Building Information Modelling (BIM) - the digital construction revolution

Let’s Talk Specification talks to Dr Stephen Hamil, Director of Research and Innovation with NBS, about the key role Building Information Modelling (BIM) is having in shaping the way our future buildings will be developed.

Q: Can you give a general overview of NBS and its role in bringing together those involved in the specification process?

A: NBS was launched in 1973 to assist those charged with writing specification documents used by building professionals to describe the materials, standards and workmanship of a UK construction project. Over the years we have developed and produced NBS products which support the built environment, effectively these have become the templates for specification that are used during a project’s lifetime. Our aim has always been to enable collaboration for all those involved in a project to ensure a standardisation of information using those templates. In more recent times these templates have become digitised and in 2012, NBS launched the National BIM Library, a library of generic and proprietary BIM objects created to the NBS BIM Object Standard. We have now developed industry standard, connected tools so that anyone can access the information they need, at any time. Along with increasing collaboration this can also help to improve transparency in the specification process.

Q: How would you characterise the progress of BIM so far?

A: There was a lot of excitement surrounding BIM when it was first launched with people purely seeing it as a 3D modelling tool that architects and engineers could use to more efficiently produce drawings during the design stage. But in the last two or three years, particularly around the Government’s BIM Level 2 deadline, the wider opportunities and benefits of BIM have become more widely recognised. BIM is now understood to be so much more than a 3D design tool. We are now seeing BIM used as  the process for exchanging information and sharing knowledge. I think the way we are using BIM in the UK is so far ahead of how people are using it in other countries around the world.

Q: Do you regard BIM as a key part of a wider digital construction revolution that is having a positive impact on the construction industry?

A: The growing awareness of what BIM can do has a significant impact on the construction industry. Using BIM as more than a 3D tool means those involved in particular projects can access accurate information as regards to costs, sustainability and efficiency more easily and also share that information with others to ensure everyone is aware of what is happening and can keep on top of any issues and challenges. Digitalisation is a key enabler for the industry and has helped increase collaboration and transparency. It also helps maintain high quality standards. There will always be resistance to change, but when you can generate positive user experiences then people will be more willing to change the way they work. We have seen it in so many other aspects of our life, such as the way we use money and the digitising of our banking system. When new technologies and processes are shown to work then people will change and when they find they can access high quality information at their fingertips by using BIM then they will be more willing to use it.

Q: Like all new formats, BIM has experienced teething problems and some scepticism. Have these been overcome?

A: There has been a positive shift and I think it is developments such as the Level-2 standards published by BSI that have helped. Everyone has different ideas of how something should work or how they can use it, but having a defined understanding is important and has helped to improve the progress of BIM in the last two or three years. Having access to free-to-use tools like the NBS National BIM Library and the NBS BIM Toolkit has also been important as it shows that the fundamental principles are the same. The reasons why we started developing specification templates for the industry 40 years ago are still relevant to the work we are doing today – the difference is we were using typewriters and the tools of the age back in the 1970s and now we are using the digital tools available to us and putting that information out for everyone to use.

Q: Collaboration is one of the major benefits of BIM – how has this changed the way we work and are there still obstacles to be overcome in improving collaboration?

A: The situation we want to avoid and bring an end to is when the specification is finalised and shared at the last possible minute. BIM and the digitising of the industry is allowing us to work more collaboratively from the earliest design and construction stages of a project, sharing information to all relevant parties from the outset so that everyone feels part of the project from the start. Sharing information and sharing the knowledge we have is a key part of this digital approach. From the biggest companies with the biggest resources available, to the smallest of start-ups, there is the same vision. BIM and the digital approach to the construction process will enable this collaboration and availability of data.

Q: Does BIM have a crucial role to play in helping to elevate specification as a top priority in any development?

A: In the last two years there have been a number of major reports published, including our own research that identifies digital as the most significant change that needs to take place within the construction sector. This research into specification, particularly what specifiers want from product manufacturers, has highlighted the importance of digital information, as did our recent Contracts and Law Report. But just this month the Government published a new Construction Sector Deal and a key part of that is encouraging greater use of digital information and BIM within the industry. The importance lies in the clarity and transparency it provides, it helps to generate an audit trail that is easily available for everyone to access. It isn’t written down on a piece of paper that gets lost or discarded along the way and ultimately forgotten. It is available at all times and has the potential to benefit everyone involved in the project. For example, it allows a manufacturer to highlight the whole project lifecycle of a particular product from earliest research and development through to testing and on to installation to be monitored. Crucially, by increasing the digital approach we will also be able to increase transparency of the specification process to show, for example, if a product was substituted, why it was changed and who made the decision. That digital record becomes incredibly valuable and important.

Q: What are the next major milestones on the BIM path?

A: The milestones we can expect to see will increase the role of digital tools within the industry. BIM will be a big part of this and the next important stage for BIM is likely to be further standardisation. As part of that we will also see greater use of data structures, or data dictionaries as some call them, which are already being used on projects now and are improving efficiency and access to information. There are also the different standards being adopted for issue such as security and GIS which allows data to be captured, mapped, managed, visualised and interrogated more effectively. The Internet of Things will play a big role in the future of the industry as we begin to understand the opportunities provided. As our knowledge of these changes improves, so we can start to see an impact on the industry.

Q: NBS has been publishing major surveys in recent years that are helping set important industry benchmarks, what are the next steps for the organisation itself?

A: Our number one priority is to meet the needs of our existing customers and to work with them to develop the functionality that they need. To do this, we spend a lot of time talking with our customers, listening to what they need and how they work and developing products and services to help them accordingly. Over and above this, we will take what we have developed so successfully for the UK market and deliver it globally in new countries. I do believe we set very high standards in this country and have high quality products and services which can be of benefit around the world. We are already serving customers in countries such as Canada and Australia and this will grow further in the future. NBS products and services are already used to some extent on almost every major project in the UK, we want that to include major projects around the world. We will move our products to the Cloud and take advantage of emerging technologies to develop powerfully connected knowledge, products and services around the world.

Find out more about the NBS solutions for a BIM workflow here

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