Building information modelling software: a roundtable discussion

25 May 2018

How will the architecture industry rise to the challenge of the building information modelling revolution? On a balmy July evening in London, LEAF Review, in collaboration with Trimo, invited an array of architects, engineers, designers and consultants to a round-table dinner at the Covent Garden Hotel to discuss the topic.

When a group of more than 25 industry professionals get into a room for a lively debate, there is plenty of opportunity for disagreement. However, at an event hosted by LEAF Review at London’s Covent Garden Hotel, there was broad and resounding acceptance of at least two key points: building information modelling software (BIM) delivers immense collaborative power, and it does not replace expertise, but rather complements it.

BIM software has become a hot topic for professionals and clients alike. Initially seen as an offshoot of CAD, its adoption rate was low and its benefits undecided. In RIBA’s NBS National BIM Survey 2011, 43% of respondents were unaware of BIM and only 13% were using it. Cut to the present, and the latest survey shows 54% of respondents are integrating BIM into their processes. BIM has also been mandated on centrally funded projects throughout the UK, Spain, Norway, Singapore and Dubai.

Traditionally, technological design platforms have been used to help architects realise their visions, rather than drive design. There is a growing argument, however, that the increasingly standardised use of BIM might alter how we conceive buildings, as well as construct them. What might this BIM School look like? Should such a thought scare or excite us? And how can practitioners learn to maximise BIM’s potential, embrace the collaborative process and ensure that they’re not left behind?

Skilled hands

Finding answers to these questions was precisely the reason for the event. As desserts were being cleared and coffee served, BIM was firmly on the table. Gaganjit Singh, a designer at Zaha Hadid’s London office, expressed reserved optimism about BIM’s capabilities, but suggested it was too early to be unequivocal. When faced with the looming changes of the present, it is a common tendency to reminisce about simpler days.

Indeed, Singh, who studied at ETH Zurich, recently returned to Switzerland for a visit and observed students simply pressing buttons to operate an impressive laser cutter. Back in his day, it was a manual task that required hard graft. “It changes the approach if you’ve just had software experience,” Singh said, stressing the importance of being hands-on in order to understand the profession.

This point was agreed to unanimously around the table. Dale Sinclair, director of technical practice at Aecom, took it further. “BIM can be used for fantastic geometry, but the software requires people who understand construction. There needs to be old-school knowledge of construction linked with the technology,” he said.

Davide Mazzaglia is BIM manager at NPC Group; his role is to travel the UK training more than 600 staff on how best to adopt BIM practices into their daily processes. He said, “BIM is a method to achieve the best result.

It’s about rewiring the mind to find the optimal strategy.”

One challenge, Mazzaglia said, is changing attitudes to be more excited and accepting of the arrival of new technology. Tied to this is a sentiment the table shared: technology in isolation is not the saviour of industry. It needs experienced practitioners to shape and use it, and maximise its value within their experienced understanding of the design and building processes.

For Andy Keelin, partner at Buro Happold, the task is to harness technology and train people by giving them “tools to be effective”. Keelin noted how BIM has been a complete change of workflow from five or six years ago.

“We use BIM as a collaboration tool – something that facilitates the definition of a problem, as well as a solution,” he said. “So we all work in the same space; we all see what’s going on and what everyone is trying to achieve. It’s worked well for coordination. Clients are interested in digital output – what can I use and how can I use it – and digital assets to understand processes.”

Collaboration, according to Margot Orr, principal at Atkins, is one of the major benefits of BIM. “As masterplanners, we get to create the first designs that are later given more detail by architects,” she said. “It helps the architects if we are working in BIM from the very beginning. This leads to exceptional compatibility and also efficiency. When we work together under one roof – and not in silos – we save clients time and money. Using BIM from start to finish is a great way to do this.”

A consequence or result of this collaboration is standardisation and customisation. Indeed, as Scott Ellis, architect and BIM manager at Aros Architects said, “BIM tries to create a common language so everyone knows what’s being spoken about.” Seated beside Ellis was Anthi Valavani, architect and environmental engineering consultant at ECD Architects, who agreed, saying, “There is more transparency, because we share everything at the same time and clients can see everything. We don’t have to chase them for any questions they may have, because they have immediate access to everything, just like everyone else.”

Respect reality

This point was also tackled by Harry Ibbs, head of BIM project and workflows at Zaha Hadid Architects. He said his practice uses software uncommon in the rest of the industry, which reduced room for error. “By having the BIM process, you have one set of recent models, so you can’t misinterpret what is being conveyed because it is in the same format – if agreed to correctly by all stakeholders,” he noted.

Keelin shared Ibbs’s view that BIM helps with understanding the protocols and facilitating agreement among stakeholders, which caused both delegates to suggest it does not mean a completely error-free result. “It can easily unravel,” Ibbs offered. Keelin added, “People can still mess up.”

When we work together under one roof – and not in silos – we save clients time and money. Using BIM from start to finish is a great way to do this.

While not apportioning blame to anyone, Stephanie Bryan, associate at CJCT Studios, said there were some shortcomings with a collaborative programme that can be edited by everyone using it. “I sit with a pen, and mark on drawings what is alright and what is not alright, but if it’s always changing, when are you going to catch it?” she asked.

Valavani agreed. “That is a very good point, because coordination is supposed to save time on the construction side by avoiding errors, but all the time spent trying to resolve that in the design stage – I don’t know if it’s saving money at the end of the day, if it’s so many working hours.” she said.

BIM’s arrival has been a source of contention among some architects. One criticism levelled against it is that architects’ creativity could be constrained by the software. Corne Zijlmans, chief commercial officer at Trimo – which supplies architectural fireproof steel facades, walls and roof systems – does not agree. “BIM limits the capacity to bend reality,” Zijlmans said, adding that some architectural designs look great, but a drawing does not necessarily transform into a building.

Tim Spiller, of Crawford Partnership, said, “BIM is perfect once you have an idea, and you can roll it up and all the benefits come through. But necessarily, from the start, using the software could limit you compared with what you can do with your hands.

“You have to translate design stages into BIM, and if you don’t have the technical skills or the software is not easy to use, then you are limited and that is a serious concern I have. BIM, in principle, is absolutely amazing and it means bringing people together, but technology is limited.”

Karl Harris, senior architect at Atkins, responded that people allow technology to limit them. “As a creative, you should not be hampered by your software,” he said. “People will naturally try to find the easiest and laziest way to do something. That’s about the creativity of the individual, rather than the process. The process is driving you towards collaboration, not towards being less creative.”

This was something Alex Jones, group head of BIM and digital construction at J Murphy & Sons, agreed with. “Some of the most architecturally ambitious projects in the world have been made possible through the delivery of BIM,” he said. “If you had stuck to quill and pen, or pencil and paper, or 2D CAD, you would not be able to realise these projects.

“If you look at the [Herzog & de Meuron] Bird’s Nest stadium [that was] entirely delivered through 3D design, there is no way in the world it would have been delivered through 2D – that was an incredible output and an amazing piece of architecture. No one wants a square or rectangular future. I believe BIM delivers entirely the opposite.”

Jones is optimistic about BIM and so, too, are clients. They have heard about BIM and understandably want it used on their projects. The problem is they are not necessarily aware of how to procure the data aspect of BIM Level 2. “As an industry we need to support our clients and get closer to the FM partners to ensure clients are not buying redundant data,” he said. Valavani concurred, adding that “clients can be trained on how to use BIM for their own benefit”.

Howard Pye, associate director at Jestico + Whiles, said his firm did not specifically promote BIM to clients. “We are designers foremost and we are also very good at BIM. Design is the primary function but BIM can enhance our workflow to their benefit,” he said.“Because of our BIM maturity, we are able to react to our clients’ needs. We do find, in some instances, that clients can specify requirements without knowledge of what that means in practice. We find this can require dialogue between client and team, to tailor those demands in terms of scope, expected information and level of resource required to deliver.”

However, as Bryan pointed out, this isn’t always feasible.“Clients will come to us and say, ‘We want you to do it in BIM, and if you won’t we will go elsewhere.’ They want the assurance that whatever is going into the model, they want to be able to pick up on those clashes, so it’s a necessity for a lot of people,” she said. Whether or not clients demand BIM, it is fast becoming a significant component of project design.

As David Ho, design and BIM manager at Carillion, pointed out. “The risk factor in most decision-making is how much you scale up and how much you invest in that particular type of innovation. Under the banner of BIM, there are so many different software tools worth using, it’s about deciding which is going to benefit you and everyone else,” he said. “The danger is picking the wrong technology. It’s about finding a balance. It’s a risk. You can’t wait too long.”

There are always quick converts to new technology and those resistant to change. BIM, however, is here to stay and industry professionals need to get on board sooner than later. Finding the best solution for their business will require a combination of informed clients, the right choice of specific software and the means to enhance creativity, rather than inhibit it.

Roundtable at London's Covent Garden Hotel.
Roundtable at London's Covent Garden Hotel.
Roundtable at London's Covent Garden Hotel.
Roundtable at London's Covent Garden Hotel.

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