Facing the BIM juggernaut

A step-by-step approach to BIM adoption, by Allan Hunt BSc MRICS, a Director of AHR Building Consultancy Limited

Unless the estate you manage happens to be a remote desert island, you will have heard about BIM. Indeed you may feel, lately, that you’ve heard little else. For some, this is frustrating. We all know that in 2016 Government will make BIM compulsory for a large number of public projects. Yet as a hard-pressed estates manager fighting daily fires and juggling resources, its meaningful relevance to the issues at hand can seem difficult to grasp. Until that ‘flagship’ new-build comes along, BIM, we feel, remains a luxury. It is all too tempting to put off BIM adoption: surely we can cross that bridge when we come to it?

Yet for others, BIM is a frustration for a very different reason. Sensing the urgency of gaining BIM fluency, many desperately want to jump on board but circumstances prevent it. Why, for example, would an NHS Trust, a Local Authority or a University, already under financial pressure, be prepared to put in what is presumed to be a large investment of time and money until absolutely necessary? It’s just too low on the list of priorities. This is especially the case for low-key works, when it can appear to be expensive overkill for little more than faddy CAD technology.

Yet many estates managers have, at least, a very real awareness of BIM’s future importance and, at best, a genuine excitement about its potential and possibilities.

Roadblocks to BIM

Whether the roadblocks to taking the first steps on the BIM journey stem from confusion, a seeming lack of relevance to the day-to-day workload, false perceptions of cost, or a lack of willingness from management, it can be hard to see how to get going. With a relentless emphasis on the use of BIM in large-scale new-build projects, it is not surprising that many feel that BIM is ‘not for the likes of us’.

A large part of the problem is the way that BIM adoption has been framed in the press. Rarely discussed in relation either to smaller projects or those involving existing buildings, it is easy to believe it has no value for the humbler project. Certainly there may be more obvious gains on larger projects in terms of clash detection and schedules, simply because the projects are more complex.

Yet these issues also exist at the smaller-scale. And in fact where resources are stretched, can we really afford to throw away valuable information at every handover point in the build process? BIM has the power to capture this information.

Pre- and post-build: the benefits

Perhaps more importantly, the ‘large-scale BIM’ angle, which has tended to focus on the build phase, has also masked major cost-savings at the pre- and post-build phases. Unlike CAD, where 3D visuals are a time-consuming add-on to a fundamentally two-dimensional design process, BIM is from the outset designed in three dimensions, a miniature ‘replica’ of the building loaded with highly accurate data.

This means that 3D walk-throughs are available as an inherent part of the process. When every render costs money, there is a danger of missing crucial details in the drive to keep design costs down. With BIM, the benefits are clear: accurate, unlimited and data-rich visuals. This can provide enormous peace of mind in the early stages of a project.

Of course this depends on the capacity to build a BIM model in the first place. It is certainly true that many smaller architectural practices, and most surveyors and building consultants, have their own roadblocks to BIM adoption. It can be difficult to warrant the investment, in terms both of software and expertise, which means that this investment and its benefits are not being passed on to clients. Yet innovative practices at the forefront of BIM adoption already build such models as routine. At AHR, BIM has become our standard way of working. Since we already have the technology and manpower in place, BIM models are freely available to our clients regardless of the size or complexity of the build.

In addition, we are leading the way in developing possibilities for the use of BIM in facilities management, with rapid technological advances meaning that BIM is increasingly compatible with facilities management software. This means that the models created during the design phase continue to have value long after the contractors have left the scene.

Again this is about data-capture: think, for example, of a facilities manager who needs to replace a certain element and who then has to trawl through paper records – if not in fact examine the element in person – to retrieve the specification. When time is in short supply, this is an unnecessary waste of resources: the potential long-term savings here are difficult to ignore.

BIM as a database

While BIM certainly has powerful benefits as a visualisation tool, then, it is also far more than that. The industry has finally woken up to the fact that BIM is not only a game-changing advance on CAD but, crucially, a highly advanced database. Perhaps this shift in perception is the number one factor in seeing BIM not as a costly leap of faith but, instead, as a series of risk-free baby steps. Nobody blinks an eye at the idea of ‘building a database’. Indeed, the whole point is that it is an organic resource. Imagine delaying a database until all possible information was to hand – it would likely never get started!

Contrary to popular belief, it is perfectly possible and indeed sensible to build up a BIM database over time. Contributing to this misperception is that the incremental nature of BIM is not well understood. Beginning with one project within a broader estate, each new project generates a further model that can be easily ‘locked in’ to the first, like a series of building blocks or jigsaw puzzle pieces. And this is not limited to new-build projects. With technology such as highly accurate cloud surveys and advanced Geomatics, AHR just as easily use BIM in works to existing buildings. Each set of data – each BIM model – and whether new-build or refurb – is just one part of a larger and ever-growing data-heavy model that develops in line with your needs.

This circumvents the apparent hurdle facing estates managers and can be illuminating to managers of complex, ever-changing estates where works are often small but ongoing. In fact, in the case of a University campus or large NHS Trust, where new-build and refurb may sit side by side, and where multiple projects are running at any one time, step-by-step adoption is not only the least daunting but also the most logical way to proceed. When we understand BIM as a database, we see how incremental adoption makes real sense.

Incremental steps to adoption

Far from being a major upfront investment, then, BIM does not have to be costly. Since at AHR we already have the capability, all it requires is the willingness to take an interest. In fact if there is a serious price to pay at all, it will be in ignoring the rapidly advancing BIM juggernaut. While it may feel like an optional extra now, it will not be long before BIM is an essential, without which an increasing number of  public projects will run into serious difficulties. Far from optional, BIM fluency is unavoidable – not least for those working on estates within the public sector.

The ‘grand gesture’ approach to BIM – the idea that it must be adopted wholesale or not at all – has obscured the fact that BIM need not be an all-or-nothing affair. The obvious benefit is that it’s always easier to begin a new incentive if it can be ‘ring-fenced’ around one small project. Not only does this provide a platform to learn gradually and without ‘overwhelm’ – but it also provides a clear and defined arena within which you can test and prove BIM’s hard benefits. So don’t feel you can’t adopt BIM without rolling out a full-scale programme. Consider instead opting in incrementally. This way, when BIM really does become unavoidable, you won’t be taken by surprise.


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