When BIM meets GI

The UK government’s Buildings Information Management (BIM) strategy was expected to deliver “…significant improvements in cost, value and carbon performance.” It also addressed some of the needs for downstream asset management, by collating relevant information from the design and construction process.  The image of two Earths reminds us that we now as a race demand at least twice the resources that one Earth has to offer – this is not a trivial matter and demands that we pool all the knowledge we have, breaking down the barriers between professional silos. So what can the BIM initiative learn from GI professionals, what opportunities does it offer and how good is other information about the built environment?

GI – Information on tap

The geographic information community takes for granted the availability of a high quality national digital asset.  There will always be room for improvement but we do have an enviable national spatial database supported by agreed standards and by and large, it does meet the vast majority of our business needs for GI, and has done for many years. Creating this national digital asset has taken a long time and hasn’t been easy.  Of course there is still work to do in many areas and there have been several major step-changes along the way, but the vision of accurate, fit-for-purpose, standardised, unified, nationally maintained, reusable and affordable digital mapping has not changed significantly.  By comparison, existing information describing the built environment (referring to infrastructure and buildings and their structures, materials, energy characteristics and services) remains largely unstandardised, inaccessible to many and far from reusable.  In other words, buildings digitisation is running twenty years late.

Part of the reason lies in the way intellectual property (IP) is managed. Information about buildings and infrastructure comes into existence through separate engineering projects and the IP of data (as opposed to drawings) has either been overlooked or tends to remain with design firms.  Lack of information standards and any central authority and/or repository compounds the problem.  Unlike topographic  data, buildings and infrastructure information has been viewed as transitory and disposable, and used to make plans rather than to accumulate IP for re-use.  So what contribution will BIM make to our national digital asset?

What is BIM?

BIM ostensibly stands for Building Information Modelling but is also taken to mean Building Information Management.  It is a standardised production process that governs the flow, use and content of information exchanged at each logical step. Whilst the UK government’s current strategy focuses on the design & construction stages, BIM per se is aimed at the whole life cycle of the asset – from conception, through design, build, operation and maintenance, refurbishment/re-use and demolition.

BIM cycle

Transactions are managed explicitly so that successive stages and teams get the information they need and it is guaranteed fit for purpose. Mistakes and inconsistencies are ironed out early in the design process and not on site. At the leading edge, improved software from CAD vendors makes it possible to design multi-functionally in 3D, support off-site assembly, enable closer client involvement and even control the movements of vehicles on site as well as optimising site working.  At the trailing edge, BIM’s principles and procedures allow low-tech companies and SME’s to participate and lay the foundation for the later investment in these tools.  There are numerous case studies where BIM has resulted in better, faster design and reusable data. Large infrastructure owners such as airport and rail operators are also looking to BIM for a coherent approach to managing the long term asset base.

BS1192 and PAS1192

Enshrined in British Standards BS1192, PAS1192 and supporting documents[1], the UK’s approach to BIM is much less about technology or data.  It concerns how different stakeholders involved in design and construction can best work together by sharing standardised information.  It is not only about buildings, it is about the collaborative process of building. For the most part, stakeholders are clients contracting for civil engineering or architectural design and construction services, as well as the supply chain upstream and facilities management downstream.  Within the supply chain, stakeholders may include teams concerned with different logical zones of the development and delivering different aspects of the design whether structures, heating, water, health and safety, décor or carbon saving.  BS1192 advocates that stakeholders use a Common Data Environment (comprising defined roles, processes and deliverables) and Standard Methods and Procedures, governing the quality and content of deliverables through to measuring ‘as built’.

In recognition that many organisations in the supply-chain will be at different stages of technical capability, the UK adopted a phased approach for government buildings and infrastructure. By April 2016 all such projects were supposed to comply with ‘level 2’ BIM[2]. However, this means that the information exchanged for many endeavours is likely to remain as drawings and data abstractions, leaving the geometric data with designers and/or construction firms unless otherwise stated.

The focus of BIM is largely on individual structures and essentially project based (with the exception of some large infrastructure operators). There is no explicit over-arching purpose or demand for a national inventory of 3D built form and associated information, such as exists for geospatial information.   It is possible to comply with BS1192 whilst continuing to exchange 2D drawings using local coordinates together with energy, materials and structural information provided as metadata. Such an interpretation of BIM is fit for asset and performance management and some aspects of future contracting but not for a collective, sustainable view of the built environment.

3D building

What about progress?  Research by BIM4SME suggests that only 6-7% of SME’s, the bulk of companies in EC&O supply chains, have so far attained BIM Level 2. In contrast, the Digital Construction Review[3] found 32% of their respondents had done so – a reflection of larger companies more able to make the necessary investment.

Despite the technical appeal of ‘6D BIM’ (where 3D information is complemented by financial, time and resources data), few projects are committing to a complete digital model of the asset and the overheads of creating a complete ontology (taxonomy, terms, standards, synonyms etc). The great majority of design information is still exchanged as PDFs, emulating traditional analogue plans. Off-site construction is slowly gaining headway with some leading companies seeking to invest in their own plant. Robotics, drones, digital printing and other next-gen technologies are gaining much interest but have little adoption, and the basic business model remains largely unchanged.


Data from the Digital Construction Review 2016

At the same time, a digitally connected workforce exists that is familiar with smartphones, apps and so forth, and with consumer expectations honed by a Digital world.  This is a ‘B2C gap’ waiting to be filled and the prevalence of Cloud solutions ‘As a Service’ now makes this far more achievable. A connected workforce, enabled by mobile apps and with multi-channel communications services from suppliers such as Vodaphone, AT&T or Arkessa, can experience an entirely new workplace in which workers and their needs are at the centre of user experience, whether concerned with tasks, mobility, knowledge, safety, equipment, asset inspections or any other aspect of their daily life – provided the data exist. Location-based services play a key role in a wide range of operational areas – risk assessment, supply chain optimisation, resource scheduling or emergency response, an open door to Digitalisation and Geospatial can lead the way.

Digital divides

Despite the advances of BIM for the construction industry, professional divides and silo-thinking still dominate the overall approach to our national digital asset.  This is not new. Chainage-based measures have been used to describe and locate transport assets using linear distance measures from a reference point (e.g. railway assets were always referred to by their distance along the line from the relevant London terminus).  Only when GIS companies were persuaded to invest in ‘dynamic segmentation’ and other methods could this information be converted into location-based intelligence and used with other spatial information.  Similarly, transport planners used to create their own versions of the road network, unable to integrate other map-based intelligence until technology caught up.

Cross-referencing of disparate national data sets such as the national Land and Property Gazetteer, Ordnance Survey Mastermap Address Layer 2 and the Non-Domestic Ratings file from the Valuation Office Agency has been handicapped by fundamental differences in underlying concepts about what a ‘building’ is and how it should be defined (e.g. ‘where two or more properties are within the same curtilage or contiguous to one another, and are in the same occupation, they are as a general rule to be treated for rating purposes as if they formed parts of a single hereditament’, Lord Denning).  Similarly, securing and integrating data about energy performance (a key focus of BIM) is obstructed by conflicting views on data ownership and protection, data definition and referencing. Progress is being made but it is slow due to lack of coherent direction or business purpose.

Institutional divides

Our institutional divides are comparable to hospital departments having different definitions for the same parts of the body, different names and different ways of measuring and describing them.  In contrast, Eastern medicine is concerned with a holistic approach and overall well-being.  Our cities are open systems formed of transport and other networks, buildings and open space. They have their own microclimates and environments.  If we star-gaze for a moment, imagine being able to access coherent information about the urban landscape from cloud repositories in order to obtain a holistic 4D view.  If that sounds overly ambitious, remember that building cadastres were established in many Central and Eastern European countries well before the age of digital cartography.  The government’s 2008 Foresight Report ‘Sustainable Energy Management and the Built Environment (SEMBE)’ concluded that a national data observatory is a top priority if we are to manage our energy and carbon futures. There are as yet, no visible stepping stones towards this vision. Integration is the ultimate test for how well information is defined and managed.  In practice there is a tendency to start at the wrong end, finding information and exchanging it, finally questioning what it is actually supposed to mean when problems arise with integration.  Is a building defined by physical structure, legal ownership, occupancy or activity? At the most simple level, it is not as easy as it sounds to uniquely identify a built structure in order to exchange information about it.  BIM is a huge step forward for the construction industry and long overdue. To make BIM data become part of the UK’s digital roadmap, we need to be able to uniquely identify built structure and have a common, consistent understanding of what the information means, as well as a unified coordinate space and means of exchanging data through initiatives like BuildingSmart. History has shown that trying to rationalise after the event is a slow and painful process.  In summary, it’s time we got our act together.


Thanks to Ian Bush, Director of BIM – Black & Veatch for contributing to this feature.

[1] www.bimtaskgroup.org/

[2] Meaning that standardised and quality checked information is passed between different information systems

[3] Digital Construction Review March 2016 ‘A report on the current and projected adoption of digital technologies and practices in the construction industry’

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