Déjà Vu again

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It was Yogi Berra, former manager of the New York Yankees baseball team, who first said: It’s like déjà vu all over again — apparently in response to a second home run being hit in a single innings.

Yogi Berra was something of a savant at using tautology to make a point. He once famously said: You can observe a lot by watching, and was so impressed by this statement that he used it as the title for his book on baseball.

As more of a watcher than a doer in the construction scene over recent years I have, to misquote Berra, learned a lot by watching. Being apart from the hurly burly of design and construction, I can take more of a relaxed and neutral view on events.

Recently I have been reporting on the results of a national survey on Building Information Modelling (BIM). Conducted by Masterspec in association with NBS (UK) and supported by local industry groups, the survey provides a snapshot of current views on BIM from the 426 respondents.

The term Building Information Modelling continues to have a wide spectrum of meanings, even for those familiar with the new technology, with a strong if inaccurate belief that BIM = 3D CAD.

A more precise definition of BIM is:
BIM is the common name for the digital representation of the building process, to facilitate the exchange and interoperability of information in a digital format.
BIM is seen by the government-sponsored Productivity Partnership as an important element in achieving their stated aim of a 20% increase in construction industry productivity by 2020.

However, to be effective in leading growth in industry effectiveness, a Building Information Model must be interoperable among the current range of software tools and also capable of providing a rich source of data. It must be, and be seen to be, more than just a simple geometric view of a building project.

For this to happen, all sectors of the industry — design, construction, product supply and those approving and managing the construction process — must collaborate. This will require a cultural as well as a technical shift.
It will also require leadership. And to date no one has put their hand up to ensure the construction industry gains:
• Agreement on a national, neutral classification system for BIM objects,
• A national library of BIM objects,
• Education and training in the use of BIM technology,
• Research into the impact BIM will have on design and construction teams, and
• Project-based liability insurance cover (and not joint and several liability) to allow collaboration to occur.

Our industry is littered with examples of lost opportunities, opportunities to advance beyond the stone age. Back in the early days of design-build in the 1970s I recall asking the construction manager appointed at the start of the design process how he would like the building’s facade constructed.

His answer was prescient of the likelihood of future collaboration: Design it how you like and then I will build it how I like. No possibility of any real engagement there then.
I also cringe when recalling a certain project manager, that delightful role invented in the early 1980s, who said I would need to accept a cheaper roof cladding system because he had underestimated the cost of the interior fitout.

Certainly, this was the last time I ever accepted a commission where a project manager was appointed to sit between the design team and the client.
I accept that the world and the industry has moved on and, right or wrong, the balance of influence and involvement in a construction project has changed quite radically. The days of the architect or engineer as master builder are unlikely to ever return.

Why architects or engineers didn’t take the opportunity to upskill and take on the project management role themselves will never cease to amaze me.
I know it is an old fashioned view, but placing any sort of administrative filter between the design team and the client group is just plain dumb. Probably just as dumb as the current attempts to remove the designers from having any on-site role at all.

So many lost opportunities, lost because we each — but designers and contractors in particular — continue to occupy our separate silos of activity, and refuse to co-operate with others in the industry unless we absolutely have to.

For the real advantages of BIM to be realised all parties must collaborate, from the start of project commissioning, through final code compliance and hand over to the client or building owner.

The question is: who is going to step up, take the lead role and become the BIM manager? Never before has there been such a golden opportunity to lead the industry out of the dark ages and into the 21st Century in a meaningful way.
Without strong leadership this will become yet another partially realised or, potentially, a lost opportunity.

Don’t let’s repeat what happened with project management, where a completely new profession — and one with more focus on the bottom line than quality of result — has been allowed to appear and dominate.

Surely what has happened with so many school building project failures over recent years should be a wake-up call. Build cheap and you end up building twice.
With BIM, collaboration is the key to achieving the full advantage of this new technology shift. This will require thoughtful and inclusive leadership just as much as flash new software and industry guides.

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