The UK Infrastructure & Projects Authority estimates that the UK architecture, engineering and construction sector employs around three million people (almost 10% of the working population), contributing around £90 billion to the economy – about 7% of the UK’s GDP. It is estimated that worldwide construction output will reach £9.5 trillion (US$12 trillion) by 2025, so we’re talking big money. Numerous studies have identified that the construction industry is inefficient, and that its short-term perspective hampers both innovation and technical development. Dutch architect Ben van Berkel sums it up saying that “while we are all using iPhones, construction is still in the Walkman phase” with many AEC professionals using hand-drawn plans often “riddled with errors”. Big money and inefficiency are not a good combination. I’ve heard it said that “we’ve always done it this way” is the most expensive sentence in construction: I think that’s true in almost any industry.
The 2018 Quality in Construction conference in London identified a number of reasons why things go wrong with buildings during design and construction, including
- late design changes
- poorly communicated design information
- incorrect design information
- poor interface management
Information professionals already know that if information is structured in a way that makes it easy to find, interpret and reuse, this reduces waste and errors as well as improving the clarity. In construction, that clarity is of cost, delivery and the handover of information for reuse during the operation and maintenance of the asset (which is construction speak for “building”).
This is increasingly managed through designing in what’s known as “a BIM environment”. BIM stands for Building Information Management (or Building Information Modelling). So what is BIM?
Let’s take some Lego as an example. If we ignore the fact that it’s Lego for a moment and think of them as traditional building materials and components such as roof tiles, doors, windows, bricks and so on and remember that they’re all standard sizes and weights, we know what materials were used in the manufacture (meaning we know how sustainable the component is, how suitable it is for various applications, which regulations it complies with and whether it’s recyclable, for example).
All this means we know everything about that long blue brick, the big fat red brick, the small yellow brick, the little green one and even that black L-shaped one propped up there on the right, which helps us know how and when each one can and should be used. While the software used to design this way is relatively new, in real life, the methodologies behind BIM are nothing new:
- In 1912, it became necessary to replace the crumbling Caen stone façade on Buckingham Palace’s East (Front) Wing. The contractors completed the works in 13 weeks through the use of formalised information sharing between design and construction disciplines and off-site fabrication
- A few years later, New York’s Empire State Building, opened in May 1931 fewer than two years after building started due in part to “a team-design approach that involved the collaboration of the architects, owners, builders, and engineers in planning and problem-solving, and the organizational genius of the general contractors”
In both these cases, believe it or not, this approach was revolutionary.
10 years ago when I joined the firm I work for now, I assumed architects did everything (some will tell you they still do). However, architects work alongside mechanical and electrical engineers, public health specialists (who look after plumbing and pipes), structural engineers, façade specialists, interior designers… the list goes on. Often these disciplines are all from different organisations and have different ideas about whatever it is they are designing. And where things get really complicated is getting all those disciplines to work together and essentially design the same building – it’s harder than it sounds. For a start, it’s imperative that they all share their information so they end up designing the same building. BIM is designed to standardise how these disciplines share their information.
Of course if everyone’s collaborating, it’s also imperative that everything’s called the same thing. For example, some architects call big runs of windows “fenestrations” and in the construction industry those dealing with electrical, mechanical and air conditioning units etc are known as “MEP engineers” (it stands for “mechanical, electrical and plumbing” or “mechanical, electrical and public health” or even “mechanical, electrical and piping”, depending on who you talk to — even MEP engineers don’t all agree on what “MEP” stands for). And then there’s the question of whether the main entrance is on the ground floor, the first floor or level one. And have you noticed that many buildings in the US often don’t have a 13th floor? The whole project needs to agree on all this and other things such as how to identify different items in both virtual models and traditional drawings. Items like cable types – CAT6 and internet cabling, power cables, telephone cabling, speaker and public address cables or what each type of pipe is intended for – is it gas, fresh air, waste water, drinking water, rainwater… Even which way the water or gas flows within the pipes is important. Again, the list is endless.
Next time: Part Two — Families, Budgets, Instructions and Models
 Infrastructure & Projects Authority, 2016. Government Construction Strategy 2016-20, London: HMSO
 Esticast, 2017. Building Information Modeling Market By Solution (Software, Services), Deployment Model (On-premises, Cloud) & By Application Areas (Commercial, Residential, Industrial, Infrastructure, Institutional), Industry trends, Estimation & Forecast, 2015 – 2024, Elizabeth, NJ: Esticast Research & Consulting
 Economist reporter, 2017. Least Improved. The Economist, 424 (9054), pp. 55-56
 Willis, C., 1998. Building the Empire State. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company