The Government's new Construction Strategy was published on 31 May 2011 and mandates the use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) on public projects as part of the overall strategy to encourage collaboration and innovation in the supply chain and drive down costs. The intention is to implement BIM over the course of the next five years.

The Department for Business subsequently released the BIM Working Party Strategy Paper which estimates that net savings should be realised from implementing BIM of around five percent of build cost.

If construction professionals adopt BIM and the private sector see the benefits being obtained by the public sector then it will likely follow suit.

So far, so good, but what will it mean in practice?

What is BIM?

BIM is the technological successor to CAD and 2/3D drawings, and produces a 3D model of the building and associated information, such as: detailed dimensions, component-placement, material specifications, carbon content, structural performance and maintenance requirements. In effect, the structure is built "virtually" before being constructed. It is a means of using existing software to build up a model that everyone working on the project can see and use rather than each party preparing its own set of drawings and information.  It can be used to model the method of constructing the building and also build in cost data.

What are the benefits?

If used correctly, it should save time and money by preventing clashes in design, making design changes quicker to implement and reducing defects. One of the other perceived benefits is that it should give those running the building more information about how best to maintain it once completed, reducing the whole life cost of the building.

What will it mean in practice?

As BIM requires all of the parties involved in the project to input and work together, it should be seen as more of a new way of working rather than a software tool. As such, it will have an impact on the way that projects are procured and contracts drafted.

How will procurement be impacted?

The BIM Working Party Strategy Paper makes a number of recommendations, one of which is that the supply chain is pre-qualified based on its BIM competence and capability, and that selection on the basis of design quality and management capability should apply at a later stage. This statement would seem to favour larger consultancies and contractors who are likely to have taken BIM on board at an earlier stage and have been in a better position to invest in training, and seems at odds with the Government's focus on giving SMEs more Government work.

Another recommendation that will impact on how projects are procured is that a lead designer be appointed, which then appoints the other designers as sub-consultants rather than the client appointing the designers individually. In order for this to be implemented, the insurance industry will also have to be brought on board, with a shift towards integrated project insurance, as it seems unlikely that insurers providing professional indemnity insurance in the current manner, to a lead designer, would be particularly happy with that approach.

What are the implications for construction contracts?

The Strategy Paper also indicates that, at this stage, little change should be required to construction contracts, indicating that standard BIM protocols should be adopted which set out the requirements for project delivery and outputs, and new duties need to be defined for consultants and contractors working in a BIM environment. Those new protocols and duties could simply be incorporated by reference, meaning that the standard terms and conditions require little change.

However, given that the protocols and duties will form part of the contract, it seems overly simplistic to say that the contracts will not really require to change: little has been said as to the likely content of the protocol/duties but the devil will be in the detail to see how these address issues such as design responsibility and risk transfer in the model.

A recent report from the US (being the first known claim relating to the use of BIM by an architect), makes a very timely point that these issues do need to be properly addressed. The case relates to the construction of a building at a university. The architect and its M&E engineer used BIM to fit the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. However, they did not tell the contractor that being able to fit the equipment into the space available relied on a specific installation sequence. When the contractor was about 70% of the way through assembly, it ran out of space. The contractor sued the building owner, who in turn sued the architect, and its insurer brought in the M&E engineer. The insurer decided not to litigate because of the complexity of the case. Millions of dollars were involved and the problem arose from poor communication – not the software itself.

While it's true that contracts cannot force people to communicate, having contracts that clearly define the scope and nature of each party's duties and the basis for communication and collaboration will be crucial.

Constructing Excellence's response to the Strategy Paper also indicates that there is work to do as the industry moves towards fully integrated BIM and states that "definition, process, contract and deliverables are at best underdeveloped, and at worst, non existent."

Intellectual property rights are another area that will require further thought to ensure that issues such as ownership of the model itself, joint authorship of design and licences for future use of the building for maintenance, etc. are addressed.

Conclusion

In some respects, deriving the benefits from the proper use of BIM will face similar issues to those faced by the construction industry in recent years in trying to create a less adversarial, more collaborative industry.  All parties (including the client) have to be prepared to collaborate and they need the appropriate knowledge, training and tools to help them to do so. It remains to be seen whether the enforced use of BIM on public sector projects will accelerate the pace of change in the industry.