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Digital collaboration needs more talk, less tech

Why the need for closer collaboration be the biggest stumbling block, argues Anne Kemp.

In my introduction to the UK BIM Alliance report, BIM in the UK: Past, Present & Future, I ask: “If BIM is about collaborative working, managing information and 3D geometry, which bit is causing the problems?”

If the technology takes care of the 3D part and there are processes and tools to manage information, then is the concept of working closer together with partners and suppliers the real challenge?

The more I get involved in BIM, the more I believe this to be the case. You may be asking why the country needs another BIM group, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s still much work to be done. This is especially the case now that the government wants to make BIM Level 2 ‘business as usual’ by 2020 across the private, as well as the public sector.

Collaboration not fragmentation

The UK BIM Alliance brings together a group of around 50 organisations and BIM promoters, such as the BIM4 Group and BIM Regions, with the aim of maintaining momentum on Level 2. The UK BIM Task Group, re-forming as Digital Built Britain, is largely focused on defining Level 3.

Like a microcosm of the industry, we are aiming for collaboration rather than fragmentation. We are also aspiring to honest and unbiased discussion, as we see this as the only way we can get to the bottom of the reluctance of some parts of the industry to adopt BIM.

Already there are shouts and cries for help. For example, those working at the front end of the design/build/operate cycle say that clients, owners and facilities managers are either not aware of BIM or simply don’t care about it – and don’t even look at the building model.

Architects and engineers would like more input from them, particularly around the issue of how much data the model should hold, what they will find useful and what is superfluous.

They also see current procurement processes as a barrier, making it difficult for a client to ‘buy’ a collaborative approach. Often clients don’t decide who will carry out the later construction and final management of the building until way downstream, leaving it too late for the M&E team, for example, to have any influence on the design.

Overly techy

Yet, from the client and FM’s point of view, it’s all too technical. They want to know the business case, and – if there are cost savings involved – why the fees are still high. Yet the government soft landings initiative made it clear that FMs should be part of the whole BIM transformation. So how can this situation be resolved?

For a start we must challenge the many damaging assumptions on both sides. For example, there’s much detailed BIM talk by evangelists that most people, including FMs, find too technical. FMs are concerned by their own ‘proptech’ issues, not least the huge impact of smart buildings and the internet of things.

Crucially, most owners and FMs are still sceptical about standards and formats such as CoBIE and there is minimal evidence of take-up at handover stage. So there needs to be much more collaboration around how it will be implemented. In other words there is often too much emphasis on the technical side and creating very complex building standards and not enough on the value proposition.

Intellectual property fgears

There is also concern about sharing intellectual property, especially in the supply chain and among manufacturers of building products. The open systems culture adopted by some software vendors where code is made available for all is an alien concept here, and many feel that giving away the dimensions and other properties of their product will only lead to copies and a dilution of their profits.

However, these quibbles are all relatively minor compared to the benefits that can be enjoyed – not least better-quality, sustainable buildings achieved with fewer risks.

I list them only to show that we do intend to be an open and honest forum, where problems can be discussed and hopefully solved – and also that there is still work to be done. But we can only be productive if all professionals show respect for everyone’s contribution and an understanding of their individual professional challenges.

Anne Kemp is chair of the UK BIM Alliance and a director of BIM at Atkins

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