Betting on BIM: Inside the UK's new construction technology mandate
It’s been nearly five years since Paul Morrell, then the United Kingdom’s chief construction advisor, announced the plan to require all government contractors to be compliant with Level 2 Building Information Modeling (BIM), and the April 4, 2016 deadline arrived this week.
After years of preparation and a growing need to implement BIM on projects across the globe, experts in the U.S. and abroad weigh in about the possible ramifications of the new requirement. How is the mandate affecting the U.K. construction industry? And is the U.S. headed toward a similar path?
A slow start
Just because the target date is here doesn’t mean everyone is ready to deliver. Revealing much more encouraging figures than an electrical subcontractor association survey last year, a 2016 Royal Institute of British Architects’ National Building Specification (NBS) National BIM Survey conducted between December 2015 and February 2016 found that, although 96% of the 1,000 firms surveyed were aware of BIM — up from 43% in 2011 — only 54% had adopted BIM. Of the respondents aware of BIM, 86% said they expect to be using it by the same time next year, and 97% expect to be using it in the next five years.
There also seems to be some sense of confusion among contractors, as 41% of survey participants said they were unsure what exactly the U.K.’s BIM requirement entails. According to the NBS, Level 2 BIM requires public construction project stakeholders — architects, contractors or suppliers — to be able to exchange project data through a common file format like Construction Operations Building Information Exchange (COBie) or Industry Foundation Class (IFC).
The government's role
"I think the U.K. has done as good a job as anybody could have done in giving the industry plenty of warning that this was coming and providing lots of infrastructure to get people ready to do so," Phil Bernstein, an architect and vice president of strategic industry relations at Autodesk, told Construction Dive. "It’s not like people didn’t know this was coming." Bernstein said Autodesk has seen an uptick in customer adoption of BIM tools, which has led him to believe the true compliance numbers are strong.
Of course, because the U.K. government is responsible for a significant portion of total construction there, according to Bernstein, it has the heft to make a BIM requirement like this feasible. "They’re not just issuing random regulations," he said. "They have the power to change the construction industry, and they do so."
Peter Trebilcock, design and BIM program director at the U.K. division of international construction giant Balfour Beatty, agreed with Bernstein that the government has conducted a strong outreach effort concerning the BIM mandate. "I think they’ve done it very well. They gave the industry notice several years ago," he told Construction Dive. "They have a BIM task force, which has overseen the production of industry standards and has helped the construction industry understand what is required by giving guidance notes on how to deliver the requirements."
According to Trebilcock, Balfour Beatty is 100% mandate-compliant, with 24 COBie projects on the books in advance of the deadline. "It gave us and a number of other tier-one contractors a greater incentive to get it right," he said. “We’ve been very fortunate that, in using the digital toolset, we’ve been able to lever the many benefits for our own business purposes — reduced programs, lower costs, better client engagement and safer projects." Trebilcock added that 50% of Balfour Beatty’s work in the U.K. is comprised of government contracts, "so it was a key incentive for us to understand what they were looking for and to get it right."
Trebilcock said the meat of the BIM requirement aims to provide government officials with as much information about their construction projects as possible so that they can manage the resulting assets effectively. "The key driver for (the U.K. government) has been to better understand the asset that it manages, improve the performance and optimize their usage and efficiency moving forward in the lifecycle," he said.
In reality, though, the "BIM" tag in the title of the mandate could be a bit misleading, according to Trebilcock. "There is an interesting dimension to the U.K. approach," he said, because there is no requirement for actual BIM modeling. "There is less focus on the sharing of BIM models, as much as they encourage it," he said. "The mandate is to provide asset data at the end of the project." And even that requirement, Trebilcock added, is not for the entire completed structure but for the "maintainable assets" like electrical and mechanical. "So they’re not interested in foundations and steel frame or cladding. They’re more interested in the moving parts," he said.
According to Trebilcock, because of Balfour Beatty’s size, the company uses many subcontractors, and some of them are not prepared for the mandate. He said he can’t speak as to why those smaller firms haven't adopted BIM yet, but he said he believes it’s most likely due to fear of the new-to-them technology, hesitation regarding the required investment, and concern over the resources required for training and implementation. However, Trebilcock said those factors won’t keep Balfour Beatty from continuing to work with them, as they have plans to help those subcontractors capture and extract the data necessary for compliance.
Is the US next?
As for how this U.K. industry milestone will influence the United States construction industry, Trebilcock and Bernstein have somewhat different takes.
"We don’t have that kind of organized view of construction," Bernstein said. He suggested that perhaps a "bottom-up" approach might help BIM gain more traction, with agencies like the General Services Administration, State Department or Department of Defense improving industry technology as a byproduct of implementing their own BIM requirements. However, Bernstein doesn’t think the U.S. government is committed to pursuing the idea of a mandate.
"Construction continues to be less than perfectly efficient, and there’s widespread agreement that technology is an excellent approach for improving that efficiency," he said. "So if for no other reason than to spend taxpayer dollars more effectively, one might conclude that improving building industry process through technology is a smart thing for the taxpayers to invest in." However, he added, "The political problems with doing anything related to the nation’s infrastructure right now are enormous. Plus, we’ve got to get in line with everything else that’s not being invested in right now."
Nevertheless, Trebilcock said that while the U.S. focus might not be on a mandate, or the asset data requirement so intrinsic to the U.K. requirement, he has found that the U.S. construction industry is "years ahead" on the modeling component of BIM. He also said that BIM in the U.S. is much more of an everyday type of business practice than it is in the U.K.
"The supply chain in the U.S., according to my colleagues, doesn’t charge a premium for doing BIM," Trebilcock said. "It’s now taken as the norm. There’s no emphasis or less emphasis in prequalification or bid documentation to demonstrate credentials because everybody does it. It’s expected, and we’ve yet to reach that tipping point in the U.K. So we’re probably a few years behind."
Focusing on the next steps
Looking ahead in the U.S., Bernstein is confident, even without a mandate, that the industry will continue to embrace BIM and new construction technology in general. He said that with the current ease of technology implementation, small contractors don’t need to invest significant dollars into expensive software or hardware solutions anymore. Increasingly, he said, they can use smart phones or tablets in the field to be up-to-speed on all aspects of project information.
But the U.K. is still a bit more forward thinking than its American cousins. Bernstein said the U.K. has already invested 15 million pounds, or approximately $21.2 million, in a joint government-industry collaboration to explore upping the U.K.’s BIM requirement to Level 3, which, at the very least, would require all parties on a construction project to work from one common BIM model.
Trebilcock said he believes that, along with the added value for the government, the new mandate will also result in other benefits as more people work with BIM. "There will be better design coordination, better integration of supply chain members’ work, safer projects, shorter projects, and (those benefits) will come as more embrace this way of working," he said.
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