BIM: Boon or Bane?

By July 11, 20212019, Articles

Earlier this month Andrew Milburn was invited to join a panel discussion at the 2021 MEP Conference hosted by ITP Media Group. The topic was the importance and current level of implementation of Building Information Modelling (BIM) within the industry.

Here are Andrew’s thoughts on the topic and the questions posed.

Is BIM a boon or a bane? 

In short it’s a work in progress, it’s a moving target and it’s a broad church. 

  • What value is BIM adding to the MEP stages of construction?

The value of BIM lies primarily in its ability to enhance collaboration.  I think about BIM in broad-brush terms. We are all aware of a dramatic digital transformation process affecting all aspects of our lives.  BIM is the impact of this digital revolution on the world of construction. 

As an architect I can remember trying to coordinate hand-drawn MEP layouts: flat plans traced by technicians.  I had to pore over these drawings for hours to prepare for meetings with the engineers, trying to anticipate problems that might crop up on site.  That was one of my least favourite aspects of the job.

Thirty years later I can see the ductwork appearing in the ceiling voids of our architectural model, sometimes projecting through the ceiling, or crashing into a door head.  I can walk over to the MEP team, or drop a screenshot and a note into a messaging app and know that my concerns are being considered in real time. 

It’s not perfect, but it’s a much better way to work.

  • What are the challenges being faced in the current level of application?

BIM has become a separate discipline.  Perhaps this was inevitable, but it’s ironic that a concept that aims to break down the barriers to collaboration has itself become an insulated bubble to some extent. 

The designers and decision makers who should be using BIM to connect with each other in more dynamic and interactive ways are often put off by the jargon and the complexity of the tools.  They may be too busy to learn new software packages, and take the easy way out by offloading the BIM deliverables to a specialist team or, worse, outsourcing to a cut-price operation on another continent.

Building is a team sport. We have seen how digital connectivity can transform communications.  Think of Wikipedia, Google Earth, WhatsApp, GoFundMe.  Our industry can and will be connected in ways we can scarcely imagine at present.  But we have to make the BIM ecosystem much more welcoming and user-friendly. 

There is so much knowledge and experience out there.  BIM should be the golden thread, linking it all together.

  • Are stakeholders benefitting viz. the cost in software, hardware, and the high cost of staffing?

We really have to think about the long game.  BIM is a work in progress.

Yes, there are many benefits which we can realise immediately, and there is no way I will ever go back to using 2d CAD for any purpose.  But the biggest pay-offs are yet to come.  We have seen this time and again in the digital space.  Technologies take time to mature and they reimagine themselves multiple times.  The goal is much more rapid and fluid information that flows between all stakeholders in construction projects.  Everyone is using digital tools and processes to some extent these days.  The challenge we face is to figure out how to connect them together, robustly and securely.

Can you afford to invest in the future?  Can you afford not to?

  • Will better collaboration between the client-contractor-consultant-FM to maximise BIM benefits?

This question highlights the life-cycle issue.

We certainly need to widen the circle, to bring more people into the BIM fold. I think we have tapped maybe 10% of the potential.  The schematic and detailed design phases of projects have developed quite effective digital processes, although some disciplines are still trapped in CAD world.  Other phases of the life-cycle are less advanced perhaps, but progress is being made.  In my view, the hard problem of BIM is how to bridge the transitions between phases in a seamless way.  Worthy attempts have been made, but I think we can do better.  Let’s keep working on it and sharing our ideas and experiences.

One word of caution.  We have all seen that there is an upside and a downside to the digital era.  You can share you views with the whole world from a device that fits in your pocket.  But you can also get attacked by Twitter trolls and find your reputation in tatters for a chance remark.  We should be prepared to pause from time to time and rethink our approach to building collaboration platforms.

  • Is there a need for more robust technology solutions or are there better methods to using BIM more efficiently?

It’s a journey. My life splits quite neatly into two halves.  Let’s call them BC & AD. (Before Computers and After Digital)  

I first started using computers in the mid-80s on a machine called the BBC Micro.  I was working in education and using Word Processing and Spreadsheets.  There were no hard drives, we used 360K floppy disks and daisy wheel printers.  By the late 80s I was doing commercial architecture using IBM compatibles with DOS and AutoCAD.  15 years ago I started using Revit, but I had become aware of the BIM concept some years earlier and dabbled with early versions of ArchiCAD.

In recent years digital tools for construction have diversified immensely. Laser scanning, drones, generative design, robotics, augmented reality. These are all part of the digital sphere, and BIM has become a handy label to cover the interactions between all these tools.

So yes we are expecting to see more robust tool kits, but we have to remain nimble and adaptive. Ultimately humans are the most stable and robust element in the mix.

  • Is it time for software vendors to focus on conducting training and development along with the industry, so that BIM can be a solution?

Digital transformation is an opportunity. Can we grasp that and shape it to our needs?

Expecting software companies to hand us solutions on a plate is surely too static a vision. BIM is a moving target. We should be alert to new possibilities and actively seeking ways to connect our activities. How does collaboration take place? Could that be enhanced digitally? Sometimes a WhatsApp group might do the job, or perhaps you could commission an Android app that would give product reps around the world a place to connect with consultants and contractors, record issues, issue project proposals so that they can be tracked and commented on.

The evolution of social media over the past decade or so has surely taught us that we can’t just sit by passively and expect Big Tech to deliver a perfect world.  We need to think critically about the kind of digital future we would like to see in our industry, to engage actively in the discussion and try out new ideas.

Perhaps the future of BIM will be crowd sourced.  Why not?

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