Building information modelling (BIM) may sound off-putting. But it is the revolution that could transform facilities managers (FMs) into top built environment professionals with their vital practical experience, says Jon Herbert.

FMs must aim to do more than simply learn to understand the digital revolution swiftly taking place through BIM. They need to take it, shape it and develop it in their own image before the construction industry tail begins to wag the operations and maintenance dog.

So says a new British Institute of Facilities Management (BIFM) report, which makes some radical but common sense suggestions.

It notes that facilities management is still not properly understood by the construction industry and the wider built environment profession. In reality, the invaluable insights into building use that FMs can bring is sorely lacking in the design, procurement and construction process.

BIM could provide the ideal opportunity to put this right. In fact, it could lead to valuable bridges being built between the world of facilities management and the rest of the industry.

So what is BIM?

Building information modelling is an initiative to bring the construction sector into the digital age. If that sounds vague and woolly, consider something as simple as the image of a door-set.

At one level, it is a 3D diagram. However, it has many additional properties. Through another set of eyes, its fire-resistant properties will be crucially important. Someone else may be concerned about its durability under heavy use. What are the details of its supplier’s warranty? To another end-user, acoustical properties in a busy office environment will be a vital concern. Cost will inevitably be a key factor. Will the door be safe in its intended use? Is it attractive? And is it the most suitable design available?

Meanwhile, sustainable procurement, recycling and eventual disposal should also be high on the agenda. Even a humble door-set will have a carbon and energy footprint!

Thus, the door-set begins to have time-element, lifetime value and whole-life costings. Until now, how are these considerations compiled successfully? In practice, the answer is often quite poorly. There has always been a danger that individuals involved in the overall specification and procurement process will be restricted by their own perspectives.

Imagine these considerations scaled up from a door-set to an entire construction project. The enormous risks involved and potential benefits begin to come clear.

The BIM revolution aims to end the hidden confusion that, until now, has most probably cost the construction sector and end-users a fortune. In sectors such as aerospace and the chemical process, the digital definition and description of complex interrelated components operating in stressful environments is already an advanced science.

As easy as Googling

As the largest UK construction industry procurer, the Government is determined that Britain will not fall behind the lead being taken by other nations.

In case this sounds terribly complex and confusing, the predictions are for quite the reverse. Once the new digital technologies are established, life for operators will be much more straightforward. An example often cited is the innovation of Google.

The information technology that drives Google is mind-bogglingly complicated. But there is no need for the ordinary user to see what is under the bonnet as they “Google” for consumer goods and information.

In the same way, the BIM definition for many building and construction sector products is likely to become the easy-to-use directory or catalogue of larger manufacturers.

However, there is some way to go before this goal can be reached. It is here that FMs have a vital contribution to make.

Mind the gap

The report released at the end of 2012 following the BIFM’s first FM Leaders Forum — BIM and FM: Bridging the Gap for Success — pinpoints the fact that, until now, BIM development has largely evolved from the construction and design side of the built environment. This is putting the cart very much before the horse.

It is end-user considerations that will last through a building’s lifetime and should be the key driver — and not merely the convenience of the construction phase.

Here, the knowledge and experience of FMs must increasingly play a vital role.

This point has been taken up by Gareth Tancred, BIFM CEO, who said: “The expertise the facilities management profession offers is key, in both individual projects and in the development of BIM technology for the industry. They bring the insight and understanding of the end-user for the building and are currently under-represented in many cases.”

“The FM Leaders Forum discussion highlighted that facilities management is still not wholly understood by the wider built environment profession and that BIM could prove to be a catalyst for building valuable strategic bridges between facilities management and the wider built environment.”

Five priorities

Five key actions have been laid out. The first is to raise continuously, throughout the construction sector and to Government, the profile and value that FMs can bring in delivering more effective buildings. The second is clarifying exactly what the lifetime value of buildings means to ensure that everyone understands that this applies as much to operational costs as to construction costs.

Third, there is to be a conscious drive to include FMs at the specification stage — it is essential that they work very closely with designers when digital plans of work are created.

A fourth point is increased FM involvement when standards, classification systems and datasets are being established — the technology must be developed in ways useful to FMs who work at the sharp end.

Finally, the BIFM feels that it is well positioned to lead best FM practice as construction adopts BIM.

Information is the key

In case it is not quite clear, the key to BIM is good information. This means that an entire project’s physical structure and functional services over time can be constructed virtually before the first brick is ever laid on site.

Almost as a logical extension of the digital technology behind iPads, mobile phones and the Internet, the construction industry will increasingly see routine digital information flows that begin at project inception and continue through to final demolition and disposal. These will come into place by 2016 under the Government Construction Strategy published in May 2011.

The Government’s initiative will see all project, asset information, documentation and data held electronically to a minimum standard. This will be raised progressively. The aim is to cut capital costs and carbon emissions from construction and the operational built environment by 20%.

Information flows

Thinking about BIM in terms of information flows, rather than as a software product, people or process is important in unlocking still greater potential.

As an example, if the fire-resistant characteristics of components can be defined accurately, a property’s fire rating can be modelled and analysed as a precursor to developing a bespoke fire strategy. The beauty is that anomalies stand out clearly. This is likely to lead to better, more consistent procurement. The same applies to many other facility functions.

Links with manufacturers will improve too. The ability to exchange and match digital information is more efficient than the manual retyping of information between one 2D format and another.

However, further development of software packages will be essential first. There is still a lack of software tools that can bring together digital information between briefings, design, specification, construction, operation and maintenance.

As part of its investment in BIM, the Government is providing a series of resources. This includes PAS 1192, which documents the delivery of BIM-enabled design and construction information. It also includes COBie UK 2012, a data exchange standard allowing the transfer of information. A third element is product templates that will be used to define construction products.

After several years of near-zero growth, the Government hopes that BIM development and implementation, with all its attractive benefits, saving and efficiencies, will have the power to help to lift a far sleeker construction sector out of the long-term economic doldrums.

Last reviewed 16 April 2013