Starting off, many of the easier of the easier roads to greater efficiency within the social housing sector have already been taken, so effort is now shifting to trickier areas, in particular 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?
A ‘Building Information Model’ is a data-rich resource for shared knowledge about an asset. It is the outputs that are critical, so plans, schedules – all the stuff we are familiar with - are all outputs from the model.
Then there is ‘Building Information Modelling’ which is the collaborative process that supports the development of the model, through design, construction and handover, and potentially beyond. But 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 much 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 realistically and effectively, 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 is so crucial, it is 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
So, as you can see, 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, cold, 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 is 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. And 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.
Two barriers to BIM consistently emerge when I’m talking to social landlord clients, so having explained the value of BIM I want to tackle these points. Here goes…
“But even if we do BIM right, it only affects 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. We do lots that collectively makes a difference over time. But the power of BIM is in the ‘BIM Thinking’, ie driving forward structured, accessible digital information, thinking in terms of information as a contract deliverable and underpinning cost effective operational management.
While it is difficult to buy this in, hence the internal cultural challenge, BIM becomes a carrier for change, and creates a framework for the right information, properly structured, to build up over time for all your projects.
“OK. But what about our supply chain, they’ll never cope with BIM!”
Well, this depends a bit on who your supply chain are, and to what extent you are clear and consistent about your ambition. And it also depends on how much effort you have put into understanding BIM and its implications, because if you have a fairly traditional supply chain and you are dependent on them to take BIM forward, you are likely to experience quite a 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 are clear as a client about your ambitions and direction of travel, and have created a good set of EIRs (as opposed to have bought them in), and that set of EIRs contains clear model uses (i.e what you are going to do with BIM);
Those who are willing to engage, learn and try but will need support; and
Those who aren’t interested, aren’t willing, and will try to divert your client ambitions into their Business as Usual.
The implication for you, as a client, is that there are some organisations that you will be able to work with collaboratively for excellent outcomes, and some where they are really best to bid for work elsewhere. But you will 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 are going to make this effort, but 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 client requirements, ambitions and pipeline, then they can take informed decisions about to 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 a number of other areas I would love to cover about BIM, because, like I say, 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. Yes, agreed. But in reality it isn’t delivering collaborative, value-orientated outcomes for clients. The good news is that if you are interested in the underlying culture of the construction sector there is 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.
If you don’t want to engage with BIM, and aren’t interested, then that’s fine. But please don’t buy it in, and please don’t treat as a technology challenge. And 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 is usable and accessible when needed. Because that’s where our sector is going to go and as professional asset managing organisations that’s a good thing, because 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. But the chin rubbers? Surely they need to find a different client group to work with.