as it allows them better integration across the supply chain,” he says. buildingSMART UK is part of buildingSMART International, which develops the open data format known as industry foundation class (IFC) that enables true interoperability between different software packages.

The government recognises the importance of IFC even though for BIM Level 2 project teams will use COBie (construction operations building information exchange). Essentially a spreadsheet-based data exchange that teams share between their own individual 3D computer-aided design models, COBie is nevertheless an important first step in the sharing of information between teams.

BIM and UK government targets

Under the government’s 2016 BIM Level 2 mandate, construction projects procured by central government departments and their agencies will need to be able to share data using COBie as a minimum. But the picture is mixed about how prepared the industry will be.

Take the broadly positive 2015 NBS National BIM Survey of almost 900 building design professionals. Of the half of respondents who are using BIM, 60 per cent say they are ready for the BIM Level 2. Compare that to a survey of 84 small to medium contractors, carried out in November 2014 by the National Federation of Builders, which found that 68 per cent were still using paper drawings and just under a quarter had not even considered BIM.

“Here lies the biggest challenge,” Mr Tune concedes. “Most companies in our industry embrace change and look to improve, but there are still a lot of businesses who are happy with the status quo. I recently met a few of these while delivering BIM training to SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises]. These businesses will not be around in three to five years if they don’t embrace improvement and innovation,” he says.

Attitudes towards BIM

However, Allen Preger, co-founder and vice president of global product at project information management software developer Newforma, has seen increased interest in their products and “an exponential expansion in the amount of digital project data being used”. To illustrate his point, he cites a comparative study of the data used in one their client’s largest projects in 2004 against a similar project in 2014. The 2004 project contained 100 gigabytes of project data, including drawings, documents, image files and more than 100,000 e-mails; the 2014 project contained 6.6 terabytes (6,600 gigabytes) of data, comprising 288,000 project e-mails and more than 11,000 construction drawings, which adds up to 66 times more data.

All this data might suggest a need for new data science skills, though Mr Philp is against the creation of new layers of dedicated information managers. “Digital construction should be very much part of our everyday engineering, construction, architectural or surveying toolkit,” he says. Indeed Mr Philp believes the sector must also rebrand itself as innovative and technologically advanced if it is to attract the “hyper-connected Generation Y”.

He is now working on Digital Built Britain, launched by the government this year to take forward BIM Level 3. This involves full collaboration between teams using a single shared BIM model. Level 3 also extends BIM into the lifetime operation of assets, which is where the majority of costs arise, with the harnessing of big data taking BIM into the realms of the smart city as building-level data can be scaled up to area and city level.

“Digital Built Britain is audacious in what it sets out to achieve,” says Mr Philp, adding that although there is much to do, technically, commercially and culturally the prize of improved performance is too big to be missed. “Ultimately, I suspect the cultural mindset will be the biggest challenge,” he concludes. “However, the switch to digital construction is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’.”