The future of BIM…

Sometimes I despair at the inertia and apathy that seems to inflict those working in the creation of the built environment. We are one of the largest industries and demonstrably most professional of sectors when it comes to getting things built. However it seems to me we are also one of the most conservative, nervous and risk averse when it comes to embracing change. This was my first reaction upon reading coverage of the recent NBS survey, which showed that Building Information Modelling (BIM) seems to be a lot less popular than many had hoped.

Just under half of those questioned said they had failed to embrace BIM and still needed to be persuaded of its benefits. Three quarters of the 1000 strong survey commented that our industry was not ready to meet the compulsory new requirement that it be adopted for all work tendered by central government departments. There is growing evidence that private clients and main contractors are starting to make BIM a necessity of doing business as well. So why the resistance?

Many reasons have been put forward by commentators for the lack of adoption of the new technology by construction, including cost, the amount of time it’s takes to train and some even cite lack of awareness.  I think it is much more basic than that. The consultants, big brand contractors and architects by and large adopt advances in technology, often seeing the payback in efficiency and staff savings very quickly. Clients will happily embrace something that genuinely helps them make a project less risky. The trouble is that our industry, and most likely the majority of those surveyed, are not large organisations, they are the SME’s that make up the majority of those working in the industry.

It is argued by the Federation of Small Businesses that, of the firms it estimates work in Construction, 96% have less than eight employees and 86% of employees work in SME’s. If their findings are correct, then these are the people that make up a substantial amount of our industry and frankly, it would appear that they feel they neither need nor want to invest in new technology. Ironically, they are the workforce that most need to engage with BIM if the industry is going to develop a supply chain that works on a partnering model.

Hang on – I hear you cry.. BIM is not designed to manage the construction of a one bedroom extension constructed by the eponymous “white van man”. It is a sophisticated collaborative tool designed for complex projects. This is true and indeed BIM is a vital and necessary advancement in our sector for projects of a certain size and as a result, we were one of the early adopters. It has undoubtedly made a big difference to our business and improved performance for the benefit of our clients.

However I am questioning as to whether we should be at all surprised by the current perceived indifference towards BIM and that we should not be apathetic towards this apparent luddite approach, since surely the survey respondents will not all be small operators immune to the demands of others in the supply chain. Some have likened the ambivalence to being the equivalent of not adopting email, with an accompanying claim that like email, one will soon not be able to do without BIM. I think this is a false premise. The vast majority of clients, for the vast majority of those who might adopt BIM, are often the ones that need to drive change. They are just happy that the supplier turns up on time and completes the job as specified. It is up to those of us who control and manage the supply chain to move the conversation on and to find a way to promote the benefits of BIM. Frankly, if the results of the survey are accurate, something has gone seriously wrong with the messaging over the last five years of promotion and preparation.

Technology will only be adopted if those naysayers see an immediate and quantifiable benefit. To take an exemplar: our industry, like nearly all others, is now dominated by mobile communications technology. This quickly established itself as an indispensable tool of the job when first launched. Phones may have originally been the same size as the bricks that our subcontractors are laying on site, but quickly they moved on and became the ‘tool de jour’ for most people operating in the built environment. We need BIM to be perceived in the same manner.

Perhaps one answer is a formalised government registration scheme for construction related SME’s of a certain size, with a licensing system that incorporates a compulsory element of BIM training. Then for those that currently fail to appreciate the benefits of BIM, this new skills acquisition may well prove to be the “road to Damascus” moment. We need to work with those who still fail to understand the benefits of BIM and help them to see the vastly misunderstood acronym as something to bring long term business improvement.

Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide

Opinion piece first published in Building Magazine on the 5th May 2016



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