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BIM demands leap of faith

7 Jan Building information modelling will only enter the mainstream if more clients can be persuaded of its merits, says a new guide that aims to do just that. Lisa Russell reports

The FULmax Cube allows groups of people to be immersed in virtual reality models without needing to wear headsets
The FULmax Cube allows groups of people to be immersed in virtual reality models without needing to wear headsets

Adoption of building information modelling (BIM) by construction clients has followed the path of many other innovations. The pioneers and early adopters who led the way were enthusiasts who instinctively saw BIM as a good thing and were intrigued by its possibilities even without a proven business case.

But there is now a chasm to be bridged in order for the technology to enter the mainstream - and this means persuading the more sceptical clients. The UK BIM Alliance is seeking to make the transition easier for them with a new guide designed to demystify the topic and simplify adoption. 

The client’s role is central to realising the full value of the use of BIM, says the guide’s lead author, consultant Richard Saxon. However, the client side is where the greatest change in awareness about BIM is still needed.

Going digital - a guide for construction clients, building owners and their advisers sets out a path for clients into the use of BIM and its related techniques. The guide – which deliberately avoids the jargon that has sprung up among suppliers – demonstrates the return on investment available and the nature of the investment required from clients through eight steps into BIM usage. A start is possible after the first four steps and clients are told that they can go as far as seems sensible for themselves, holding back from steps not relevant to them.

“I think that the other parts of the industry essentially know why they are using BIM,” says Saxon. But he believes they might need to get further training and to expand their use of BIM in order to get the most of it. For instance, a lot of architects are really only using the 3D modelling part and there are contractors who haven’t yet started rehearsing construction activities or using the technology for safety briefings, he says. Many contractors simply print out the drawings and use them just like they did of old. 

The obstacle in the way of widespread adoption of BIM by clients is one that all technologies have to overcome. The guide refers to the book Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore, which discusses the problem that always faces innovations in moving up the ‘adoption curve’ from the pioneers and early adopters to the early majority.

“Up to now, we’ve got some very enthusiastic clients who could be said to be early adopters,” says Saxon. “They’ve pressed on with the use of BIM, regardless of the fact that they didn’t know whether or not it was going to pay for itself. They dealt with the difficulties of learning how to use it because they could see instinctively that it was a good idea,” he says. 

But that supply of clients has probably now come to an end. Those that remain are much more hard-nosed about it. “We have to change our message from the one that we’re using to rope in enthusiasts to one to rope in the more sceptical mainstream,” says Saxon. 

Those who will become the early majority are not interested in the technology itself, nor in unproven promises. They need to see a business case, based on demonstrated return on investment. They want answers: What’s it going to cost me to use BIM? What do I get back in return? What’s my return on investment? How do I ask for what I want?

Persuading more clients to adopt BIM will involve convincing them that they will not be doing any experimenting as they want to be adopting a known proposition. However, it can be hard to produce the evidence to show them. “The industry has actually been very slow to catch the learning from the last five years of early adopters to make sure that there are case studies and proofs to offer to the mainstream client who is not going to want to be the first of anything,” says Saxon.

The client’s role is central to realising the full value of this approach. Some clients now ‘free-ride’, allowing their teams to use BIM for their own reasons but not pitching in to define what they need from it. These ‘passive’ clients get some value as the team saves time, improves coordination and avoids defects. But ‘active’ clients can get far more benefit and avoid new risks created by inadequate clarity, says the guide.

The drive for the new guide hasn’t come from construction clients – one of the difficulties in reaching them is that few define themselves this way. With the exception of a few professional clients – such as major developers – people don’t even know that they are building clients, says Saxon. “They don’t recognise that term – it’s a term we stick on them.” 

Leaving aside organisations such as the British Property Federation, there are few communities of people who could compare notes about their role in commissioning construction work. A law firm planning a one-off fit-out of its new offices doesn’t suddenly start thinking of its purpose in life as being a construction client. 

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It is now about seven years since the government announced that it was going to be adopting BIM, points out Saxon; and a lot of businesses were already into the topic before then. “Many of them know exactly what they are doing but the one thing they can’t get is sensible instructions from their clients and properly legally watertight instructions to the team,” he says.

The first of the new guide’s eight steps simply involves becoming aware – opening up discussion by knowing what BIM really is and what it can do. It is followed by strategy making, equipping the client office and formalising the use of digital working. Later sections cover reviewing team formation, decision support requirements, operations and maintenance requirements and setting standards. Along the way, the guide looks into issues such as smart buildings, offsite construction and collaborative contracts. 

Saxon welcomes the way that main contractors have been bringing in their subcontractors, who in turn are bringing in their ‘sub-subcontractors’. “But to do that, they are having to move away from the idea that lowest bidder is the way to select their team members,” says Saxon. Working with people you know and trust avoids having to spend months sorting out the “rules of the game”. 

He says that one of the things that is fairly clear with BIM is that clients can achieve the most effective solution and get a lot more value if they bring work forward – design work and pre-contract construction advice from the contractor. “Moves towards a more collaborative team that comes together earlier are all to be welcomed,” he says. 

The 'chasm' is a well-documented obstacle in the way of the adoption of technology
The 'chasm' is a well-documented obstacle in the way of the adoption of technology

The guide acknowledges that not all clients will be interested in all the benefits available from going digital or will be prepared to invest in the costs associated with them. A client for a small, one-off project may not feel up to engaging with digital working; a property developer who usually sells the completed building to investors may not yet see a possible market for a facilities-management database. Clients might also be unwilling to enter the BIM process before obtaining the all-important planning permission and funding. Private and public bodies who build regularly and retain their assets for use are the most likely to find digital working a very rewarding innovation. 

Clients who want to employ digital methods on their projects need to invest in some areas if they are to realise benefits beyond those that accrue to their design and construction teams using BIM for themselves. The initial investment will be in spending time to become aware of the potential for their business and forming a strategy to take up the relevant parts on offer, including being able to work with digital information. 

Clients can display 3D models, 360o videos and pictures, and 4D sequences to their stakeholders using multi-screen immersive methods. By way of example, the guide includes an image of the FULmax Cube, a BIM Computer Automatic Virtual Environment (BIM Cave) that has been developed by Fulcro Applied Technologies to allow teams to experience models at full life-
scale in immersive virtual reality without needing to wear headsets. The portable Cube’s 2.5m by 2.5m footprint has been designed to fit in any office space – including site cabins – for use in presentations such as design reviews or briefings on forthcoming site operations. The technology is also extensible, enabling larger teams to be immersed in the VR model.

Once a client can handle digital information, the next step is to formalise the use of digital working – covered in the fourth module. When digital working methods are employed, the standard forms of appointment and contract need to be augmented to take into account changes in traditional processes and obligations. Properly managed BIM requires that all parties involved are clear about their rights and duties, particularly regarding the digital models, says the guide. Unless these rights and duties are contractually binding there may be poor coordination, unexpected risks and avoidable disputes.

The guide's discussion of collaborative working includes an example of the Dudley College Advance II pilot project, which used insurance-Backed Alliancing through the IPinitiatives model. Photo: IPInitiatives
The guide's discussion of collaborative working includes an example of the Dudley College Advance II pilot project, which used insurance-Backed Alliancing through the IPinitiatives model. Photo: IPInitiatives

This article was first published in the December/January 2019 issue of The Construction Index magazine

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