Some years ago, BIM (building information modelling) was just a dream on the horizon – or a nightmarish vision depending on your viewpoint. Now, as embracing BIM increasingly becomes a necessity and not a luxury – with government making BIM for public projects mandatory by 2016 and with wholesale adoption likely to follow – those with responsibility for built estates can no longer escape its inevitability. Nor can they avoid its ubiquity: magazines devote multiple issues to it, endless conferences are held, and designers fall over each other to champion the BIM revolution – whether in the spirit of genuine innovation or blind panic. Nevertheless, and while debate is shifting, there remains a frontloaded bias to this enthusiasm. Despite claims of BIM’s long-term benefits to the client – and to those, like facilities managers, who must manage an estate long after the architects and contractors have left the scene – debate still remains fixated at the early design and construction phases.

Certainly contractors are embracing BIM – as are many owners of large estates. However a design bias has skewed debate in two key ways.

The first way in which the design perspective may have clouded perceptions of BIM – though thankfully this is now shifting – lies in its discussion as another representational tool. Of course it is commonly understood that BIM is in fact a ‘live’, real-time model – a building in digital format. We also know that it constitutes a radical shift both in ways of working and thinking, which transform and streamline the entire design and construction process, bringing both benefits – increased economy, efficiency, safety – and also challenges – potential legal wrangles as the ‘ownership’ of data becomes blurred in levels of collaboration and data-sharing we are wholly unused to.

A sophisticated knowledge management system

Nevertheless, for some time BIM was still discussed all too often from the sole viewpoint of platforms and implementation, as well as in relation to its imaging capabilities, which may have unwittingly given the impression that BIM is a sort of exceptionally advanced CAD package. Indeed the oft-quoted ‘drawing-board switchover’ metaphor, while compelling, may also have inadvertently emphasised this perspective. It is only recently that the focus has rightly shifted towards BIM’s true nature as, in fact, a highly sophisticated database or knowledge management system.

In using this language, and taking this focus, we may also have undermined clients’ appreciation of BIM’s genuinely radical potentials across the life-cycle of a building or estate. What do end-users make of BIM mania? There is a danger to the onlooker that BIM appears to be only the latest in a long line of CAD-fads, a ‘novelty’ with its genuine relevance being trumped up to justify insider-excitement – an acute case, as they say in business, of ‘shiny kit syndrome’. Furthermore, since technology now moves at a frighteningly rapid pace, to perceive BIM too much in terms of specific packages and platforms means we risk failing to keep up with – let alone be in a position to drive – further conceptual advancements.

In fact, BIM is not really another representational system at all, though it can certainly be used as one. It is more like a live building model and BIM’s genuine and long-term value is lost when we fail to grasp its power as an ‘embodied database’. As the building life-cycle progresses, the BIM model’s capabilities and benefits radically shift. At the front-end, its use as real-time representation is at the fore – clients want increasingly accurate imaging – however when it reaches the contractor its imaging capacities may amount to only a quarter of its useful value. After handover, the relevance of this graphical aspect dwindles even further; rather BIM’s full capabilities at this stage are almost entirely as a sophisticated database of knowledge. Given the quantity of information that is ordinarily wasted at key handover points in the build cycle, the power of BIM to retain highly detailed and comprehensive building data cannot be underestimated.

What does BIM mean for facilities management?

The second way in which a design bias has skewed perceptions may not be so clear. When debate is focused on the design and build phases, we risk becoming blind to one of the most important potential benefits of BIM. This is related, too, to crucial shifts in the way the built environment is used and to unavoidable economic and environmental factors.

Despite the photogenic ‘wow’ factor of new-build, 80 per cent of the building stock in use in 50 years already exists today – and this may even be greater as we address profound economic and environmental sustainability issues. Further, the vast majority of a building’s cost – some 75 per cent – lies in the latter stages of its lifespan. We know that endless new-build is simply not viable – certainly the market knows this – and perhaps we are even in mourning. Yet increasing re-use and conservation of existing estate is unavoidable: neither the economic nor environmental climate can sustain itself otherwise. This will put a further burden on facilities managers to provide increased efficiency in the maintenance and improvement of existing stock. What does BIM mean for FM?

What is striking is how far BIM’s potential at the FM end has been buried under the new-build focus. In fact, BIM will come into its own with the ongoing management both of new buildings but also of existing stock – it will also ultimately have applications and implications for the heritage and conservation industries, an area that is only just being touched on. By combining existing technologies – advanced surveying and geomatics techniques – a BIM model of an existing estate can be easily created from accurate laser cloud surveys and ‘tagged’ with data describing the key physical properties of each building element. The owner or facilities manager is then able to load the model with data over time and long after handover, in line with priorities, in effect creating a ‘live’ replica of an entire estate which develops as the estate itself develops, and which eliminates the need to cross-reference sources of information and duplicate tasks. Clearly, this has powerful cost-time benefits. Yet that BIM can be developed and utilised in this way is either not being fully grasped or else not being clearly communicated to clients.

More than ‘shiny kit’

If there is something uncanny about the trajectory that the BIM debate has taken then it may be because we have been here before. When sustainability filled the very same pages of industry magazines that have now been usurped by BIM, a similar focus on the ‘glamour’ end of developments was apparent in an obsession with ‘flagship green-washing’ – turbines and green roofs as showcase sustainability – all, crucially, highly photogenic. Yet some of the more serious and genuinely sustainable work amounted to much more low-key interventions – including the power of sensitive facilities management and a growing emphasis on re-use. Similarly with BIM, the focus on new-build and ‘shiny kit’ may be unwittingly disguising some of its most economic, pragmatic and sustainable applications, which in fact lie at the end of the building life-cycle.

Industry thinking more educationally

There will always be understandable resistance to embracing new ways of working, especially when these new ways have upfront implications in terms of both time and cost. This is surely not helped by presenting new technologies, albeit unwittingly, as the latest in a long line of design fads and with an emphasis on features rather than benefits. To counteract this, the industry may need to begin to think more educationally. For example, we might need to produce BIM models – and hold seminars – for the sole purpose of relaying to clients BIM’s true capabilities. It is unlikely that a designer in the early days of CAD would have felt the need to produce drawings merely to show off its rendering techniques. But precisely because BIM has advantages long after the contractor recedes, we are forced to put ourselves in the position of the client, the owner, the manager like never before. Even the earliest stages of creating a BIM demands of us that we shift our approach to what we do: from the outset, the model is devised on the basis of its intended longterm uses. This means that we need to know upfront what the client wants it for – in the long and not just the short-term. But what if the client doesn’t realise its power at the FM end? What if the client is either unaware of – or unconvinced by – the full spectrum of benefits it offers long-term?

Rail at the forefront

We also have to begin to think more like researchers. As well as benefits, we cannot deny that there are also problems raised by BIM and if we want to stay ahead of the game we cannot sit back and wait for other industries to solve them. For example, there are currently blocks to fully integrating BIM models to the FM end – the software packages currently in use in FM are not those used in BIM. Aedas Building Consultancy is addressing ways in which this technological gap can be fruitfully bridged and investing heavily in research solutions and collaboration with technology firms. And we need to keep thinking ahead – even as we may feel we are only just getting to grips with BIM. We may even see a day when sensors and alarms in the building also work in real-time within the BIM model: a digital representation of a building estate such that an FM manager has at his or her command the entire estate before them – a sort of data-rich CCTV system. This may seem like sci-fi – but do we wish to wait around while other people develop these applications? Or do we wish to be at the forefront of thinking?

These shifting roles may make us uncomfortable. Yet by its very nature, BIM inherently encourages holistic, joinedup thinking – it breaks down the rigid categories we are used to. We know this. Yet perhaps we are not as mentally prepared for this ‘breakdown’ as we like to think. Indeed the facts and fears around data-sharing and mutual contracts may also reflect broader concerns about stepping outside assumed roles. Could it be that all in the industry have to begin to think more like a BIM model? It may be that while BIM prevents the loss of valuable data as it transits from phase to phase, the far-reaching benefits and implications of BIM are still being lost in translation.