As a BIM consultant I deal with a wide range of people every day. From the highly experienced to the completely naïve, my role is to assist companies and individuals aiming to develop and evolve their processes and technology into a BIM environment. I don’t think anyone could disagree: the momentum is building, awareness is increasing and our industry, driven by public UK BIM initiatives and private aspirations to remain competitive, is transforming its working methods.

Or is it?

As leaders in the field, we are all, by nature, an isolated group. We deal with similar organisations, like-minded individuals, but the types of companies Evolve are typically involved with represent less than 10% of practices in the UK. The vast majority of businesses, over 90% of those involved with buildings, have less than 10 employees (figures from Office of National Statistics). As soon as we move outside of our perceived reality, is the picture of BIM adoption we see upheld? There are plenty of studies and experts who could lecture you on trends and general opinion, but for me, that isn’t first-hand experience; that’s extrapolation and theoretical assumption. What is the reality of BIM in the general construction industry? I have been investigating this question over the past year on a real construction project. What I found was not surprising, but it does help develop a perspective of how close or far we are from BIM as an everyday process. My personal findings are presented below. I will try not to do anything other than describe the story, certainly not extrapolate my experiences to a wider study. This is me, a handful of average business, and BIM; you draw your own conclusions.

The first step in the project was to understand what information was available on the plot where the building work was to take place. Survey information and land data is fairly easy to come across – it’s readily available to download. None of it is especially “BIM” though – it’s either simple scans, original plans or maps. For more “integrated” results it was necessary to pay a surveyor to produce a bespoke survey of the site. Out of the three local surveyors I approached none could deliver a 3D survey, and one would deliver a hand drawing. I didn’t bother discussing equipment with them, but continued the discussion instead with architects to understand what information they would need in order to progress planning. As none of them required any data whatsoever about the site, except its location and size, I shelved the detailed survey idea altogether.

I should take a short aside here and clarify the project’s Employers Information Requirements. The expectations of delivery from the design team were kept to an absolute minimum and were totally open. There were no specific file formats required, no COBie (a presumption from the outset, as the client wouldn’t need that kind of data anyway), only a preference to receive a complete BIM model (no, there’s nothing wrong with that phrase; no fluffy kittens have been harmed) and project data from which the drawings were produced and schedules / quantities could be calculated. Not knowing how the data would be used downstream, this simple, “Mini BIM” EIR was deemed most suitable at this stage.

Identifying an architect was not difficult. There are plenty of experienced practices in the project’s locality (Bath) and after a short tender process including submission of the EIR, a candidate was appointed. It should be noted that out of the three architectural practices approached, only one even bothered to discuss the EIR and BIM. I cannot speculate what the others understood by these requirements, only that their responses ignored the expectations completely. All that was received were totally standard fee proposals which delivered PDFs. The appointed architect “understood what was expected” but would not be able to provide a BIM model unless the client invested in a copy of Revit for them. (Looking around, they were lucky I couldn’t find a soapbox and let that one slip past unnoticed. Revit ≠ BIM!) Now, I don’t know what clients typically expect, but direct investment in a specialist firm’s own design tools is not one that this project had budgeted for. I shudder to think what would have happened last year when I ended up at A&E to have a dislocated shoulder popped back in only to be told “If you don’t pay for Entonox we’ll have to see if we can get a few extra tots of the ship’s rum”! It’s a good job it was on the NHS and I’ve already paid for the gas and air.) What they would deliver was a SketchUp model and related, relevant material specifications. Quantities would require charging an extra fee, and then they would be best guesses until construction was started. So much for digital prototyping.

Other “name” architectural practices were approached at this stage to discuss the possibility of delivering the project using BIM. Those that were able – in their response at least – to deliver using BIM, would have increased the budget by such a ridiculous percentage (over 1000%) that the idealism of a complete BIM solution had to be shelved. (It should be noted that the increase in fees, although no doubt accounting for BIM, was more likely due to the reputation & fee structures of the architects approached rather than BIM alone.)

As the initial stages of planning progressed, a structural engineer was sought. Interestingly, larger practices could be included as their fees were much more comparative to the smaller, one-person practices. In this case a “name” engineer was appointed although once again the EIR was not mentioned in any of the proposals nor would the client be receiving any useful data. When asked, no-one approached could/would consider a BIM deliverable, nor would they be providing CAD files. It seems the structural industry only provides hand sketches or mark-ups of the architectural drawings. This probably accounts for the surprisingly low structural fees. (Note to any structural engineers reading this – you could increase your fees for the technology savvy clients and deliver better output. Understand your clients better!)

It was at this stage that the lack of coordination between disciplines first became apparent and the first redesign was necessary. No-one up to this point had thought to test the existing structure for suitability, nor the ground for stability. Needless to say nothing was adequate and the project had to be redesigned, pretty much literally from the ground up. If BIM is not just about technology but about communications and integrated processes, then its benefits became much clearer – and much less achievable. Everything, it seems, is based around a quick, easy profit rather than being complete and thorough. It was my perception that, while the client was no doubt being catered for, these issues simply “could not be avoided”. Couldn’t they…?

With the re-designed project granted planning permission, the final stage of these investigations were to appoint a main contractor. Thankfully, every contractor approached required a meeting on-site to review the intended works, meet the client and discuss the approach to construction. While all required the architectural and structural specifications in order to be able to quote, none would accept any kind of digital data barring PDFs, and none would be using anything other than their standard pricing strategies. No-one wanted, nor could do anything with BIM data, nor could they provide 4D or 5D analysis. Construction sequencing consists of a structural sketch of the underpinned foundations.

The client is currently waiting for final pricing as the contractor push the probable start date back from January to May to September as they continue to take on other work rather than deliver on the projects they are already appointed to. My next step? Build the model myself with as much metadata as I can. There are a couple of areas where I can foresee some possible difficulties. Will they be picked up before they become actual delays and end up as additional cost to the client? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

As for the reality of BIM in the general UK construction industry… the reality is, at least in this small-scale experiment, that BIM is non-existent and we’re not even at anything closely resembling an integrated approach to design. Data is meaningless, as is any other aspect or BIM deliverable you care to consider. It’s each man (or woman) for him (or her) self, delivering as little as possible for enough fee to make a comfortable profit. Communications cost money, using others’ data is a risk and approximation (the old finger-in-the-air-approach) is how projects are costed and delivered. That’s not to say these people are anything less than professional, they were/are at all times, it’s just that we shouldn’t be expecting Level 2 BIM by 2016; it would be beyond the capability of almost everyone approached in this project to be able to deliver Level 0.

Photo by Jens Rademacher on Unsplash