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The Smartest Tool in the Shed
By Paul Wilkinson
August 21, 2016
Technology has helped make international communication easier, quicker, and cheaper. As a UK-based technology writer, for example, I have seen a huge change over the past 20 years in how I interact with friends and colleagues in the US and other countries. Instant messaging, Internet telephony, and online meetings have transformed what used to be achieved by laborious and asynchronous email exchanges and expensive telephone calls.
However, technology has not necessarily transformed the quality of collaboration relating to construction. We can now share stuff via social media in an instant, and upload content to various cloud-based services, but technological change also required changes to many of our organizational processes and structures––a rough rule of thumb is that “successful collaboration is 20% technology, and 80% people and processes”––and some serious silos still remain.
For the past five years, the UK Government has been driving the adoption of Building Information Modeling (BIM) as a catalyst for collaboration and to help improve the productivity and competitiveness of a deeply conservative and fragmented construction industry. Attend just about any BIM conference or meeting (hardly a week goes by without two or three!) and you will hear lots about BIM authoring tools, common data environments, and COBie, IFCs, and other emerging standards. And there will be deep discussions about employer’s information requirements (EIRs), BIM execution plans, object libraries, model federation, clash detection, and other technology-driven processes. Much of this was the result of a construction industry rush to achieve the first mandatory BIM target: Level 2 BIM required “fully collaborative 3D BIM (with all project and asset information, documentation, and data being electronic) as a minimum,” by April 2016.
But despite all the hot air expended since 2011, the push to digitize large parts of the construction industry has not been accompanied by a concerted push to integrate with the information needs of a key group of stakeholders: the owners and operators of built assets.
Client organizations have not been ignored in the UK BIM push. The Government Soft Landings philosophy encourages client facilities managers to be involved from a project’s inception in helping to define EIRs and asset information management (AIM) needs. And a proposed standard (PAS 1192 part 3) covering information management in the operational phase was published in March 2014.
However, there is some disquiet in the facilities management community about the alleged benefits of BIM, and much of this is due to the limited collaboration that has occurred between construction and facilities management. With the majority of a typical building’s costs incurred during its operational life, early design and construction decisions can have a profound impact, but the cultural divide between those involved in construction (CapEx) and those involved in whole-life operation and management (OpEx) of built assets remains.
Perhaps understandably, designers, contractors, subcontractors, suppliers, and manufacturers have focused on applying BIM to their detailed processes of planning, design, construction, commissioning, and handover. The constructors are thus increasingly adept at sharing data with each other for the relatively short duration of asset delivery. But there has been relatively little dialogue with the people who will receive the resulting built assets and the related digital models as well as the need to manage these for decades to come.
This, unfortunately, hampers the all-important feedback loops from asset operation and maintenance and from end-users that can be used to help create better briefs for future projects.
The measurable performance of a physical building can be assessed alongside the business performance and wellbeing of people working in a building––Deloitte’s ‘smart’ Edge Building in Amsterdam, for example, allows employees to control temperature, light levels, and even track their own energy use. And the building management system data and app data can be accessed and used by Deloitte’s operations teams to boost its understanding of current and future office working environments.
Future facilities managers will be re-using as-built information and combining it with real time sources of information, including sensors (the ‘Internet of Things’), apps, and linked data from internal business systems and the Internet (the semantic web). Such ‘Big Data’ approaches will require existing silos to be eroded and relevant data to flow seamlessly between everyone involved–– and not just throughout the lifecycle of a single built asset, but across the lifecycles of entire asset portfolios.
When owners and operators can see how the whole-life costs of their build assets affect their organization's’ business performance and their employees’ health and productivity, they will become as demanding about creation and maintenance of their digital assets as they are about their physical buildings.
For this to happen, the current construction industry will need to engage more deeply with the facilities management community and also understand more about its clients’ business needs and the associated whole-life costs of its assets. Technology may be a catalyst for change, but much closer collaboration and integration is vital if construction businesses truly want to delight their building owner-operator customers.
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