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Why BIM need not threaten estimators

One of construction’s less glamorous roles is suddenly becoming more dynamic thanks to BIM.

Amid the progressive uptake of BIM in recent years, pessimists in the estimating profession have become increasingly gloomy about their future.

With 3D designs now linking to schedule and cost information – and bills of quantities drawn straight off the digital model – they see a threat to the estimator’s role.

But they may be mistaken.

“Some estimators think BIM will put them out of a job – but the reality is likely to be very different,” says Fred Mills, founder and director of consultant B1M.

Formerly a designer at Willmott Dixon and more recently a procurement manager at Osborne (which has a stake in B1M), he sees a more positive future.

A more effective role

“The estimator role won’t be replaced,” Mr Mills says. “No, they will use their time more effectively.

“At the moment, 90 per cent of their work is pricing and checking. BIM will free up their time. Rather than double-checking numbers, they will add value by working alongside designers and project managers.

“Typically, a designer will drop a drawing on an estimator’s desk, who comes back with the price in a couple of weeks.

“But in a 5D BIM environment, the estimators can provide cost advice or take off quantities much more quickly, and participate in data exchange from the start of the tender process.”

Mr Mills says Osborne is digitising the estimator role, and while 5D BIM won’t happen overnight, there are enormous benefits to be realised with the right professional development.

“Far from being replaced, BIM will enable estimators to collaborate better with project teams, reduce risk, and focus spend on a customer’s needs more effectively,” he says. “For the business, that ultimately means a higher-quality built asset.”

Some construction companies are already adding elements of 4D and 5D BIM to their work.

Interserve, which became the first contractor to achieve Level 2 certification earlier this year, is creating a huge BIM database which estimators now use to make the tender process slicker.

Chris Drew is the contractor’s head of estimating for strategic projects. He admits that the estimator stereotype is “introverted, quiet guys who sit in darkened rooms, working on their own”.

“It’s a catalyst for evolutionary changes to the estimator role, which will get rid of its silo mentality”

Chris Drew, Interserve

However, he regards BIM as “a catalyst for evolutionary changes to the estimator role, which will get rid of its silo mentality”.

“In a typical five-week tender period, there is less pressure because we can reference the information in the database from similar jobs we’ve priced in the past,” Mr Drew says. “This frees up estimators to provide analysis and offer value-added options.

“Let’s say the estimator is pricing windows. Using the BIM database, he can quickly cost that, but then look at the cost of different types of windows and their whole-life costs.

“He can provide an option for self-cleaning glass, which will cost more up front but less in the long term. We then pass that advice on to the client.”

The intelligent business link

In this way, Interserve sees the BIM database as providing an intelligent link between its construction and support services business.

National head of BIM Alex Jones explains: “If you take the windows example again, when they have been installed and the building is completed, we can monitor their performance through our FM business and learn how often they need to be replaced.

“We stop ourselves getting burned by an inferior product, and ultimately, remove a lot of risk from the business”

 Alex Jones, Interserve

“That information is then captured in our BIM database and can be referenced by estimators next time they are pricing a similar job.

“That way we stop ourselves getting burned by an inferior product and ultimately remove a lot of risk.”

But how easy will it be to move dyed-in-the-wool estimators towards this more dynamic, collaborative, BIM-led role?

At Laing O’Rourke, head of digital engineering James Eaton says he has been on a “six-year journey” to align estimating with the firm’s BIM modellers.

“I used to be a QS at Turner & Townsend, and at Laing O’Rourke I previously looked after estimators, cost planners and BIM modellers as one team – so I have had a good perspective on different priorities and concerns each role had,” he says.

“Six years ago, estimators would not use a digital model at all. There was a lot of distrust. So we put our BIM modellers through extensive training, so that they could provide information from the models in a structured format that estimators can work with.

“Now, the modellers work alongside the estimators. If the estimators want the model aligned with the client’s cost plan, that’s how the modellers will structure the information. Then the estimator can spend time adding value rather than rechecking everything.

“So through our BIM adoption programme we’ve ended up creating a slightly different role for estimators, but arguably a more interesting and influential one.”

Laing O’Rourke is providing BIM training for around 80 per cent of employees – roughly 5,000 worldwide.

A more appealing role

“The IT dimension definitely makes it more attractive to recruit for,” says Interserve’s Mr Drew. “We are pushing BIM as part of professional development for our estimators to make it a more enticing career option.

“Estimators will always need to have that finger on the market pulse – the human factor will remain important to check for spikes in materials and labour prices”

Chris Drew, Interserve

“There will be some aspects of the role that won’t change. Estimators will always need to have that finger on the market pulse – the human factor will remain important to check for spikes in materials and labour prices, which has obviously happened during the last 18 months.

“But in general, it will become a much more varied and collaborative role.”

Mr Eaton points out that there has always been a “massive” gap in the market for decent estimators, and that the age range is very top-heavy.

“We can’t carry on that way; we need to bring more people into the estimating community and make it a more exciting place to be, and we can use BIM to do that,” he says.

“The traditional silo roles in construction are changing massively. Estimators need to have a better understanding of how a project will be built, and designers need to understand how it is priced.

“The estimator role won’t go, but will blur at the interface, with more collaboration.”

So if the boundaries of the estimating function are blurring, does that mean BIM will redefine other traditional construction roles?

RICS land director James Kavanagh thinks UK and Irish construction is “out of step professionally” with the rest of the world – and that BIM will force it to change.

“Historically, the UK and Ireland has chopped up professions into little bits, whereas elsewhere estimating has been done by design engineers or architects or multidisciplinary teams,” he says.

“But with BIM, the professions need to work more together. And nobody owns BIM – not architects, engineers, planners. So a BIM manager can come from any background.

“In the US, RICS members are getting more diverse job roles because of BIM. It will happen here too.”

Software implications for estimating

As the approach to estimating changes, construction companies are starting to weigh up their IT options. Will design and estimating software become more compatible with each other? Will an all-singing, all-dancing IT package emerge that serves a contractor’s every need?

Interserve’s national BIM manager Alex Jones says: “In our business plan, the BIM roadmap includes 4D, 5D and 6D BIM. So we have to invest in the IT.

“But in a fast-changing sector, with which software do you plant your flag? A lot of BIM software will claim to provide quantity take-offs – but in our experience they rarely do.”

RICS director James Kavanagh observes: “BIM software is not estimating-friendly. Fundamentally it is design software.”

Laing O’Rourke head of digital engineering James Eaton sees little point in wedding a company to one package or trying to do a job with software intended for something else.

“Use the appropriate software for the role,” he says. “We use Candy for estimating, Primavera for planning. But what is key is interoperability.

“Over the last five years we have seen an improvement in data exchange and file formats. Hopefully the construction IT world is waking up to what contractors want: seamless interoperability.”

Duncan Reed, digital construction process manager at software firm Tekla, thinks that is a likely outcome.

“It is unlikely that companies who make design software will add estimating bolt-ons,” he says.

“They are more likely to make it easier to link to other products. Using the IFC (industry foundation classes) format, data can be taken out of BIM models and plugged it into estimating software, as is already happening.

“There will always need to be numerous different software elements to serve all the functions of a contractor. The key is ensuring interoperability between all these software packages, in the same way that apps work on a smartphone.”

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