BIM - Thinking Beyond the Building

Adrian Malone
Building Information Modelling concerns more than just buildings…and more than information.

The ‘B’ in Building Information Modelling (BIM) suggests to the uninitiated that BIM is all about buildings, yet this is far from the truth. BIM can be used for parts of buildings, whole buildings, collections of buildings, and even where there are no buildings at all (think infrastructure projects). The ‘B’ fits best if we think of ‘building’ as a process, rather than a physical product.

The concept of building as process, not product, helps us to engage with both the process and the inter-relationships underpinning construction projects. BIM brings powerful software tools, with supporting protocols emerging to co-ordinate and structure the information flows which happen during the building process. Error and rework can be reduced, allowing a more efficient process for ‘building through information modelling’ to emerge.

Just as the ‘B’ is about more than buildings, the ‘I’ in BIM is about more than co-ordinated information.

Just as the ‘B’ is about more than buildings, the ‘I’ in BIM is about more than co-ordinated information. Applied correctly, information co-ordination frees the multi-disciplinary team from seeking, clarifying and updating information, giving more time for value-adding critical thought.

There is a risk that BIM software tools will be adopted without the behaviours required to use the tools appropriately. If old behaviours drive new software, there may be some efficiencies, but these fall short of the potential. This is important because whilst information is at the centre of BIM, people remain at the heart of the construction process.

Early BIM projects gained advantage from better information co-ordination, often through discussion at project level to agree how the team would work together – a project level BIM protocol. As we move from a small number of individual BIM projects towards wholesale adoption, the need to agree working principles on a project by project level will become a drag on efficiency. Standardised approaches, such as the Construction Industry Council‘s (CIC) recently published BIM protocol, will become increasingly important.

Standardisation of information protocols will prove challenging, and aligning project team behaviours even more so.

Standardisation of information protocols will prove challenging, and aligning project team behaviours even more so. A common transformational change error is to build tools and assume that behaviours and culture will follow. Standardising practices drawn from leading edge projects and mandating these (whether explicitly or implicitly) may not be sufficient.

Embedding BIM as the norm for UK construction projects requires a focus on people as well as software and information. It requires a real appreciation that building is a social process, not just an output. This does not take away the importance of shared and well structured information. Instead it requires that this information is available not only in machine readable, but also people readable form. Above all the model must be something we talk about, as well as something we communicate information through.

A key success factor will be the extent to which we help individuals discover their own connection with the model, both personally and in their project team role. Industry commentary about how to adopt BIM must include storytelling, not just about how the technology was adopted, but also about how people worked together differently to create the change.

The Knowledge Management (KM) discipline has provided a view on these challenges for the last 20 years. KM itself has undergone a transformation away from information management and librarianship, towards working with knowledge as a social process in which technology plays an important role. A useful concept to borrow from KM is that of knowledge stocks and knowledge flows. BIM can be both a stock – for example a COBIE data drop – and also a flow – for example when the model is used to acquire rich stakeholder feedback on the design. Getting knowledge to flow is about creating the right environment, where individual contributions are acknowledged and there is trust.

A key success factor will be the extent to which we help individuals discover their own connection with the model, both personally and in their project team role.

BIM is one element of a far wider construction strategy defined by the UK government. During early adoption, BIM is helping to create trust by prompting project teams to talk about how they will work together. As BIM becomes more generally adopted these conversations are likely to become shorter, less frequent and more shallow. KM provides a lens through which the importance of the wider construction strategy can be understood. Integrated project insurance is important in enabling collaborative behaviours which engender trust. Soft Landings are important in connecting end users’ needs back to the project origins, weaving the golden thread which creates a shared sense of purpose.

Adopting BIM on an industrial level risks retaining information co-ordination improvements, while potentially losing behavioural change which facilitates value-adding collaboration. The challenge is one of complexity – patterns of behaviour achieved on a small scale do not always replicate as expected to the large scale. These challenges are not new - think of the Latham and Egan reports. Collaboration should remain at the core of BIM and, as standards and protocols play an increasingly important role on BIM projects, it is vital that these are designed and enacted to support interoperability across multi-disciplinary project teams.

Faithful+Gould is using BIM to support clients on projects across the UK and internationally, and also strategically to support the continual improvement of our business and service delivery models. As part of the Atkins Group we are actively working within multi-disciplinary teams, both internally and with supply chain partners, to help realise the potential of BIM for clients.