Manufacturing techniques, combined with computer software to fully integrate data management, have the potential to transform the construction industry, as Ruth Slavid reports
It is one of the most important and misunderstood aspects of construction. Building information modelling (BIM) is a topic where, in the opinion of many, “building” and “modelling” dominate, whereas in fact it is the “information” aspect that is most important.
BIM is all about the sharing of information between all parties to a project. Ideally it involves the design and construction teams, the client and the people who will be managing the project long after the other participants have left.
The principle is very simple. When somebody updates a piece of information, everybody receives that update. And it should be possible to update a single element and have that information referenced by all other similar elements.
The benefits are obvious – savings in working and reworking, avoidance of clashes, misunderstandings and errors on-site, and a new knowledge by clients of what they actually have and will get.
Getting to this point, however, is not simple, and it has taken a major drive by government to persuade construction companies to sign up to the idea and go through the pain involved in learning any new system.
This has come about through government requiring that Level 2 BIM is used on all publicly funded work by 2016, much of which is already in the pipeline. The government’s BIM Task Force defines Level 2 BIM as a series of domain-specific models, for example architectural or structural, with the provision of a single environment to store shared data and information.
It is all about the sharing of information between all parties to a project
Data storage involves a procedure known as COBie UK 2012. This is a protocol that allows everybody to exchange information, even if some of those people, who may be minor specialist players, are not using sophisticated software.
Even the BIM Task Force concedes that it is sometimes easier to say what BIM isn’t than what it is. It’s not just 3D computer-aided design. It’s not just a new technology application. It’s not next generation; it’s here and now.
For a long time, there was resistance from the industry to implementing BIM. But, partly because of pressures from government, it is now making impressive progress and is one area where the UK is at the forefront.
According to Richard Waterhouse, chief executive of NBS (National Building Specification) and RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Enterprises: “A majority of the industry has now adopted BIM, using it for at least one project in the last year. We have travelled some distance since we started monitoring BIM adoption in 2010, when only 13 per cent were using BIM and 43 per cent were unaware of it.
“For the design team, there are clear benefits of collaboration, visualisation, co-ordination and information retrieval. This readily translates into increased cost efficiencies and profitability.
“For manufacturers, accurate product information can be delivered into the heart of the building information model through the creation and delivery of information-rich BIM objects. These objects have the potential to determine not only product choice in construction, but persistence and correct maintenance through a building’s life.
“For clients, an information-rich model allows design outcomes to be modelled and agreed early in the building lifecycle, at the briefing and design stages. The lifetime performance of a building can be maximised and efficiencies delivered, with standardised information delivered in COBie drops. Landings are made softer. Client outcomes are improved.”
In the early days of BIM adoption, there was a tendency for some architects and other designers to miss the point. By working in three dimensions – an approach that when you think about it is far more representative of the real world than are two-dimensional drawings – and being able to make and communicate changes rapidly and accurately, there is a decrease in misunderstandings and disagreements.
As Mr Waterhouse notes, this is a very real benefit to design teams, but it is of less significance to clients who expect the designers to get things right, whatever the challenges. For clients, and it is of course clients who drive all construction, the benefits are related, but different.
Forward-thinking organisations want the information that will allow them to manage their assets in the future and this means understanding what they are getting from a project in a way that is useful. They need, for example, a real understanding of costs so they can make an informed decision about whether to replace or refurbish an item.
Heathrow Airport, which is a leader in this area, has set up a GIS-based system called Heathrow Map Live that allows all staff access to live information, and gives them the ability to feedback changes and corrections. In this way, informed clients will come to understand their assets better and use them more effectively.
Over time, as these clients gain more knowledge of what works in practice, they should be able to make better decisions, understanding whether and when they need a new facility, and also making precise demands about what goes into a new building.
It has always been true that having a good client is essential to achieve a good building. By harnessing the power of BIM, good clients can become even better. If knowledge is power, BIM should give the construction industry and its clients the power to gather and implement knowledge in a way that was never possible before.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LESSONS TO LEARN
International construction company Mace is pioneering the use of building information modelling (BIM) with a major project in the Russian city of St Petersburg.
The $2-billion development for client SPb Renovation consists of medium and high-rise residential buildings arranged along a river frontage. For construction purposes they are divided into five zones, totalling just under one million square metres of accommodation.
This approach is cutting building time in St Petersburg by a year
Mace has worked with the design teams and client to come up with a “chassis” approach to standardise manufacture and on-site assembly of structures. Buildings have varying forms and finishes, as standardisation is at an underlying, rather than immediately visible, level.
After comparing different structural approaches, the team settled for hybrid construction – a mixture of concrete and steel – rather than precast concrete because this offered a significant weight saving, cutting the frame weight to nearly a third. This meant foundations could also be reduced, which is particularly important because St Petersburg has poor ground conditions. As a result, the embodied carbon of the buildings was significantly reduced.
The project has a library of standard components, which everyone involved can access, and both specify and procure from local suppliers.
BIM data and subsequent processes facilitate the co-ordination and interface between those designing the vertical buildings, the horizontal infrastructure and the public realm, as well as managing the project throughout its lifecycle.
Mace has developed a method of asset lifecycle integration, called ALi 360, to implement BIM and optimise asset performance, sharing efficiency savings with clients and supply chain partners. The company is also using ALi 360 for cost management, schedule control, and sales and marketing strategy.
It calculates this approach is cutting building time on the largest zone in St Petersburg by a year. Resulting cost savings for the client are further increased by the ability to begin earlier generation of income from completed accommodation.
It is the intention of Mace to use the Russian project as an exemplar for work in the UK and elsewhere.