BIM or Bust?

Communication is arguably the most important ingredient for success in any building project. With so many parties involved in delivering construction – from clients, to architects, contractors, structural engineers, planning authorities, M&E specialists, and building inspectors – it’s vital that the right information is delivered to the right people in the most appropriate way.

It’s something highlighted by research into the performance gap. Most completed buildings fail to deliver the energy efficiency and low environmental impact predicted by calculations at design stage. It is possible to replicate design intent (the Passivhaus standard repeatedly shows it can be achieved), but usually it doesn’t happen. Various reasons have been identified, but communication is usually key.

After all, any project starts with the expression of an idea. How that idea is developed by the many stakeholders along the way dictates if the end user gets to enjoy a building that is practical, affordable and comfortable. Whether it is interpreting the design brief, wanting to achieve low energy construction beyond Building Regulations, or specifying and purchasing the materials to build with, all parties need to be on a similar wavelength.

For communication to be effective means collaborating and sharing information effectively. BIM is at the forefront of this.

Product manufacturers understand the importance of helping specifiers and design professionals obtain up-to-date, accurate technical specifications and performance characteristics for their products. Otherwise, those professionals don’t have the confidence to work with the manufacturer.

Offering high quality BIM objects puts those specifications in the hands of not just the designer, but everybody who needs it. That includes the end user who, depending on the type of project, hopefully inherits a detailed model of the building that can be used to manage the building throughout its life, and even decommission it once that life is at an end.

In this new era of information sharing and communication, some things come as a bit of a shock. Like meeting architects who author their own BIM objects, or prefer to use generic objects over ones offered specifically by manufacturers.

Typically, this seems to occur on design and build contracts, where the architect refuses to commit to a particular product specification (“…or similar approved.”) because they expect or know that it will be changed further down the line. The decision is therefore made to save time by limiting the amount of information that goes into the model.

The model will still have to be updated at some stage, but the responsibility for that is likely to be passed around. Judging by the insight from those working in the BIM industry day-to-day, architects frequently consider BIM objects to contain too much information or excessive detail, especially for the early stages of a project. But, as we have identified, there are plenty of other parties involved in the delivery of a building and some of them need different information.

As long as a BIM object contains the information that the architect needs at that particular stage, surely the rest of the information can be retained for when it becomes relevant? Otherwise, don’t we risk BIM content providers producing multiple objects (perhaps graded for content based on the RIBA Plan of Work), which the architects and other consultants swap in and out as the job progresses?

That sounds like a lot more work for everyone involved – and a lot more expense.

It is also counter-productive to the benefits that BIM offers. Without information (or, Information), BIM is simply BM. If the goal is data-rich building models then it makes no sense for a common contractual arrangement to be able to negatively affect that goal. Using generic objects reduces the quality of information, at the same time as increasing risk by decreasing certainty about specifications and performance. Uncertainty throughout a project makes it less likely that the end result will match the envisioned design.

At a time when awareness of the performance gap is growing, it is clear that the best quality buildings are delivered when all of the stakeholders are involved from the outset (or as close as possible to it). Giving everybody time to collaborate and iron out potential major issues before detailed design and construction starts reduces the likelihood of compromises – such as structural changes or substitution of different/inferior products – having to be accepted, or worked around at greater cost, later.