Mandating building information modelling (BIM) in Australia now should only be done as part of a wider national strategy for the construction industry. Otherwise it will be as effective as mandating CAD.

The benefits of BIM were being extolled far and wide in the UK for years before the government introduced a BIM mandate. Case study after case study, report after report showed that BIM would cut A by x per cent and improve B by y per cent. Many said “they should make it compulsory so that everyone has to do it.” Some agreed and others didn’t. Nothing really changed. Companies that knew the benefits and had reaped some of rewards continued to ‘do BIM’ (or bits of it). Those who didn’t, and hadn’t, continued not to use it.

For example, I worked with a mechanical and electrical services contractor around 15 years ago and they would spend up to three to four per cent of their contract value creating 3D virtual models from paper drawings. Think about that: in an industry working on paper-thin margins, a contractor invested significant sums on 3D.

They did not do so because it was mandated; they did so for sound commercial reasons. On every job they saved much more than they invested in modelling by reducing clashes, reducing claims and improving procurement. Today they are heavily involved in off-site manufacturing, BIM and lean construction, not because it’s been mandated but because it’s good business.

The mood in the industry was that it would be jolly good if BIM were to be mandated. We carried on with our BIM presentations, we persuaded some projects to do some bits of BIM and we all carried on as usual. And that’s where we find ourselves in Australia today.

But then the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) swept through the UK.

The GFC presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to radically change the industry. The UK had transformed from a society that had project delivery firms competing on value for money to one where there literally was no money.

The government’s Chief Construction Advisor proclaimed that the two main drivers were now cash and carbon: too little of the former and too much of the latter. And it wasn’t a matter of saving a few per cent here and there – the industry would be expected to propose radical solutions: BIM’s time had come but importantly it wasn’t just about BIM.

The UK’s Construction 2025 strategy described how industry and government would strive to put Britain at the forefront of global construction. It began with a clear vision of where UK construction would be in 2025 and it envisioned:

  • Lower costs – 33 per cent reduction in the cost of construction and the whole life cost of assets
  • Faster delivery – 50 per cent reduction in the overall time for new build and refurbished assets
  • Lower emissions – 50% per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
  • Improvement in exports – 50 per cent reduction in the trade gap for products and materials

UK construction in 2025 will no longer suffer from late delivery, cost blowouts, commercial friction, accidents, unfavourable workplaces, or as an industry slow to embrace change. In that context BIM has been mandated for public sector projects and industry has embraced the need to change. But it isn’t all about BIM.

An important aspect of the UK’s approach has been to demand better project outcomes rather than to dictate delivery processes. The power of that approach – telling industry what to do but not how to do it – is immense. That’s why Bananarama got it wrong when they sang “it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it.” It is in fact all about what you do.

Imagine you’re the client and consider which option will have the greatest effect on reducing waste on your project:

  1. Mandating that your supply chain ‘delivers in BIM’
  2. Demanding that the $5 million project is delivered for $4 million

Before the GFC, option two wouldn’t get any takers from construction companies. Who would try to build something for $4 million when it historically cost $5 million? Post-GFC, there might be no other projects on offer. Project delivery teams didn’t shake their head and walk away; most started looking at how to deliver projects better, faster and cheaper, not because it was mandated but because it was good business. It was a case of innovate or die.

Clients have a key role by demanding better project outcomes while steering clear of mandating how to do it. A great benefit of option two is that it’s so simple to understand. The ‘tell-them-what-but-not-how’ approach means project delivery teams are free to use integrated project delivery, BIM, lean construction, off-site fabrication and more. Why limit yourself to using just one of them?

Waste has been estimated to be as much as 30 per cent of construction costa. Therefore, as a client, ask why you’re paying $100 million for an asset when it could – and should – cost $70 million. Mandating BIM won’t deliver the building for $70 million but if you mandate better, faster cheaper projects, industry will step up to the challenge.

A report by the Allen Consulting Group found that BIM would increase GDP growth in Australia by five basis points by 2025, with a cost benefit ratio of around 10. There is no doubt that BIM, underpinned by integrated, collaborative processes would help to improve project outcomes. Ten years ago in the UK there was also clear and extensive evidence of the benefits of BIM but it took a crisis to get it mandated as part of the government-sponsored strategy for the construction industry.

Australia just needs a kick to get started, which must be ugly enough to drive government to develop its own version of the Construction 2025 strategy. Without that urgency, the industry will limit itself to gradual improvements in productivity, and that will not be enough to enable Australian firms to compete globally.

The UK also recently launched its strategic plan for Level 3 BIM in the form of Digital Built Britain. While many firms are waiting for BIM to be mandated, others are just getting on with it – improving their ability to compete internationally and to fight off competition from overseas firms in the domestically.

If you believe strongly that the Australian government should mandate BIM, then let’s pretend we wake up tomorrow and it’s been made compulsory for all government projects. What about the non-government jobs – will you deliver those using BIM or will you wait for each private-sector client to mandate its own flavour of BIM requirements? Or perhaps government should impose an industry-wide BIM mandate. Then shouldn’t government also mandate lean construction, off-site fabrication and integrated project delivery – all of which offer significant project benefits?

I’m a strong advocate for BIM and believe government has a leading role to play in encouraging digital innovation and creating the conditions that will help Australian firms to compete globally. BIM is a part of that, but it should be mandated only as part of a national strategy for construction.

Clients should demand better outcomes for their projects and leave the ‘how’ to industry. Demand a 20 per cent reduction in cost and your supply chain will innovate by using all of the technology, processes and best practices at their disposal. Some of that will involve BIM but a lot won’t. Clients are already becoming less tolerant of the waste inherent in construction and innovative firms will survive and thrive.

We all have our part to play in lobbying for a strategic government vision for construction.

But don’t sit around waiting for a BIM mandate.

Paul King
By: Paul King,  Bentley Systems