Smaller businesses should skip BIM and move straight to Digital Construction

As with almost every other aspect of our lives, construction is becoming increasingly digitised. BIM is covered in every trade magazine and on every industry website, and is so prominent that it has created new job titles, from BIM Technicians to BIM Managers.

For some, especially the major players in the industry, BIM makes perfect sense, with PAS (Publicly Available Specification) 1192 providing a useful framework for what needs to be put in place to fully adopt BIM. And of course, the use of BIM is now essential for firms working on Government projects, following the mandate in the 2011 Construction Strategy.

However, adopting BIM isn’t the best solution for every business. Making the leap from an analog approach to fully embracing BIM Level 2 is a monumental undertaking for smaller businesses, requiring significant investment in software, training and staffing.

To further muddy the waters, there are a variety of software packages that can be used for the same purpose, whether it is design or document management.

Given the pace at which software advances are made, and the potential for compatibility issues, there are significant risks of lost investment. Whether this is due to obsolescence or incompatibility, the possibility can simply be too much for some businesses, while larger companies can set the standard which their subcontractors must follow.

Discussion around digital construction is often focused on the macro-economic, with valid ideas around how it will ensure challenges and risks can be identified and evaluated earlier in a project timeline, or how construction can be improved to mitigate byproducts such as carbon output. The push back is that this is all very grand when presented at industry conferences and around the boardroom table, but doesn’t help a team working to tight deadlines on development sites.

Given these disadvantages it might seem as though firms are best avoiding digitisation entirely, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Without having to work to the BIM standards laid out in PAS1192, smaller construction companies, or those simply not looking to adopt the standard, can pick and choose the software which meets their needs, and the needs of their clients. This means that the purchase of expensive programs or unnecessary staff training can also be completely avoided.

For instance, 3D design or ‘authoring’ software is already seeing widespread adoption throughout the industry due to the flexibility and levels of detail that it offers. When coupled with collaboration software which allows projects to be shared with various parties via the cloud this provides tangible advantages.

As a simple example, it’s all too common for document management on site to go awry, and teams working on separate elements of a build may be working from drawings which are at different stages of revision.

Of course, issues begin to arise when these two elements come together, potentially requiring costly alterations to be made. By opting to use collaborative software instead, where the latest file is uploaded to the cloud for the reference of everyone involved, this removes any potential confusion.

Digital construction can also provide advantages to small operations beyond simplifying paperwork. Previously a change to plans would require the time and effort of a Quantity Surveyor manually re-assessing the materials needed. However, 3D design software can produce a live bill of quantities based on the latest revision, removing a time-consuming and tedious process, while also ensuring that there are no material surpluses or shortages.

This also allows workers on site to have access to the same files created by designers and architects in programmes such as Autocad Revit, providing the best possible outcome by preventing information from being lost in translation, and all without having to fully adopt BIM.

As with most forms of collaboration, the key to digital construction is ensuring that every relevant party is involved in the process, from those involved in planning, to specifiers, contractors, product suppliers and distributors.

Indeed, some of the industry’s largest building product distributors, including SIG and their Technical Service centre SIG360, are already investing in collaborative software that will allow a project manager to review a project’s material needs and make recommendations for particular types of products, as part of a value engineering process.

This service would include providing the appropriate product information in a digital format that will form the product data files of the completed building which would be embedded into the digital model of the project.

Any advancement that requires investment will always be a hard sell, especially where firms might be set in their old ways and operating at what they see as a suitable level of efficiency.

This might be especially true for companies that have dug their heels in after considering the costs vs rewards of BIM and why not as its difficult to establish empirical data on the real world cost savings delivered by BIM, but it is important to note that while BIM is digital, not all digital construction is BIM.

While there has been bemusement towards BIM and a stubbornness to adopt its methodology in many corners of the construction market, there may be more pragmatic reasons to embrace digital construction in the coming years. Adopting digital elements to onsite practices that will improve time spent on site and material efficiency, will be vital for many SMEs braced for some demanding years ahead, as predicted challenges facing the sector come to the fore. Adoption of technology and digital processes now could allow many companies to stay quick on their feet and able to adapt to a changing sector.

Given the rate of change that we’re already seeing in the industry it’s unlikely that even the smallest company in the construction industry will bat an eyelid at the thought of using at least some form of digital medium as a matter of course, and they should look to take those first steps now.