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The Smartest Tool in the Shed
By Paul Wilkinson
August 28, 2017
Building Information Modeling (BIM) is more than just adoption of digital modeling technologies for design and construction. Its successful adoption also requires deep changes to how clients procure their projects, and new professional roles and responsibilities. These are significant steps, and, in an industry long prone to inertia, they may deter many from even starting. What could accelerate US construction industry adoption of BIM?
Wide adoption of BIM by US owners and operators is not yet as advanced as in other markets, such as Scandinavia, the UK, or pockets of southeast Asia. However, the construction sectors in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark are also relatively small (2016 construction output was $68bn, $54bn, $36bn, and €29bn respectively) – and they have larger and stronger public client organizations helping drive standardization and innovation. Of the three largest European Union economies, the first to start pushing BIM adoption was the UK (construction output: $229bn). It started more than six years ago, since then Germany and France have started their own programmes. To put these figures into context, total EU construction industry output in 2016 was $1447bn, comparable to the US’s $1239bn.
The U.K. Experience
In 2011, the UK Government established a BIM Task Group and set the nation’s construction industry an ambitious target: all projects worth over £5m (then around US$8m) procured by central government departments had to be delivered using BIM ‘Level 2’ by April 2016.
Many private sector owner/operators also worked to the same timetable. Property developers, rail transit operators, utility providers, retailers, and financial institutions – and all their respective supply chains – started learning about BIM, contributing to the development of processes, standards, and technologies, and working in data-driven rather than paper-driven ways.
Significant cost savings were achieved: by 2015, the UK government was claiming that core central government departments had saved £855m (around $1340m) on an expenditure of £3.6bn ($5.6bn) – around 23.6% – through a range of measures including BIM. There were also correspondingly high levels of BIM adoption across consultants, contractors, manufacturers, and suppliers working on government projects.
However, in a highly fragmented industry, BIM adoption is by no means universal (read the 2017 NBS National BIM Report, for example). Many organizations – particularly among the small and medium-sized businesses that make up the bulk of the sector (as in the US) – have yet to achieve BIM ‘Level 1’, let alone ‘Level 2’. BIM Level 1 is not sophisticated: it requires project teams to produce information electronically and share it via an ‘extranet’ or other collaborative system. Yet many firms still work in ‘silos’, unable or unwilling to change existing working methods and be more collaborative (read the recent Jobsite post, Is BIM a Catalyst for Collaboration?).
Believing BIM-enabled working is now familiar to around half a million workers in an industry employing three million, the pan-industry UK BIM Alliance is now talking about encouraging Level 2 BIM adoption by around 2.5 million workers by 2020. Meanwhile, further transformation of the upper echelons of UK industry in line with the 2015 Digital Built Britain strategy, so-called ‘Level 3’, will continue in parallel. This seeks to consolidate “the UK’s position as a world leader in these sectors, … to make fully computerised construction the norm,” and, in a veiled threat to other countries, “support the export of these technologies and the services based on them … and seize a share of the $15 trillion global construction market forecast by 2025.”
Accelerating U.S. BIM Adoption
Even without any government mandate, the US industry has, according to some surveys, started to adopt BIM more widely. A 2014 McGraw Hill Construction Market Report showed BIM adoption by contractors in North America expanded from 17% in 2007 to more than 70% in 2012. However, the JBKnowledge 5th annual Construction Technology Survey of US industry practice (2016) noted:
“There remains a significant number of industry professionals that feel BIM is only beneficial on large complex projects. This perception is keeping many smaller companies from adopting BIM. As the BIM mandate in the UK takes hold and the US sees the results, owners will push more and more for BIM workflows in project scheduling, design, estimating and coordination.” (p.77-78, emphasis added)
Given that US federal and state administrations may be reluctant to mandate BIM as the UK did, perhaps the US can learn from the wider European experiences? In 2016, the European Commission asked the EU BIM Task Group to help align public sector use of BIM across the region. The group has developed a handbook, published in July 2017, covering procurement measures, technical considerations, cultural, and skills development, and the benefits case for BIM and ‘going digital’ for policy makers and public clients. It collates experiences from over 20 countries and presents a strategic framework to deliver robust and effective BIM programmes, identifying four key areas for action:
1. Establishing public leadership
2. Communicating vision and fostering communities
3. Developing a collaborative framework
4. Growing client and industry capability and capacity
The report highlights that technology-led change is likely to deliver the highest impact to the construction sector. With BIM forecast to unlock 15–25% savings to the global infrastructure market by 2025, even a modest 10% saving could mean an additional $145 billion would be generated for the $1.45 trillion European market, coupled with social and environmental gains. By adopting similar approaches, the US could achieve similar benefits, accelerating growth and enhancing the competitiveness of its construction sector.
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