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Opening up BIM could fix the performance gap

There is no doubt that working collaboratively is key for BIM projects. However, there are two approaches for collaborative BIM: closed BIM and open BIM. This article describes these two approaches and highlights the importance of protocols such as COBie ad IFC.

The long anticipated Government deadline for adopting Building Information Modelling (BIM) on public sector projects has arrived, but Paul McLaughlin chief executive of the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) and vice chair of the Build UK BIM Group, believes the hard work is only just beginning.

A report from the Government agency Innovate UK makes sobering reading for the commercial building supply chain. It found that modern non-domestic buildings ‘routinely’ use 3.5 times the amount of energy they are designed to consume and rarely live up to performance expectations. It also revealed that carbon emissions are, on average, 3.8 times higher than designers estimated.

The report analysed data from Innovate’s £8 million Building Performance Evaluation Programme covering 50 ‘leading-edge, modern buildings’, including supermarkets, offices, schools and health centres.

Researchers found that many projects had difficulty merging new technologies, in particular building-management systems. Many also had problems with maintenance, controls and metering on biomass boilers, solar panels and solar water heaters.

Sadly, this seems to suggest that, despite the industry’s best efforts, the ‘performance gap’ is widening — even on some of the most modern and sophisticated buildings where owners and occupiers could, quite reasonably, assume they would be benefiting from high-quality design and, therefore, a high standard of long-term operation.


Could Building Information Modelling (BIM) change this disappointing picture? We have been anticipating this month’s [April 2016] Government BIM Level 2 deadline for some years now. There have been thousands of seminars and millions of words written about the subject — here are a few hundred more — but much of the focus has been on the mechanics of the system rather than the context in which it will have to work.

BIM is not a magic bullet. It is a software tool that, used properly, will deliver much-needed improvements to the design process and major business advantages to the engineering firms that get this right. It will, eventually, help with the long-term operation of buildings so has the potential to narrow the performance gap.

Collaboration at the start of the process is absolutely fundamental. Without that BIM is just an expensive way of producing 3D design drawings. Our ambition must be to use BIM to create a process that allows the project team to design a building once before they start building it so that the installation of services and their operation closely matches the design intent.

If contractors actually know in advance what they will be doing on site, they have a chance of delivering it right first time, removing re-work and re-design costs, stripping out waste to actually deliver the building the client wanted in the first place.

BIM can be a platform for collaboration right across the supply chain and a way of assimilating everyone’s separate design objectives. That should also include lifecycle operation and maintenance tasks in partnership with other digital tools like the SFG20 service and maintenance system that is about to be augmented with a BIM ‘module’. This can provide a seamless link between a design ‘object’ and the associated maintenance tasks required to make that component work well throughout its operating life and deliver lifecycle cost savings.

By harnessing BIM, the building engineering supply chain can drive more risk out of the process and deliver something much closer to the client’s expectations, along with greater cost certainty.

However, BIM does not do these things: people do. BIM is another facet of the Big Data era in which we are now living and is completely dependent on the quality of data/information fed into the model. Never has the old saying ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ been more applicable. It also depends on everyone working on the model being able to share information — simply and fully.

BIM is just one part of the digital revolution needed to move construction into the modern age and deliver the business efficiencies all companies in our sector should aspire to — including getting the building engineering services contractor involved from the very outset of the project.

In that sense, it sits alongside the growing trend towards more offsite construction, building automation and connectivity (including the Internet of Things) virtual reality and 3D printing as a tool designed to make our jobs easier, quicker and more accurate.


Level 2 is pretty straightforward, but the real operational benefits and design efficiencies promised by Level 3 and beyond will not happen unless the supply chain has the right set of ‘behaviours’ instilled from the start.

Using BIM outside of a collaborative framework will just result in a messy and expensive process with lots of pretty pictures you could easily have produced in CAD. In fact, if BIM is misapplied in this way it will simply add to the current level of confusion and disjointed working in the supply chain. It must be part of a reformed business approach or it will actually exacerbate delays and disputes — not to mention adding a whole new layer of contractual risk.

The gathering and use of data is fundamental to the transition to digital design and construction, but we must at all costs avoid falling into the trap of gathering data for its own sake without providing proper analysis. Otherwise you end up with lots of extraneous information provided at the wrong moments in the process — adding to the general state of confusion that already exists around many projects.

The key is to be focused and clear about what the model is for and how it is to be populated. It is also important that everyone is on the same (digital) page so that we get seamless information exchange between key project stakeholders — including architects, structural engineers, building engineering services specialists and their counterparts across the supply chain.

That is why there is growing interest in the choice between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ BIM.

The closed or ‘lonely’ approach means that everyone on the project is working on the same software platform. The best known model is Revit, which has versions tailored for architects, structural engineers and building-services specialists As they are all fundamentally the same software, each profession can work from the original model and add in its elements.

It is a great way of getting everyone out of their silos and smooths out many of the interoperability problems experienced by teams trying to knit together different types of BIM software. However, a closed approach can also quickly become a restrictive approach — leaving too many potential partners out in the cold and denying the opportunity for full integration.

‘Open’ BIM is based on a method and workflow where all participants can collaborate and exchange project information with one another using non-proprietary software. It allows for the seamless sharing of geometric data and creates opportunities for integrating management processes like specifications, cost estimations, procurement tasks and so on.

The ‘closed’ BIM approach is designed to make sharing those tasks easy, but it is also possible using multiple versions of BIM in an open setting by using protocols like Construction Operations Building Information Exchange (COBie) and Industry Foundation Classes (IFC).

Everyone from the architect onwards can contribute to the production of a ‘federated model’ that can be used for clash detection and co-ordination. This does not mean there will be no interoperability problems, but it is worth working through these in order to have a truly ‘democratic’ model where everyone is able to contribute.

Joining up the team in this way is absolutely critical if we are going to extract maximum benefit from BIM and start delivering the projects clients want and expect; along with the efficiency savings further down the road. Only then can we start to properly narrow the performance gap.

Should you want to learn more about BIM model's benefits or get your BIM project price instantly and order online, go to our BIM price calculator.

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