Cold calculations

Construction software's move to cloud based servers is changing the way the industry uses and pays for services

The 3D models created through BIM help to avoid design clashes.
The 3D models created through BIM help to avoid design clashes.

As with CAD and other applications before it, the widespread use and adoption of Building Information Modelling (BIM) across the construction industry is now seen as an inevitability, and its most eager proponents see the software as nothing short of revolutionary in terms of its impact.

BIM, they point out, has the ability to change virtually every aspect of the way in which buildings are designed, procured, built and handed over by getting the client, architect, engineers, contractors, subcontractors and even the supply chain to feed all of their information into one, data-rich 3D design package.

The system, it is argued, can serve as a cure-all for everything from design clashes between different consultants that were previously only discovered once on site (and therefore difficult to fix) to poor procurement and continuity problems once buildings are handed over.

Its keenest proponents also state that the system delivers considerable value, even though software providers themselves are often reluctant to talk even ballpark figures regarding costs.

For instance, Chris Palfreyman, a director of engineering information management at Bentley Systems, told CW that giving a price for a BIM license was too simplistic, as it doesn’t take into account how the system will be used.

“BIM is a process that has to be implemented, so the cost will depend upon the individual circumstances such as team size, locations, disciplines and so on,” he argues.

As a rough guide, the cost per user of a BIM system seems to range from between $1,500-$4,000, but several other costs may also need to be factored in. For instance, some firms will already have cost estimating and construction collaboration systems in place with which BIM software packages are integrated, but others won’t and may have to add these in at extra cost.

With traditional licence or ‘seat’ sales, an element of training or consultancy will also be needed, and many smaller firms, in particular, may need to upgrade existing hardware to cope with the massive file sizes they will need to be able to view and manipulate. The average size of a typical BIM file has been increasing exponentially as its use on projects becomes more detailed, and file sizes of over 1GB are no longer uncommon.

Louay Dahmash, Middle East sales director for construction software company Autodesk, describes BIM as “an intelligent model–based process that provides insight for creating and managing building and infrastructure projects faster, more economically and with less environmental impact”.

This is a big claim, but Dahmash argues that using the software leads to the creation of a “reliable, digital representation” of a building before any construction work starts. This means the documentation available to contractors is of a much higher standard, leading to more informed decisions being taken regarding performance planning, cost estimates and project scheduling.

“It also provides users with up-to-date and reliable information of the project design, cost information, schedules, energy analysis, structural design and quantity takeoff necessary for the construction projects,” he says.

Yet Palfreyman believes that BIM’s benefits go much further.

“The big benefit people often refer to is eradicating clashes between disciplines and elements of the design – for example a pipe clashing with a steel member. But in reality, that’s a by-product of good 3D design. This is nowhere near as important as being able to use and re-use information created in previous stages of a project. This information gets diluted or even lost using traditional processes.”

For instance, BIM is currently being used on both the Riyadh (see p. 46) and Doha (p.48) Metro projects – each of which involves a myriad of consultants and joint venture contracting partners. Each is also expected to take at least five years from the design stage through to final commissioning and operations.

Under traditional methods, by the time something like this is handed over to its operator, many of the people who began the project (and the rationale for their decisions) have long since gone. As a result, the chances of discovering why a particular floorcovering was used, or why ducts and voids were placed in certain locations are slim- to non-existent.

“With BIM, however, all of those documents can not only be stored, but linked to specific project elements.

“The incremental creation of reliable information that can be used at all stages of the project life-cycle is critical for the person that’s going to own or operate the asset,” Palfreyman says. “Think about it creating a digital representation of the physical asset – in other words, building an information model.

“For example, let’s imagine something is changed during construction – it happens every day. It’s often recorded on an as built drawing but the reason behind the change isn’t. Perhaps things that get changed for aesthetic reasons that are not so critical but imagine an un-documented change to a critical component in a public building such as an airport or hospital such as fire exits, pump capacity or the dimensions of a steel member.

“It’s critical that the reason for that change and the implications of it are known to all that come after the commissioning and handover. A BIM process ensures these changes are captured and available to all that need to know.”

Peter Hedlund, regional director for construction software specialist Trimble, says this is where the real value of BIM comes in – by “enabling the creation, management and sharing of the properties of a building throughout its lifecycle”.

Speaking of value, Palfreyman argues that any construction project that requires co-ordination between different disciplines would benefit from running a BIM process, regardless of size.

“Research on simple things such as just being able to quickly locate the correct version of a drawing or document saves up to 40% of an engineer’s time – this is a huge cost saving,” he says. “Once you start to add the cost of poor coordination and rework, the costs go up and up.”

He points to the UK government’s decision to mandate BIM on all publicly-funded projects by 2016. It has taken the decision because it believes that by implementing technology it can typically save around 20% of the costs of projects such as hospitals or airports.

“Frankly, I think that’s conservative. The benefit is huge, but they’re likely to have picked that (20%) because they want to put a line in the sand. Other governments have done research and have put that figure at anywhere between 10-40%. It is difficult to say exactly how much, but there is a definite benefit compared to not doing it at all,” he says.

Hedlund, meanwhile, argues that in order for BIM to work best, the information within models should be made available to work within collaboration platforms, such as his own firm’s Trimble Connect.

“The combination of constructible models accessed across connected platforms is the big trend that will make it easier for all parties involved.”

Palfreyman agrees, arguing that the portability of BIM models and the ability to access information on tablets, phones or any other communication method in the field via cloud-based applications is one of two major trends that will continue to grow in prominence in this market.

Peter Cheney, managing director of CCS – a construction software specialist that makes cost estimating and project management software – says an ability to access data in the field is particularly suited to this industry where “work is normally decentralised and information is required to be sent to a central server”.

“The use of handheld devices and the availability of low-cost WiFi and internet connectivity has opened up the possibility of the dissemination of data across a wide geographical space quickly and efficiently,” he says.

“Products need to follow the availability of data access and as such, the range of applications will reflect this capability. Data capture at source, the transmission of data and the receipt of processed results will see a revolutionary shift in the way organisations run their operations.”

The other major change Palfreyman predicts is changes to the way software is sold, with traditional licences being replaced by Software as a Service, where companies pay monthly subscription fees.

Autodesk, for instance, last month announced that it would end the sale of most of its desktop software packages (including BIM and AutoCAD products) through one-off licences, instead charging monthly subscription fees.

The company’s senior vice-president of sales and marketing, Andrew Anagnost, said the move would allow it to deliver “greater flexibility and more value” from software packages.

Palfreyman adds that offering software on such a basis allows for the kind of instant access that many clients now demand.
“It’s like the difference between taking a mobile phone on a contract basis or pay-as-you-go. With the pay-as-you-go model, you just pay for what you use. Our high-end users have been able to do that for a very long time but that has now been rolled out across the board. Overall, the response has been very good.”

He says that this ability to pick only the parts that are required, and the ability to be able to work on the system almost instantly via the cloud will mean that take-up rates for BIM-related software are likely to continue recent growth.

“You can sign on and begin working as a team, collaborating on designs and building that information model.

“If we put this all together, I can see every project using BIM in some context in the not-too-distant future.”

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