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BIM's the word...

Are you geared up for Building Information Modelling? Do you even know what it is? Andrew Brister looks at how BIM works and explains why you need to get involved
Partnering, integrated teams, project bank accounts... the construction industry is never short of Eureka moments that promise to change working practices forever. Such initiatives strive for greater productivity, risk management, sustainability, reduced project costs and improved margins for all. Some have legs and some don't, but there is a definite buzz about the latest contender. Step forward BIM, or Building Information Modelling, the new saviour of construction.

It's easy to be cynical but there is quite a momentum behind BIM. Last year's Government Construction Strategy Report stated that all suppliers that wish to bid for public sector building contracts must use BIM tools and techniques from 2016. Indeed, UK Government chief construction advisor Paul Morrell told construction professionals to adopt BIM or be 'Betamaxed out'.

Now, the coalition is pushing things along by trialling BIM on four projects to be developed by the Ministry of Justice. The first is the 180-cell extension at Cookham Prison, which went out to tender at the end of February, and will be followed by work at two other prisons and a law court.

Above left: Ian Elmer, director of customer services at Amtech. Right: Tim Cole, executive vice president, strategy at Causeway

So what exactly is it? Building Information Modelling is a process involving the generation and management of a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility. The resulting building information model becomes a shared knowledge resource to support decision-making about a facility from earliest conceptual stages, through design and construction, then through its operational life before its eventual demolition.

Level 2 is described as fully collaborative 3D BIM, with all project and asset information, documentation and data being electronic. This is the level at which the Government expects industry to engage with the public sector by 2016. The future will see modelling of time (4D) and costs (5D). There are even predictions of so-called 'xD', bringing in energy modelling and sustainable data as well as thermal and acoustic information.

'In reality, BIM is nothing new,' points out Ant Wilson, a director at building services consultancy AECOM. '3D modelling has been around since the 1970s and we always push its use. Provided it is used correctly and collaboratively, it can help save money, minimise delays and ensure a building is commissioned correctly.'

BIM is not a product
'The main principle to understand is that BIM is not a product,' explains Ian Elmer, director of customer services at building services software supplier Amtech. 'Furthermore, BIM goes beyond being simply a 3D alternative to traditional 2D CAD drawings. Such 3D models have been around for many years but remain static after the design phase. What makes BIM different is that the model continues to evolve through the construction of the building, so that any design changes are updated in the model. Post-handover, the model passes to the building owner and is updated every time a change is made, or maintenance is carried out, through the life of the building.'

There is no doubt that BIM can bring massive improvements to the m&e project cycle in terms of predicting potential services clashes during the installation phase, as well as assisting in the life-cycle management of building services equipment.

More than a 3D model
'BIM for m&e is certainly a lot more than just a 3-D model,' says Tim Cole, executive vice president, strategy at Causeway Technologies. 'The breadth of information gathered during the design and build phases can be linked to each item and accessed when needed in a timely manner.

The 3D model itself also offers benefits, such as the ability to quickly locate m&e services which have quick links to supporting information and documents. And then, where changes are made, these can be reported back into the model so the current version remains exactly that.'

Mr Cole thinks that BIM can therefore provide the foundation for efficient m&e operation as well as the initial design and build. 'The list of benefits is probably open ended,' he says. 'Improved maintenance, less time spent searching for the information about each item, fewer abortive call out visits by maintenance teams and the effective operation of the m&e systems throughout their life-span. Overall, the impact of BIM to the downstream m&e sector should be to improve the quality, reduce the cost and improve service performance.'

Despite the benefits, it's a big ask for building services contractors to make the necessary investment in BIM tools in the current climate when few clients are yet to stipulate its use. 'The m&e industry cannot afford to be complacent and assume that BIM technology will not reach this far down the supply chain,' says Mr Elmer. 'It is already on its way and, while it may be a few years before working with BIM becomes an everyday occurrence, any decisions made now will influence how companies can
make best use of it.'
Any choices made regarding investment in software need to reflect the fact that m&e specifiers and installers are increasingly likely to get involved in BIM for new projects, refurbishments and maintenance/certification.

'There will be a cost involved, and not just in terms of the modelling tools themselves but in the time that needs to be invested,' says Eddie Picton of consultant ZBP. 'If the Government is going to enforce its use, then perhaps there should be some kind of positive incentive to make that investment.'

Integrated solutions
Software developers are aware of the momentum around BIM and are already developing integrated solutions encompassing design, certification, estimating, job costing and accounting, and service and maintenance.

These systems will be able to share information with each other as well as other systems. Crucially, such integrated software systems will be able to access a central database of product and pricing information that will facilitate interaction with BIM through their life. Make sure you are up to speed with developments or risk getting left behind.

25 May 2012

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