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Does Australia Need a BIM Mandate?


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Building Information Modelling (BIM) is more than just adoption of digital modelling technologies for design and construction. Its successful adoption also requires fundamental changes to how organisations procure their projects (incluFding contracts and intellectual property provisions) and requires people to take on new roles and responsibilities. In an industry long prone to inertia, such challenges may deter many from even taking a first step. But what if Australia’s government and its largest clients start insisting upon BIM? Could a UK-style BIM mandate accelerate Australian construction industry adoption of BIM?

Once much of the construction sector adopted computer-aided design to replace manual drafting of 2D designs during the 1990s, it was only a matter of time before technologists started to look at 3D modelling, then adding scheduling information (time: 4D), cost data (5D) and whole life asset operational data. Champions identified that BIM could dramatically improve industry productivity and so drive down the whole life cost of delivering and operating built assets. Not surprisingly, this has sounded attractive to many major industry clients.

The UK Experience

In 2011 the UK Government––effectively the client for about 40 per cent of the UK construction industry’s workload––established a BIM Task Group and set the nation’s construction industry an ambitious target: all centrally procured government projects worth £5m or more had to be delivered using a defined level of adoption (‘BIM Level 2’) by April 2016. Various reviews and surveys suggest the mandate was largely successful, with most government departments and agencies adopting BIM to deliver major capital projects, and high levels of BIM adoption across the consultants, contractors and manufacturers and suppliers working on those schemes.

Moreover, many private sector client bodies had also started working to the same timetable. Owners including property developers, railway 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 with more data––rather than paper-driven ways.

The UK BIM push is ongoing. In a highly fragmented industry, adoption is by no means universal (read the latest NBS National BIM Report, for example). Many organisations have yet to achieve BIM Level 1, let alone Level 2 and work continues to share lessons learned, improve processes, update contracts and protocols, and digitise information at every level – from manufacturers’ components to systems embedded in finished buildings. However, a year after the initial mandate deadline, the UK government is now looking to push towards new Level 3 and Smart Cities targets.

The Great Australian Mandate Debate

Given the Commonwealth connections with the UK, it is not surprising that some Australian organisations have called for a similar BIM mandate to drive adoption ‘down under'. For example, in September 2015, Australia’s Air Conditioning and Mechanical Contractors’ Association (AMCA) suggested the national government should make BIM mandatory on their projects. In February 2016, Infrastructure Australia’s 15-year plan suggested Australian governments should make BIM mandatory for the design of large-scale complex infrastructure projects (BIM has already been mandated for Sydney’s Metro NorthWest project), and should commission the Australasian Procurement and Construction Council to work with industry to create guidance, standard and protocols. Several state governments, including Victoria, are sympathetic to such views, and there are state initiatives to drive BIM adoption in Queensland’s Department of Transport and Main Roads and in Transport for New South Wales, among others.

A March 2016 report by the Australian government’s Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities urged the creation of a smart infrastructure task force (modelled on the UK BIM Task Group) to coordinate national BIM policy, standards and education, and recommended making BIM compulsory on all government-funded infrastructure projects exceeding $50 million in cost. 

However, just as there was in the UK, there is some Australian industry scepticism about mandating BIM, and the government apparently prefers a gradual and more voluntary approach to BIM implementation. As a result, to quote Rebecca De Cicco (an Australian BIM consultant with extensive UK experience), Australia has a 'disjointed, varied and somewhat naïve approach, both nationally and locally' while its 'fragmented approach is a waste of resources'. 

Mandate or Miss Out?

As well as the UK, other European countries either already have BIM mandates or are considering them, and the EU BIM Group is developing a handbook capturing the best practices in national BIM implementations (high levels of international consistency will be vital in an increasingly globalised industry). Underlining that BIM is more about digital transformation than technology, the handbook will cover procurement measures, industry culture and skills development and the BIM business case for policy makers and public clients.

Australia can learn much from the UK. Its BIM mandate helped clarify the strategic goal, and was strongly supported by a coalition of government ministers, the government’s chief construction advisor and industry leaders. This meant it could not be ignored; the April 2016 deadline provided a sense of urgency; and defining Level 2 created a vision of what success might look like. In short, it galvanised large portions of the industry to start their digital transformation.

Such transformation will make businesses more efficient and competitive; it will help project teams be more collaborative and productive; it will create greater predictability of outcome for the industry’s clients; and it will help the industry deliver built assets that perform better throughout their operational lives. BIM is just a stepping stone in this transformation; but it’s a necessary one if we are to meet our clients’––and wider society’s––aspirations to live in a better, smarter built environment.

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