BIM or Bust?

BIM seems here to stay but for many sub contractors and smaller operators in the industry its impact has created challenges. Here Roy Burns, Managing Director of light gauge steel framing manufacturer Metsec, identifies the pressures and explores how to overcome them.


Two thirds of structural engineering businesses think that the government’s stance on Building Information Modelling (BIM) makes it harder for them to win work. Three quarters believe it presents them with major cost challenges1. However, BIM is a vital capability and with the right resources it can open up new opportunities since the government has mandated all its construction projects must use Level 3 BIM by 2016.

The government’s decision to implement BIM on all projects is part of its overriding aim to cut construction procurement costs by 20%. There is no doubt that the culture of collaboration and accuracy that the transparency of BIM affords help to reduce the time and cost of projects.

Early examples of collaborative working, from a three-dimensional building model, have paved the way towards BIM. Metsec’s first-hand experience comes from projects such as the construction of Bluewater Park retail centre. However, BIM takes this way of working several steps further and its impact will significantly shift the culture of construction in the UK.

In its simplest form BIM enables electronic data sharing with the aim of improving efficiency. It also ensures complete and accurate scheduling is available to everyone, right through to the end of the project. So transparency of data, in an accessible spreadsheet for example, is the first step towards BIM. However this data is even more visible when it is linked to a model of the building. This is achieved with relevant software, which is BIM compatible and allows users to export and import data in a shared file format.

It uses parametric drawings that hold huge amounts of information. This sets a BIM approach apart from more traditional building design, specification and construction modus operandi. In fact, with no limit to the amount of information a building model can hold, BIM is driving new efficiencies into the building design, system specification, scheduling and construction programming processes.

BIM fosters a ‘right first time’ ethos, by removing much of the risk of human error, taking the time and stress out of scheduling for everyone involved. This in turn fosters an approach that ensures all parties work towards a shared goal: best value and optimum sustainability for the life of the building. Equally, for specialists such as structural steel installers, working with architects and structural engineers, a collaborative way of working from a live model takes any uncertainty out of the process because the information is readily accessible to everyone. This means the lead architect can see what the engineers are doing and in turn the model highlights potential clashes or conflicts within a design, removing the risk of these going undetected until the later stages or even when a project is onsite.

One of the main advantages of this integrated and ‘joined up’ way of working is that specifiers and contractors can see how whole hosts of systems work together for the holistic success of the building design. So for example a structural steel framing system can be carefully dovetailed to work coherently with an external façade. The benefit to everyone involved is that the BIM model contains not only the 3D building plan, but also an unrivalled depth of information within this. The engineer and specialist contractors can interrogate dimensions and thermal performance data of individual components, even colour specifications for building finishes. 6D BIM contains not only technical detailing, costs and timescales, but it also harnesses maintenance and operability for the life of the building. It is replacing the traditional O&M manual for the end client, with a set of exported data in the form of Construction Operation Building Information Exchange (COBie) that can be used through the life of the building.

With so much involved it is easy to see why the consensus among SMEs is that BIM presents a cost challenge and obstacle to winning work. While the depth of information and true collaboration it offers are real benefits, for smaller specialist contractors – structural framing and steelwork contractors among them – there can be challenges in ensuring technical capabilities meet the expectations of main contractors and end clients.

The government’s five-year plan is intended to give contractors and their sub contractors time to gear up and embrace this new non-adversarial approach to working. Theoretically those who have everything in place will ensure they are eligible for public sector and infrastructure schemes. This is where a system supplier with the technology in place can provide invaluable support extending all the way through the supply chain. By working with a supplier that can deliver the data needed within the contractor’s BIM model, the sub contractor is able to collaborate in the spirit of BIM.

Into the future BIM looks set to stay. Manchester City Council has already pioneered its use across all its projects. If others like it follow suit then contractors will have no choice but to gear up for BIM or risk losing out on projects. Leaning on the expertise and technical know-how of a supplier that can design the required elements in both 2D and 3D environments will alleviate the pressure for the specialist contractor. In fact a BIM compliant supplier can share design information with the construction team and main contractor to help ensure the end client receives optimum performance, quality and value from the project.

1. Institution of Structural Engineers BIM Survey 2013

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