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Social Landlords – you manage information, not houses. Here’s why you should be embracing BIM

Tom Jarman reflects on recent discussion with peers from the social housing sector on Building Information Modelling (BIM), what it means for social landlords and how well it’s being adopted.

With many of the easier roads to greater efficiency within the social housing sector already taken, effort is now shifting to trickier areas; particularly operational cost effectiveness. Aligning this with the emerging direction of travel from the Hackitt Review, specifically the digital built environment and the Golden Thread, and there are two obvious reasons to consider BIM.

What is BIM? Some definitions…

A ‘Building Information Model’ is a data-rich resource for shared knowledge about an asset. The outputs of the model are critical, such as the plans, schedules and other things we are familiar with.

Then there is ‘Building Information Modelling’ which is the collaborative process that supports the development of the model, through design, construction, handover, and potentially beyond.

At this point, we need to raise a red flag; not to stop progress but to clarify that BIM is not a technological challenge, instead a more significant challenge in terms of how we use and value information.

If you own one or two homes, you manage houses. Own tens, hundreds or thousands and you manage information.

So while it is relatively easy to ‘buy in’ BIM, in terms of software packages or asking for BIM Level 2 on projects, this approach is likely to lead to disappointment and frustration.

To understand BIM, you have to think in terms of ‘information as a deliverable’. In this respect, the information about an asset is a critical element of the package you procure. As it’s so crucial, its governed by a specific document, namely your Employer Information Requirements (EIRs), issued at tender. This document clearly lays out;

  • What information you want
  • When you want it
  • What format you want it in
  • What you want BIM to do

It provides four critical areas of detail from the very outset, at tender stage.

But BIM doesn’t start here. It starts probably a year before you start drafting your EIRs, when you take a long, hard look at your Asset Information Model. What information do you have? How do you use it? Structure it? Access it? What is digitised? What pushes, what pulls? How do your systems link to each other, talk to each other?

The Value of BIM

By now, you should be able to see the cultural challenges of BIM, but also the value. Getting your information right in terms of content, structure and access translates into operational cost effectiveness because it’s there when you need it, whether for a reactive repair or planning an investment programme.

Do BIM right, and the information you need is a contract deliverable. We need to be as insistent on the information that allows us to cost-effectively manage at the operational stage, as we are on product delivery.

BIM Barriers

Two barriers to BIM consistently emerge when talking to social landlords, so having set out the value of BIM, let’s tackle these points…

“But even if we do BIM right, it only affects a small amount of properties and we have a much larger portfolio”

Yes, but I can’t think of any one action or change that transforms the whole portfolio in one project. Rather we do lots that collectively make a difference over time. The power of BIM is in the ‘BIM Thinking’ – driving forward structured, accessible digital information, thinking in terms of information as a contract deliverable, underpinning cost effective operational management.

While it’s difficult to buy this in, given the internal cultural challenge, BIM becomes a carrier for change, and creates a framework for the right, properly structured information to build up over time for all of your projects.

“Okay, but what about our supply chain, they’ll never cope with BIM!”

Well, this depends on who your supply chain is and to what extent you’re clear and consistent about your ambition. It also depends on how much effort you’ve put into understanding BIM and its implications, because if you have a fairly traditional supply chain and you’re dependent on them to take BIM forward, you’re likely to experience a fair bit of chin rubbing. A typical one being “Well you can do it if you want, but it’ll cost you a fortune”.

I think your supply chain will broadly divide as follows:

  • Those who can progress a BIM project if you’re clear about your ambitions and direction of travel and have created a good set of EIRs (as opposed to having bought them in). And that set of EIRs contains clear model uses (i.e. what you’re going to do with BIM).
  • Those who are willing to engage, learn and try but will need support.
  • Those who aren’t interested, aren’t willing, and will try to divert your ambitions into their business as usual.

The implication for you, as a client, is that there are some organisations that you’ll be able to work with collaboratively for excellent outcomes, and some where they're really best to bid for work elsewhere.

You’ll have to put effort into working with the parts of your supply chain that say they can do it (because capability varies) and those that are willing to do it (because they will need your support to get it right). You need to be honest as a client whether you’re going to make this effort. Let’s be frank; it’s one thing not wanting to take on a significant change project, but let’s not pretend our supply chains need our benevolent protection. They need a long-term, realistic view of your requirements, ambitions and pipeline, so they can take informed decisions about their engagement, development, training and investment.

‘They can’t handle it” – I challenge that as being too easy an excuse. Understand the value of BIM to you as a client, be clear about what outcomes you want, then try them. But don’t patronise them.

The Future of BIM

There are many other areas I would love to cover about BIM because I think it offers us significant transformative potential. At this point, someone usually says that BIM is just asking the construction sector to do what it should be doing anyway. Agreed, but in reality it isn’t delivering collaborative, value-orientated outcomes for clients.

The good news is that if you’re interested in the underlying culture of the construction sector there’s lots of bedtime reading, not least Modernise or Die (2016). This emphasises that the standard outcomes from the construction sector are pretty poor, and if you engage as a passive client, you draw through poor outcomes. So what they should do and don't aren’t the same, and the key risk mitigation measure is active, informed client management.

Final Thoughts

If you don’t want to engage with BIM, and aren’t interested, that’s fine. But please don’t buy it in, and please don’t treat it as a technology challenge. Ask yourself to what extent you currently receive the information you want, when you want it, in a format that means it can be integrated into your systems, so that it’s usable and accessible when needed. Because that’s where our sector is going and as professional asset managing organisations that’s a good thing. It creates space and capacity for much better outcomes, and that means we can deliver on our values. That’s a leadership role for us, and we need to work with the members of our supply chain that want to work with us – the ready, and the willing, if not necessarily ready. The chin rubbers? Surely they need to find a different client group to work with.

Would you like to continue the conversation? Feel free to get in touch with me on tom.jarman@waterstons.com or + 447936 370180

Technology in M&A Event

22 January 2020

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