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The human side of BIM

Atkins | 04 Nov 2015 | Comments

As Building Information Modelling (BIM) becomes integral to more and more projects around the world we consider the implications for individuals with the rise of BIM and digital engineering.

The stratospheric rise of the use of BIM in the design, construction and operation of infrastructure, buildings and other assets has changed the way that project teams work together, demanding new levels of collaboration. “When you are using BIM to its fullest extent you really need the team to come together at the early stages of a project to sort out things like digital engineering workflow, and a digital plan of work - things that didn’t used to exist before,” explains Donna Huey, director of strategic ventures for Atkins in North America. “However the people that have historically come together at such early stages aren’t necessarily those that have the expertise to sort out these new challenges. So our project and discipline leaders are having to learn new skills - even a new language - to ensure that they are taking the right decisions in those early foundational elements of a project.”

By bringing the project data together into a single information model the use of BIM creates a virtual project environment that the entire project team can work within. “It’s interesting because it’s not just about technology, it’s about collaborative working, which is such a buzz word. It means that the timing is right to ensure that professionals and clients are digitally enabled,” says Anne Kemp, director of BIM at Atkins and vice-chair of BuildingSMART UK and Ireland, a collaborative industry body set up to develop standards, tools and training that facilitate the open use of BIM.

Ensuring this digital enablement starts in the very early stages of a project means a lot more communication. “There are so many more interdependencies in the early stages. You have to talk and coordinate what you do. You can’t work in isolation but that is sometimes an uncomfortable place for some people in the design space,” says Huey, explaining that encouraging people to meet in the middle is an important step in facilitating the greater collaboration that BIM enables. “So whether you are an executive that has to roll up your sleeves and learn more about the technology so that you can be a better leader or whether it means you are a CAD or BIM designer used to working more in isolation and now you have to be more visible and communicative, we are trying to help people meet in the middle,” says Huey. 

New relationships

Within the virtual world of the building information model itself the interactions between project teams, whether that is internally or externally, are changing. Sharing a digital space means new kinds of relationships form. “When we were face to face it was a more tactile environment. We could physically read the room with instinct and emotional intelligence. In the virtual world we haven’t got that,” says Kemp, explaining that in the absence of physical clues to be interpreted new ways of building relationships are emerging. “How do we develop a trusting, robust relationship virtually, on a one to one or a team basis? How can you engender trust in a virtual world? Part of it is through data. Are you sharing the data, is the data trustworthy, is it reliable, is it consistent, are you allowing it to be shared in a timely manner and in a way that can be understood?”

This data sharing is where the real opportunities of BIM emerge says Kemp, as the flow of information is reliable, controlled and available to the project team, opening up some of the silos that previously existed between different teams and different organisations. This in turn enables better decision making with more clarity about the project outcomes from a very early stage.

The ability to show the impact of the design in a 3D way is proving to be a powerful tool for designers who are able to demonstrate options to clients like never before. “We are delivering a project for a client in Atlanta at the moment, and we felt the best design solution should include a bridge. Using BIM, we were able to produce multiple options in a true-to-site virtual environment,” says Chris Harman, Atkins’ senior engineer in the aviation department in North America. “When the stakeholders saw the options modelled, they realised the value of the design that included the bridge. We were able to deliver this quickly. Without BIM it would have taken significant time and money to achieve the same outcome.”

Harman would know. As a senior engineer he is experienced with working with and without digital tools like BIM and as the technology emerged over the past decade he was one of the first to champion its potential. “In the beginning, our managers would say ‘are you guys going to use BIM to deliver this?’ The thought at the time was that we didn’t have the time or the money to deliver in 3D, but I would tell my managers we can’t afford not to deliver this way,” he says. And the opportunities that this gave clients quickly became clear. “In the last 10 years clients expect us to deliver change much faster. BIM has allowed us to give clients what they want late in the game with ongoing coordination.”

Harman too has been impressed by the benefits of better collaboration. “The whole team is working on one model rather than everyone in silos. It makes it easier to collaborate, especially on multidisciplinary projects - you can see what everyone else is doing. In the same way that clients are able to get a feel for the end product, we can see what another group is trying to do. The culture has changed.” 

Learning curve

For Harman, a senior engineer and technical specialist, being an early adopter at the cutting edge of BIM meant watching the emergence of new software updates and learning by doing.  “If you wait for training to come along you will be two years behind,” he says but points out that he then shares his findings internally by delivering training to other engineers, technicians and modellers. “If we are going to be using this new tech as it comes out we can’t wait for there to be training modules,” he says.

Empowering people like Harman to find their own way is a key part of Atkins’ strategy in this field, and is particularly important for young professionals. “There is a culture of mentoring, a culture of empowering people to find their own way and this is really important in this digital shift and the use of BIM and collaborative working,” says Kemp, explaining that dramatic technology changes in the past decade mean that younger professionals are already digitally enabled so supporting the application of this is key. “Our young managers are digitally au-fait and we need to ensure that appropriate wisdom is cascaded through so that they can learn this appropriately without us imposing unnecessary assumptions on them.”

This also means ensuring that there is not an over reliance on the data and that engineering skill, knowledge and application is not lost.

At the same time it also means more focus on the data itself. Recently, Atkins revealed the development of a new BIM tool that will enable the comparison of multiple construction materials at the outset of a project to provide a clear understanding of capital cost against the long term environmental impact. The tool which was developed in collaboration with the British University in Dubai will radically improve how construction materials are evaluated to meet the environmental impact requirements of LEED V4. “BIM is a hugely powerful resource but it will only ever be as good as the information which is put into it,” says Simon Nummy, Atkins’ sustainable design manager for rail. “By enriching our BIM tools with high quality, reliable information on materials we’ll be able to make more informed decisions at the outset of projects and programmes, with a clear understanding of cost, environmental impact and design implications.”

“It’s exciting because the tool will motivate an integrated design process right at the start of major projects,” says former Masters student Toufik Jabbour, who now works for Atkins as 6D BIM specialist, leading the development of the tool. “And that’s what BIM is all about. It improves knowledge and changes behaviours to deliver construction projects which are more sustainable in every sense of the word.”

More about BIM

BIM involves the creation of intelligence 3D models that are supported by relevant digital data. It is a ‘virtual project’ that then becomes a single source of information used to inform and assist the client and the project team during design, construction and even the asset management phases. BIM brings together three important strands of information management: people, process and technology. Read more here.