Digital construction and the opportunities for SMEs
For the fifth in our series of digital roundtable discussions run by the Centre for Digital Built Britain in association with Chartered Institute of Building, we looked at how SMEs are faring with BIM, the rewards some are already reaping and the obstacles they are encountering.
Embracing BIM gives SMEs a real opportunity to achieve competitive advantage, win repeat business, drive down costs and deliver better quality outcomes. However, they are also facing significant challenges, including a lack of BIM maturity among clients and other supply chain partners, contracts that don’t ask for BIM deliverables, and the cost of software and the complexity of licensing it.
These were some of the key issues emerging from a lively discussion between a group of SMEs spanning construction, architecture, engineering, quantity surveying and project management who had gathered for the fifth in our series of digital debates organised by the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) and the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB).
CDBB will use these sessions, which are also covering academia, Tier 1 constructors, consultants, manufacturers, technology providers, facilities management (FM) suppliers and clients, to help understand how BIM is being adopted and to inform future work.
Getting the right people
Skills are an issue for businesses of all sizes, and in some ways the SMEs felt they were more able to recruit and retain the right staff than some of the bigger players. The participants were all committed to training.
Malcolm Clarke said: “SMEs have got a better opportunity of attracting people to those roles and then holding onto them. If you talk to someone about BIM and they are in an organisation where it isn’t really happening, they are frustrated.” “We take on young people and train them up,” said Faulkner, “send them off to college and uni, and look after them and then you get that sort of loyalty and they understand the way you work.”
David Miller (above) was impressed by the digital skills young people have. “We do lots of work experience throughout the year with 15 and 16-year-olds. By the end of the week they’ve built a Revit model, animated it and produced the report.”
However, their strong digital skills are generally not matched by their knowledge of construction. The SMEs agreed that the way in which degree courses are structured does not give graduates a fully rounded understanding of the sector and, hence, the ability to work in collaborative teams.
The debate was chaired by Terry Stocks, leader of the CDBB BIM Level 2 workstream. He began by asking the participants about their respective experiences of BIM. While there were some differences in the extent to which they had adopted it, the one thing they all had in common was a conviction that BIM is helping them to grow their businesses.
In a highly competitive market with “over 30 architecture practices with the same postcode as us,” explained architect, David Miller, “we decided to reimagine our practice around a technological way of working.” BIM has been embedded in his organisation for the last 10 years and this is paying dividends both in repeat business and in extending their role in projects. “The practices that have adopted robust quality management techniques are able to stay with their projects and develop relationships with contractors as well clients.”
Malcolm Clarke, managing director of Baxall Construction, is also convinced of the merits of digital transformation and has seen his company’s growth accelerate in the last five years as a direct result. “Collaborative working through the whole process using not only designers but also our supply chain and offsite manufacturing was a massive change. It has meant we can reduce our costs, create a sustainable profit and deliver a really good product.”
Taking a digital approach has enabled his firm to achieve net profits that are significantly higher than the industry norm, allowing it to invest in further innovation. Clarke concluded: “The biggest game changer is cutting out the waste. By getting better models and better clash detection you are saving thousands of pounds.”
Allister Lewis, head of technology at Ayre Chamberlain Gaunt Architects, agreed that BIM is delivering significant benefits to clients, both as a result of more competitive fee submissions and through the quality of outcomes.
However, BIM is not only about saving costs and being more efficient. Lewis went on to say: “As well as the monetary value, people are working more collaboratively and, arguably, that’s the biggest improvement.” Steve Faulkner, associate director at structural engineer Elliott Wood and chair of the IStructE BIM panel, added: “What we deliver in terms of the drawings and the models are a lot better, but also what we are designing is better.”
However, Faulkner issued a reality check about how widely BIM is being implemented. “At Elliott Wood we’ve used Revit for over 10 years. We understand BIM. But although we are continually told ‘this is a BIM Level 2 project’ we probably haven’t ever had one proper project – we are just doing bits and pieces.”
The SMEs stressed that even if their clients did not ask for a clearly defined set of BIM deliverables, they still opt to work digitally because it is more efficient to do so and gives them a better output.
Faulkner went on to flag up another key issue for the sector. At the moment, the data that Elliott Wood embeds in a model needs to be validated by the recipient. Andrew Turner, partner at Henry Riley, confirmed that this is a problem: “Even today I’d say I’ve never received a model from any designer that I’ve been able to use correctly on day one.”
The participants agreed that being able to embed robust data in models that can be used for quantity extraction would bring significant benefits to the sector as a whole.
Challenges for SMEs
While the round table participants were all persuaded of the merits of BIM, they acknowledged that putting it into practice can be challenging. As an SME, finding other small contractors to work with can be a problem. Architect Patrick Wilson said: “You are struggling to find anybody who understands, still less is implementing, anything that approaches digital information transfer.”
In this regard, fellow architect Lewis also pointed to what he considers to be a two-tier system with a lot of expertise in London but patchier representation regionally. He thinks the BIM mandate has been strong in supporting central government departments but there has been less focus on local authorities which has diluted the opportunity for a wider scale engagement. He is concerned that: “This could lead to a digital divide in the construction sector between those who do and those who do not do BIM.”