Damian O’Neill, director of civil and structural design services provider, Lyons O’Neill, takes a look at how BIM is being applied in UK construction and the barriers it faces
Start any discussion of technology in our sector and there’s a three-letter acronym which will always pass your lips. BIM is one of the chief ways the construction industry is embracing digitisation and its growth over the past decade has been rapid.
According to the 2019 NBS National BIM Report, overall trends of BIM awareness and adoption have increased from 10% in 2011 to around 70% on the previous year. The 3D model-based process is seen as an answer to the construction sector’s sustainability crisis and a way to attract a younger generation to an ageing industry.
BIM is being used on a vast array of projects, including helping the City of Paris with its redevelopment before the 2024 Olympics. It is, quite literally, shaping tomorrow’s world.
Barriers to adoption
However, behind the headlines lies a different story. Despite the awareness and enthusiasm around BIM, there are still a number of limiting factors slowing the uptake of its technology. The unevenness of its adoption has been noted, with SMEs and supply chain partners less likely to use the process and expertise often concentrated around London. This has led some to grow concerned about the emergence of a ‘two-tier’ system where only some firms reap the benefits of digital modelling whilst the others get left further and further behind.
It’s clear that there are points of friction in adopting BIM and these need to be addressed if the industry is to achieve its full digital potential.
One of the biggest barriers to adoption, reported by NBS in its 2019 survey, was a lack of client demand. In the private sector – outside the government’s 2016 mandate for public sector projects – there is no prerequisite to use BIM and for smaller projects, new technology may appear unnecessary. Of course, its advantages are in no way size-specific and its clash detecting abilities are as vital for a single house as they are for Olympic-level planning. However, if using the technology isn’t high on a client’s agenda, it’s easy for design teams to let it slide.
The solution to these client issues is multi-faceted. Greater attention must be paid to educating smaller project commissioners about the advantages of BIM and why they should demand it in their frameworks. The government also needs to ensure all its decision-makers are enforcing its public sector mandate, as the majority (57%) of those surveyed in last year’s NBS report said that local government was not enforcing the 2016 mandate.
Additionally, we need to be empowering design teams to create client demand themselves. Even if a client doesn’t initially include the technology in their project plans, a design team can teach them how its technology cuts costs, errors and programme time, giving them knowledge which they can take on to future projects. Employing all these tactics simultaneously will allow us to change the culture around BIM so that the sector isn’t left with black holes of innovation.
Lack of expertise
However, insufficient client demand isn’t the only limiting factor. A lack of in-house expertise and training were the second and third biggest barriers to BIM, respectively, listed in the NBS report. These findings are corroborated by last year’s survey by Allplan and the Institute of Civil Engineers, which found that although 90% of engineers consider the BIM process relevant to their work, less than 50% have an adequate grasp of how to use it to their best advantage. It’s clear there’s a sizeable knowledge and skills gap which needs to be addressed.
This gap should start to close as these new digital techniques enter into universities’ curriculum but the industry can’t afford to wait that long. Ideally, every firm should adjust their hiring so at least one team member is highly skilled in BIM and can lead the modelling processes whilst other staff are gradually trained. Allowing a transition period will ensure staff have enough time to properly understand the technology, in addition to allaying management fears that suddenly adopting it will disrupt the regular flow of business.
A shift in attitude
Managers and company directors also need a shift in attitude. They need to stop seeing BIM, with its associated software and training costs, as an optional extra, but a critical investment in their financial future; as fundamental to business as a website or employee contracts. At Lyons O’Neill, we’re proud to have reached the stage where 80% of our projects are implemented to BIM Level 2 maturity. By investing in BIM we have developed a level of expertise that has enabled us to set a precedent for our future works, and has embedded the BIM process firmly into our company approach as a whole.
Change doesn’t end with clients and design teams, however. In a roundtable run last year by the Centre for Digital Built Britain and the Chartered Institute of Building, it was noted that BIM software providers can do much more in terms of developing and pricing products for SMEs, rather than shaping their packages around the needs of major firms. Creating bespoke BIM solutions for small businesses would encourage uptake by simplifying integration and reducing costs – both of which act as significant barriers for smaller firms. There’s also a call for better industry-wide standards and information templates so that both clients and design teams can understand what they’re aiming for, and everyone, no matter the sector, meets minimum targets.
There’s a reason BIM is so widely discussed – it has the potential to completely revolutionise the way we build and solve some of construction’s biggest problems. However, this potential won’t be fully realised if we don’t dismantle the barriers to its growth. Removing these, and empowering every firm to benefit from BIM, is our challenge in 2020.
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