BIM mandate puts Brits on collaborative frontier

BIM mandate puts Brits
on collaborative frontier

Can BIM be the universal translator for aec technologies?

by JONATHAN BARNES, for BuiltWorlds | May 21, 2015

It's earlier in London, just check the time. Or you can check the progress of Building Information Modeling (BIM), which next spring in the United Kingdom will actually be required on all large government construction contracts. With that deadline looming for BIM Level 2 compliance, the industry now is scrambling to get ready. And despite initial strong resistance among contractors, BIM now seems to be gaining adherents every day in the UK.

This month, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) released its fifth annual National BIM Survey, which found that the majority of respondents think the UK construction industry is on the right track in pursuing a wider adoption of BIM. More than half of those surveyed said they already had been able to speed up delivery through using BIM, while 59 percent saw cost efficiencies with it. And perhaps most importantly, 48 percent saw increased profits while using BIM.

Tick-tock: The countdown clock, as of May 21, on the home page.

Tick-tock: The countdown clock, as of May 21, on the home page.

But the biggest thing BIM may have going for it could be its inherent logic. At least that's what a lot of those practical Brits seem to think. Many are taking advantage of it now and more will get their feet wet next month via free BIM training being offered by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE).

"Collaborative working around a well-organized common data set, using technology to reduce re-work and inefficiency, handing over information to asset owners that will help consultants optimize performance—if you strip away the ‘BIM’ label, it all makes perfect sense," said Richard Shennan, a divisional director and BIM champion at London-based engineering consultant Mott MacDonald. Speaking last week to ACE's online magazine Infrastructure Intelligence, he added, “In terms of SME (small- to medium-sized enterprises) adaptability to more effective ways of working, it won’t be ‘the big eating the small, it will be the fast eating the slow.’”

  • NOTE: BuiltWorlds founder Matt Gray will be speaking at the British Council of Office's annual conference in Chicago, Friday, May 22, on "The Future of Working SMART".

Still, while BIM Level 2 is collaborative, with all parties using their own 3D CAD models, they are not necessarily working on the same shared model, and so the situation is not ideal. But the beauty of BIM Level 3, which will come next, is that it involves using a single model, which everyone can modify. The UK is aiming for adoption of BIM Level 3 for government projects by 2019.

In the UK and elsewhere, construction app providers are increasingly leveraging their strengths and cooperating with other companies that will deliver the systems they need for a particular project role. Some industry watchers say it will lead to a technological high ground above which the babble of competing technologies will fade away, to a place where contractors will collaborate smoothly.

But is interaction between various systems without unnecessary redundancy probable? Some experts say the key may be BIM. “I think what ultimately will happen is you’ll be able to have a unified area with a dashboard, to see what you’re doing,” says Carol Hagan, a Phoenix AZ-based construction tech consultant. “Looking at BIM, that’s the hope: that everything could be exchangeable, regardless of who’s using what systems.” 

There’s no question that adoption of BIM is becoming more expected now by large owners with multi-year construction programs. They see it as a necessity now, rather than simply an option for the contractors. In Europe, while UK advances toward its mandate, experts predict that the rest of the European Union will follow suit soon. “The EU is picking up on [BIM] rapidly, and a lot of Scandinavia continues on ahead of the UK,” notes Deke Smith, senior analyst with Cyon Research, an international engineering technology think tank based in Bethesda MD.

“We’re being asked in the UK to get involved and speak on BIM in Europe,” adds Stuart Young,  London-based managing director for Europe and the Middle East at Fiatech, an Austin TX-based nonprofit that promotes infrastructure innovation. “The UK movement is about to start looking at Level 3. They want to make sure that these potential investments pay off. Scalability, process mapping, and support are key to getting adoption.”

Crossrail Project: 42 kilometres of tunnels and new underground stations will link Heathrow and Canary Wharf.

Crossrail Project: 42 kilometres of tunnels and new underground stations will link Heathrow and Canary Wharf.

While it might seem to some that the U.S. is lagging behind, Young disagrees. From what he has seen, the U.S. is not far behind the UK in adopting BIM, he says. Young recalls that the UK changeover to BIM was not a smooth one, at least at first, because so many of the contractors opposed it. “Eventually, some settled down and started to look into BIM. They created BIM Teams," he says, adding, "The Crossrail Project was the catalyst for all that. They are putting a railway system under London, within 12 inches of existing structures.” 

So any technology that would help builders visualize that extraordinarily tight job site was particularly well-received. 

Quantifying the savings that are generated for a contractor by using BIM, as well as the financial benefits it can bring to the owners of projects on which it is used, may be technically more difficult than building a railroad under a bustling city, a foot from foundations of existing buildings. After all, you cannot just drill into a grizzled old contractor the idea that better technology will bring savings. You have to show him how others have done so.

“To do that with BIM, you need to understand where the savings come from," says Young. "If you can make a five percent or more savings, you’ve got the savings on the design and facilities management. Not to mention the savings you can get in the construction of it."

new kinds of conversations

Looking ahead, some experts see amazing capabilities in construction technology fast-approaching. With the future Internet of Things, machines will start to interact with the surrounding environment and be monitored on sites from the factory, similar to Rolls Royce’s engine health management system, which tracks thousands of engines using onboard sensors and live satellite feeds, says Graham H. Stewart, Director, UK Head of BIM, for Ramboll, a Copenhagen-based engineering consultant.

“Imagine the construction site of the future, where the BIM environment is linked to 4D analysis for optimization, to 5D to monitor costs at every stage of the project, to then optimize the delivery schedule, to site and monitor progress so that materials can be delivered faster," suggests Stewart. "All these things could be possible if everything is talking to everything.”

Of course, an expert translator will be needed to make that happen on the international stage, and right now BIM seems to be training for the role.  

Based in Pittsburgh, the author is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Fortune, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Time, among others. A longtime correspondent for ENR, covering safety, management, economics, industry trends and project news, he now focuses his reporting on construction apps. Email:

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