BIM: What does it mean for the construction sector?

BIM: What does it mean for the construction sector?

From this week, all government-funded construction work must be undertaken using Building Information Modelling (BIM) as the government’s strategy aims to build an industry in the UK that is efficient and technologically advanced. Here Moinak Basu, an architect at HLM Architects based inTudor Square, Sheffield, looks at the implications of major changes for firms aiming to land crucial government contracts

The government has just issued a new Business Information Model (BIM) mandate, and the question that springs to my mind is: why does it feel that another mandate is justified?

The reasons are numerous. The construction industry suffered heavily in the last recession, with numerous public sector projects being shelved. If a history of cost certainty — derived from better efficiencies within the industry — had existed, maybe the damage could have been limited.

Accepting that we operate within a global economy, the government is driving the industry to change; to invest in more research and development, and create marketable skill-sets that can be sold internationally — thereby generating more revenue. This vision essentially lies at the heart of the Government Construction Strategy for 2025, but first we need to re-visit the 2011 strategy.

The Cabinet Office published the Government Construction Strategy in 2011, which acknowledged that the public sector would become more informed and better coordinated when: “its requirements are specified, designed and procured”. The strategy went on to say that the right model for public sector procurement is one in which the clients issue a brief that concentrates on the required performance and outcome, and that the designers and construction companies should work together to put forward an integrated solution that best meets it. It also echoed the importance of research and innovation around a standardised (or mass customised) product.

As an architect I can’t be too thrilled when buildings are described as “mass customised products”, but I definitely understand and respect the need for the Government’s overall approach to construction in the public sector in the current economic climate.

The strategy also lays down some rules that the industry must be prepared to meet. One of these, a heavily discussed topic, is the delivery of projects through Building Information Modelling (BIM) Level 2. Currently, there are approximately nineteen separate documents that deal with the delivery of a BIM Level 2 project, with some of these documents still being developed and some are quite contradictory.

The 2011 strategy goes on to say that the: “Government will require fully collaborative 3D BIM (with all project and asset information, documentation and data being electronic) as a minimum during 2016”.

Naturally there is a sense of anxiety within the wider industry because providing “all project data” (apart from asset information and documentation) in an electronic format is no small task.

There are further challenges when we consider that the government is looking to save money on project costs, which will have an impact on fees and the entire procurement process.

At the heart of this ambition is the 2025 construction strategy, which aims to reduce the delivery time of projects by 50%, reduce costs by 33% and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% — all set out by the 2011 strategy.

It stated: “The industry is provided with sufficient visibility of the forward programme to make informed choices (at its own risk) about where to invest in products, services, technology and skills”. The government identified these four elements as the foundations for achieving cost certainty on projects to be delivered in the future.

Cost certainty represents the probability of completing a project within the agreed budget between the government sector client and the contractor before construction begins.

The 2011 strategy followed on from two previous government reports — published in 1994 and 1998 — that sought to improve standards in the construction industry.

The Latham Report (1994), was known as ‘Constructing the Team’ and was authored by Sir Michael Latham. The report had been jointly commissioned by the government and the industry with client participation. It was extensive and focused on team integration and the clarity of Employers Information Requirements — both aspects to play a crucial role in increasing efficiency across the industry.

Four years later ‘Rethinking Construction’ was produced by Sir John Egan, which was a report for the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, on the work of the Construction Task Force and its scope for improving the quality and efficiency of construction in the UK.

As I read the Egan Report two things stood out. The first, which I could agree with, was the acknowledgement of general poor performance if compared to the international market: “There is deep concern that the industry as a whole is under-achieving. It has low profitability and invests too little in capital, research and development, and training. Too many of the industry's clients are dissatisfied with its overall performance”.

The second item that caught my attention related to setting targets for the industry: “Our targets are based on our own experience and evidence that we have obtained from projects in the UK and overseas. Our targets include annual reductions of 10% in construction cost and construction time.” The report also proposed that: “…defects in projects should be reduced by 20% per year”.

Reducing defects by 20% every year sounds like a very ambitious goal, but then again the industry probably needs ambitious targets to aim towards if it is to improve radically. I was also pleased to read that “the industry needs to educate and help its clients to differentiate between best value and lowest price”. As an architect, I would like nothing more than to demonstrate the difference between best value and lowest price, but more often than not, best value (in a purely economic sense considering long term operational costs), might mean a higher capital, which isn’t easily available in public sector projects.

Both reports published in the 1990s did push the industry in the right direction; the Construction Industry Board was established following the publication of the Latham Report, and a number of new procurement routes to build on partnering and framework agreements were formed following publication of the Egan Report.

But as our sector takes on board this latest major change, we need to be aware of what will happen to the 300,000 businesses of which 99.7% are SMEs (based on the 2011 report) — some of whom will not be able to afford the technology or training to become BIM Level 2 accredited when the government finally starts procuring its projects in this manner, in the hope of a bright future.