Charles Smith, consultant at Atkins, explores how BIM can help unlock the UK’s net-zero carbon ambitions
Alongside ‘social value’ and the ‘new normal’, ‘net-zero’ is the new industry buzzword. The UK has committed to achieving net-zero, and we in the built environment have a huge part to play as we account for roughly a third of the UK’s carbon emissions and 59% of UK total waste.
The government has set construction targets for 2025 which include reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50%, and is investing £170m of public funding to develop digital and offsite manufacturing technologies through a Transforming Construction Programme. This has been matched by £250m from the private sector.
The onus and the funding is there – so how do we make it happen?
This is where BIM comes in
Our focus must be on pre-construction activities. These contribute disproportionately to high construction waste and low operating efficiencies: they can lead to late-stage design changes resulting in significant rework and poor material optimisation, procurement and planned reuse.
There is a significant opportunity for us to captilise on new materials and technologies to rapidly improve in this area. However, the sector is not well placed to do this due to two issues that have long plagued it: poor adoption of new technologies and inefficient information management throughout a structure’s lifecycle.
The complexity and cost of new construction methods and materials required for low carbon construction and operation means we must think digitally. And by thinking digitally, we can align our projects and the workforce to net-zero objectives and an environment first mindset.
For example, we can attain greater green commitments from suppliers through a culture shift enabled by increased collaboration; empowering stakeholders to uncover waste, highlight inefficiencies and question poor design decisions through early engagement and greater visibility of information.
We can also ensure continuous waste minimisation and management throughout the infrastructure lifecycle with BIM enabled tools and technologies. Examples include the creation of Digital Twins which allow for real time performance monitoring and support improving efficiency and design in construction.
From bespoke solutions to BIM-enabled prefabrication
BIM can be used to support increased adoption of offsite manufacturing: this generally improves the quality of building components, reduces their cost and minimises waste compared to doing similar work on site. Estimates show that up to 80% of construction waste and a third of concrete usage can be avoided through prefabrication and recycling. However, the high initial costs of setting up off site facilities and the difficulty in achieving economies of scale has meant it is not widely used in the industry.
Providing design and construction information of building components, including their environmental costs, to offsite manufacturers in a machine-readable format negates the need for significant human intervention in the process; supporting a faster and more accurate flow of information between designers, suppliers and manufacturers. Improving the quality of information provided to offsite manufacturers will help raise the quality and minimise the waste of the building components they produce; the benefits could be exponential if it is supported properly, such as simulating clash detection in a virtual environment before waste can occur.
The collaborative viewing of BIM models and improved communications between suppliers and offsite manufacturers enables earlier engagement between stakeholders. It also builds greater trust and supports a faster decision-making process between teams, which is crucial to shifting work offsite. This can significantly reduce the damage and disruption caused by on site construction, a major concern for built-up areas like London. Cumulatively, this will drive down the cost of offsite manufacturing and pave the way for widespread adoption in the sector.
BIM and a green future
BIM should be a key enabler in supporting changes in the construction industry’s culture, fostering increased collaboration and use of new technologies. Fully realising the benefits of BIM and the opportunities it presents will allow the UK to become a world leader in customer-focused, value-driven construction that is environmentally friendly. It can be the key that opens up our net-zero future.