Malcolm Walker at the Bentley Year in Infrastructure launch

If only every government could be like the UK’s, says Malcolm Walter, chief operating officer for Bentley Systems, which produces building information modelling software.

From next year the UK starts mandating that all centrally procured government contracts must be designed and managed to level 2 BIM standards, and Walter would love to see many other governments, including his own, the US, follow suit.

But it’s not that easy.

Sure there are big advantages to the system. Chief among them are savings in time and materials waste that typically reach 30 per cent on most projects. But the benefits of digitalising construction could well be exponential, limited only by imagination… and the need to continually improve processes and outcomes.

Walter is doing his part in the speed interview day for the huge yearly Bentley Systems Year in Infrastructure conference held in London last week and the theme he’s on is the global uptake of BIM by governments.

This is important because though the system promises significant advantages in cumbersome and complex construction projects, widescale industry take-up really needs government-scale adaptation and backing to create uplift. This is because there are significant upfront costs to implement the systems and then big commitments in training to extract maximum value. Governments embarking on BIM can therefore pave the way and give confidence to the rest of the industry.

Walter says globally other early movers are New Zealand, Norway and Sweden.

The US is slowly getting there – a few government agencies are asking for BIM-enabled projects – but in the absence of a culture to mandate much at all, it’s a slow process.

Walter says Singapore is impressive.

“They are actually funding private industries to adopt BIM practice and define a BIM standard,” he says.

“It’s probably early days but they’re sort of uniquely able to mandate everything. So this I think this will move fairly quickly there.

“Frankly I put Australia in that same boat when the Department of Roads [with the WestConnex] makes a decision in NSW. They make big commitments and boom, it happens. I generally find it pretty impressive.”

But outside of big government projects Walter says there is slower uptake of BIM in Australia, mainly because it doesn’t have as many complicated buildings as the UK – the Gherkin, for instance, or its new cousin the Cucumber, both with highly complex facades that curve outwards.

From among the various asset types, in fact, buildings would be the smallest, dwarfed by transportation, waste and other civil engineering projects.

“These are the more complex projects.”

In Germany there’s a very structured process for the way things get constructed.

“It’s very baked into the process. To move into something comparable with what Australia and other countries doing, would mean taking that apart,” he says.

So in Germany it’s a no, so far.

In the UK the big driver is major infrastructure. There is: the massive Crossrail project; the High Speed 2, a project worth a “colossal US$35 billion”; and the Thames Tideway Tunnel, a new sewerage system that is an “enormous project”, all using BIM.

Benefits

So what convinced the UK government to get on board?

“It’s not just saving things, it’s also doing things more sustainably,” Walter says. “A bit of early investment will lead to long-term savings.”

In the case of Crossrail the government was essentially building two rail roads, a physical one and a virtual one.

The virtual asset, he says, will ensure that the physical asset will be operated longer and more efficiently.

But how can you prove that? Where are the metrics?

Clearly it’s hard to measure an infrastructure project with and without BIM on a like-for-like basis but what the UK government did do was look at a sector where they had very good benchmark data – schools.

“They build lots of schools so they know what it costs. Using the BIM approach the total installed costs were 20 per cent less. So they figured, ‘We can get five schools for the price of four.’”

BIM has also been applied to model the likely source of fractures in old water pipes in the UK, in a project that involved modelling 90,000 kilometres of water pipes.

Walter thinks the big breakthrough in savings from using BIM in buildings construction will be in automation or pre-fab.

Think about it like this, he says: “Everything we do on the land has to have a digital model.” So if you have a bulldozer, the traditional way to operate it is for someone to sit in the cabin and use their skills to move it around and complete tasks.

In the post BIM model, the bulldozer is completely automated, using the digitalised terrain to perform its tasks. The operator is in the cabin still, but is really just keeping watch – not much more.

Here’s the real picture of the future Walter is painting, and as far as he’s concerned it can’t come quickly enough.

The Fifth Estate was guest of Bentley Systems at the Year In Infrastructure 2015 conference.