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Building Information Modelling: the golden opportunity

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Architects will miss a golden opportunity if they do not build BIM into their workflow, says Steve Parnell

Before starting my architecture degree, I worked for an engineer. The company had just invested £30,000 in CAD and had nobody to operate it. So I sneaked in at the weekends and taught myself. It soon paid dividends. I built my own workstation and hired myself back to them during the university holidays to help pay my way through architecture school.

When I graduated, in the middle of the last recession, there was no work available in the UK and so, for my Part 1 year out, I went to Australia, where I ended up overseeing the conversion of a medium-sized architectural office to CAD. Fast-forward to 2009 and I find myself in another recession, listening to a relatively young architect complaining about CAD, the client’s request for a 3D model and worried about impending unemployment. I can’t believe he is not seizing such an obvious opportunity.

Much has been written about Building Information Modelling (BIM), a lot of which is clearly hyperbole. But, just as the last recession saw the wholesale – and often reluctant – move from drawing board to 2D CAD (as an electronic drawing board), this recession should witness the shift from 2D CAD to 3D BIM. And, if architects don’t seize this opportunity, they will hand over another slice of the construction pie and give other consultants increasing influence in building projects.

Since the last recession, we have witnessed the rise of the role of project manager, the increase in Design and Build procurement and the introduction of new contracts which disempower architects still further. At a time when record numbers of students are registering for architecture courses, the architect’s role is being increasingly threatened. Design is one thing but, if it is not followed up with delivery, it is meaningless.

There are a couple of opportunities for architects: firstly, just as the 1990s CAD revolution brought a boom for bureaux specialising in visualisation, it is quite feasible that BIM will be outsourced to similar specialists. If UK architects are not interested in this as a business model, it can quite easily be sent to India or China. Companies such as Make already send their detail design to China and at least one large contractor, frustrated that architects are not willing to hand over their designs in 3D model format, is hiring people in India at its own expense to convert 2D drawings into 3D models in the knowledge that it will save money when it comes to construction. British BIM bureaux may not be able to compete on price, but have other advantages to offer.

The second, more fecund opportunity, is for architects to rise to the challenge themselves and add value not only in the design stages, but in the delivery of buildings. If they integrate BIM into their workflow, it could become an essential part of their marketing, adding value above and beyond the design. Whoever owns and co-ordinates the virtual building model will have far greater influence in the real building project.

The many advantages of building a virtual model to test the real model are well documented. Building virtually in 3D not only allows visualisation, but also co-ordination of consultants’ contributions, such as the services and structure. No matter how good an architect’s mental construction of the unbuilt building is, going through a virtual building process will reduce surprises and reveal opportunities. This is just the beginning. In the future, I have no doubt that virtual building models will be used to cost buildings in real time and test their performance, including compliance with building regulations, before a sod of earth is dug. Technologically, this is all possible right now. If architects use this recession as an opportunity to re-skill, they can use the virtual model as a vehicle to reclaim ownership of the process of delivering well-designed buildings on time and on budget. To this end, the big CAD software developers are offering free software to unemployed architects.

Computers can save a lot of resource when used well, but they can also cost a lot when not. Compare the promise of the paperless office with the reality – reams of CAD plots. CAD and BIM are also not necessarily right for every type of job or person or office. It is hard to envisage that domestic projects, for example, could profit much from a virtual building information model. But the larger the job, the greater the benefit. It would be equally naïve to suggest that, simply through the adoption of BIM, architects will find themselves back at the top of the construction hierarchy.  The construction industry will be a changed place after this recession. If architects think that design alone is going to win jobs, adulation and reputation from anyone other than other architects, they will continue to paint themselves into an irrelevant corner. Great design needs to be followed up with great delivery, but embedding BIM at the heart of the design and delivery process is one trick that architects should not overlook.

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