How is the rest of the world getting on with BIM?

2 April 2015

When it comes to developing and adopting BIM, the UK is a leading light. Elaine Knutt takes a tour of countries to see how well BIM translates - and whether the UK can turn its expertise into an export.

Let’s take a satellite view of BIM around the world – the take-up and adoption of data-driven construction by contractors, clients and governments. There are hot spots and cold spots;  early adopters and late entrants; markets where BIM is geared to the needs of clients and building owners, and countries where BIM is shaped by supply-side of contractors and consultants. There are territories where BIM software vendors play a central role or a supporting one, and where governments have chosen either the passenger seat or the driver’s.

It is a varied and inconsistent picture, which is hardly surprising when BIM is being adopted in construction markets that are themselves hugely varied. BIM will look very different, for example, in the large, fragmented US and UK industries, where contract relationships need to be foregrounded, than in the smaller Nordic markets, where everyone is more likely to be on the same page.

Nashwan Dawood, professor at the School of Science and Engineering at the UK’s Teesside University, has first-hand experience of BIM’s global variations: he has been appointed to recommend a BIM-adoption route for the government of Qatar, while his senior lecturer colleague, Mohamad Kassem, is undertaking a similar project for the government of Brazil.

“I think every country will develop in their own way, reflecting their government, clients and procurement routes,” says Dawood. “The way contracts are procured has a massive impact.”

Meeting of minds

Phil Bernstein, vice-president of software provider Autodesk, also has a global overview of the factors shaping BIM adoption around the world: “The technology is at the intersection of work processes, national standards, contractual models and project delivery models,” says Bernstein, a former architect at Cesar Pelli Associates. “Construction is highly localised, and BIM is a knowledge system about the way things get built, so the technology operates at the intersection of the delivery model and the software. BIM adoption is a non-trivial problem.”

Around the world, we are seeing most advanced construction markets grapple with BIM to some extent, and most people have a rough notion of a global “league table” of adoption. “You’ve got the super-early adopters in the Nordics, the Austrians and Dutch have stuff going on, and the French and Germans are starting to get engaged,” says Angelo Ciribini, professor at the University of Brescia in Italy. “The beginning is taking some time, and then typically starts developing faster as more people see the benefits and figure out ways of using the technology.”

But measuring and comparing BIM adoption internationally is tricky, as BIM is a slippery concept that can mean anything from 3D modelling, to full digital project management from tender notice to hand-over. McGraw Hill’s 2013 survey, the Business Value of BIM in Construction in Major Global Markets, suggests an implementation league table headed by the US, followed by Germany, France, Australia, Canada, UK, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Brazil. The NBS International BIM Report 2013 survey shows a slightly different hierarchy: 67% of respondents in Finland are using BIM, 66% in Canada, 57% in New Zealand and just 43% in the UK.

Lingua franca

But it’s clear that BIM is becoming a lingua franca for the sector internationally, and there are genuine attempts to ensure that construction trade barriers – in terms of different national technical standards, terminology  and contracting models – are not simply digitally replicated in nationalistic BIM policies. “There’s a lot of exchange at international level, and a lot of competition becuase everyone wants to upskill their industry,” comments Jennifer Whyte, professor at the School of Construction Management and Engineering at the UK’s University of Reading.

However, in the UK we have become attached to the idea that the UK can lead from the front in establishing BIM protocols and  methods that are adopted around the world – which could then translate into market opportunities for British contractors and consultants overseas.

The 2013 government-backed report Growth Through BIM looked at how to maximise the growth effect of the UK BIM strategy for export markets. It says: “The export of UK construction services and products is most practicable into countries which recognise UK classification, standards and contract processes… One arm of any export drive must be to spread the reach of UK standards.”

The UK’s BIM Task Group’s success in laying down nationally agreed protocols and processes has certainly been turning heads in many countries. The model has had a direct influence on our European Union neighbours – the European Commission is now funding an EU BIM Task Group with representatives from each member state – while France and Germany have also both  established similar government-backed task groups, although only France has adopted a partial mandate.

"There's a lot of exchange at international level, and a lot of competition because everyone wants to upskill their construction industry."

Jennifer Whyte, University of Reading

Reading’s Whyte says the game changer for the UK that other countries should adopt was our client-centred approach, which instantly raised the debate above commercial interests: “The thing the UK has done right is to focus on the client’s perspective, so it’s not about arguments about who gets value out of it. The client owns the model and gets that as a deliverable. That moves everyone forward in a great leap,” she says.

Then there is the international BuildingSMART organisation, which has national chapters in many countries. It aims to pave the way to fully “open” interoperable BIM that would help to dissolve the artificial barriers between individual companies and national markets. BuildingSMART’s UK chapter is also,  promoting home-grown innovations to an international audience, achieving the significant success of ensuring that the the UK’s PAS 1192:2 is converted into an ISO (an international working group is currently engaged on this task). It now hopes to promote overseas awareness of the forthcoming Digital Plan of Works.

But how realistic is that notion that we will see UK BIM standards go forth into the world, forging a pathway for UK contractors and consultants to follow? Teesside’s Dawood has his doubts, pointing out that standards are only documents until they are officially adopted – and that takes political will: “The ISO standard can exist, but it will only be enforced if the client is behind it,” he says.

Autodesk’s Bernstein, however, suggests the UK’s leading role in rolling out BIM will restore a historic global advantage: “The UK has always been seen as a construction and engineering leader worldwide. After we [at Cesar Pelli Associates] built Canary Wharf, the UK-based management team picked up and went to Kuala Lumpur to build the Petronas Towers. The ability to box that expertise and bring with it UK suppliers and expertise is one impact of modernising a construction industry.”

Export strength

So perhaps the “soft” factors of reputation and image are the most realistic way for the UK to convert its lead on BIM into commercial advantage. There may well be future successes in exporting BIM documents and protocols – PAS 1192:2 becoming an ISO, the Employer’s Information Requirements and the Digital Plan of Works for instance– but meaningful adoption in other countries will depend on the underlying market characteristics, which our country-by-country analysis shows are highly varied.

Yet there is little doubt among the international commentators Construction Manager spoke that the UK is seen as as acting as a world leader on BIM, and that it’s progression to level 3 BIM is likely to cement that position. The advantages may not be direct, but for a generation of UK-trained and BIM-skilled consultants and contractors, the distance between one country and another is getting smaller.

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