BIM – State of the Nation with Ralph Montague

As we head towards 2019, and the first year of the Irish Government’s plan to implement BIM (Building Information Modelling) on public sector projects, Irish building magazine talks to Ralph Montague, one of Ireland’s leading BIM experts, to get his independent view on the readiness of the sector to embrace the “Digital Transition” of Ireland’s Construction Industry.

Often referred to as “Mr. BIM”, Ralph Montague has been a great source of information and inspiration, for readers of Irish building magazine, and our sister publication BIMIreland.ie, over the years.

Ralph is the Managing Partner of ArcDox, a specialist BIM consultancy practice based in Dublin, who have enabled and supported the implementation of BIM on many of Ireland’s key projects over the past 9 years. He is a board member of the National BIM Council of Ireland, who published the ‘Roadmap to Digital Transition of Ireland’s Construction Industry 2018-2021’ and he is also a board member of the Construction IT Alliance (CitA), who provide research, training and events to enhance the understanding of digital technologies for construction. Ralph is the current chair of the National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI) Technical Mirror Committee for BIM Standards, closely monitoring the work of the European Standards Committee for Standardization (CEN) technical committee CEN-TC-442, as well as the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO) technical committee ISO-TC-59/SC13.

As an architect, Ralph has chaired the practice sub-committee for BIM for the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI) for the past 7 years and has represented Ireland at the Architects’ Council of Europe BIM Working Group. Ralph is also a part-time lecturer at Trinity College Dublin on the Post-Graduate Diploma for Project Management.

Ralph, you have obviously been very involved in promoting “the digital transition” of the construction industry, and educating stakeholders on the benefits of BIM through your involvement in industry groups, presentations, teaching, articles, social media posts, and your direct involvement on projects. Based on your experience “on-the-ground”, what would you say is the readiness of the sector to embrace and deliver digital practices?

If you want to plan a journey, it is important to know where you are starting, as well as where you want to go. While I always like to be positive and optimistic about the “potential” of Ireland’s construction and property sector, we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that “digital” is far from “business as usual” in Ireland.

There are of course some shining examples to the contrary, but this is not the norm. Planning, design, engineering and construction projects are still predominantly being managed through “paper-based” documentation. In fact, some people are using BIM tools to produce “paper-based” documentation, and not sharing the digital models. The information about our existing building stock is predominantly stored as “paper-based” documentation. And, I would include static, scanned and saved PDF documents in this category – while these are digital files, the information contained in them is only accessible by opening the file, and reading the information with a pair of human eyes – this isn’t “digital” data that can be searched, queried, kept up-to-date, and used for multiple ongoing purposes.

Through the Construction IT Alliance (CitA) we have conducted a survey of the top 100 companies over the past 3 years, and the level of understanding and adoption is reported to be quite high, and growing, but it should be noted that these companies work on complex projects and in other markets demanding BIM, so it isn’t really representative of the industry as a whole, many of whom (80-90%) are small/medium enterprises, who haven’t adopted BIM, and don’t understand the need for “digital transition”.

I’d say there is a good general awareness of BIM, but there is probably less real adoption than people would expect at this stage (8 years after the announcement of the UK BIM mandate). In the global scheme of things, as a nation, we are probably not too far behind others, but we are definitely not “world leaders” either. That said, I believe Ireland, as a small, youthful, agile, and technically advanced nation, has the ability to move quickly and gain ground in this area.

The adoption of “digital” is disrupting almost every aspects of our lives, from entertainment, media, travel, shopping, banking, services etc – what in your opinion makes the construction and property sector so slow and reluctant to adopt “digital” processes?

That is a complex question. I do think the “dynamic” that exists between the “demand” and “supply” side has a lot to do with it. Also, the “fragmented” nature of the sector. Traditional thinking is that “value” is derived by setting up competitive bidding between parties, but the resultant “race to the bottom” on price, to the detriment of quality and “total cost of ownership” is not really considered.

Capital cost is probably only 5% of the total lifecycle cost, but all the focus is on reducing the capital cost. A high level of “fragmentation” has led to multi-tiered supply chains, where those who actually supply and deliver real material “value” are often very far removed from the “purchaser”, by many layers of managing organisations in between, all trying to get the cheapest price from the next layer down. This means profit margins for everyone involved are very low, usually 1-2%, which in turn means scope to invest in research, development, technology and upskilling of staff is not readily available, particularly where this is not specifically required by the “demand” side as part of the scope of work.

It is understandable, that within this low-profit, multi-tiered, adversarial and competitive environment, that people are not going to go out of their way to adopt, or include for new processes, or new technologies, unless specifically asked to do so, particularly where their competitors will not include for this, if not included as part of their scope. People in this environment will tend to do as little as possible, to complete their individual job, get paid, and move onto the next job. Their focus is not on the success of the overall project. This “dynamic” is definitely hindering the adoption of “digital”.

Given that, what do you think needs to happen for the construction and property sector to make the “digital transition”?

There’s a quote from Einstein, that says something like “the definition of insanity, is to keep doing the same thing over and over again, but to expect a different result”. We have to challenge the “assumptions” that the sector operates under. Does traditional adversarial competitive tendering and contracting really deliver “value”? With over 70% of projects missing their budget or delivery time, or both, you would wonder if this is the best option? Yet we continue to do this. Do highly fragmented, multi-tiered supply chains really work? With reports that over 30% of the cost of construction can be attributed to “waste” (no value).

Again, you have to wonder if this is the best option? Do projects that use processes based on traditional “paper-based” or analogue documents, deliver “value”? The 2016 report by the Boston Consulting Group, advisors to the World Economic Forum, suggest that “digitisation” can delivery 13-21% savings in design, engineering and construction stage, and 10-17% savings in operation stage. Are you being a responsible client/employer representative, if you simply walk away from those potential savings, without asking question, particularly if you are procuring construction on behalf of the people of Ireland, through our government agencies? Around the world, certain clients are exploring less adversarial, more integrated “partnerships” with their supply chain, where the focus isn’t “Us vs. Them”, but rather working together to achieve good results, which are well documented. One thing we do know, is that the “demand” side (the employers, clients or developers) determine the “rules of the game”, in the way they procure development, which will either help, or hinder, success of the project.

So in response to your question, “what needs to happen”, I definitely think a big part of the solution has to come from the “demand” side. We need more informed, and more mature, clients or employers, who are willing to read well-documented reports, take good advice, follow well-established standards and processes, and “demand” a better way. Once a “digital” and more integrated/collaborative process is “part of the scope of work”, it can be included for, in the proposals from the “supply” side. This will “break the cycle” of wasteful traditional paper-based information management and project delivery. I think the “demand” side needs to be more open to explore more integrated forms of project delivery (Integrated Project Delivery, Alliancing, Partnering etc), and support “Lean” design and construction processes.

As we begin to eliminate some of the “waste”, profit margins will increase, and investment can be made into research, development, upskilling and adoption of technologies, even looking into modern methods of construction and off-site manufacturing. Of course, it’s not all up to the “demand” side – the “supply” side equally need to respond. But with a clear set of requirements, and some “checks and balances”, I believe the industry is willing, and able, to meet the requirements.

You are a member of the National BIM Council which published the ‘Roadmap for Digital Transition of Ireland’s Construction Industry 2018-2021’ in December 2017. How ready is the construction sector to deliver on the roadmap?

In general, I’d say the industry is “willing”, but many are still not “able”, on both the “demand” and “supply” side. Although, I feel if directly asked, and correctly incentivised, industry would acquire the skills and deliver. But too many are not being asked. The Government, as the largest construction client/employer, will have a clear role to play in how they “demand” a digital process. Industry needs to work closely with government, to make sure everyone is moving in the same direction, and not pulling against each other.

As the roadmap sets out, strong “leadership” is required, with a clear commitment to industry “standards”, and recognition of the enormity of the upskilling or “education” needs. Most importantly, “procurement” needs to be reformed, to be less adversarial, less wasteful, and more collaborative, focused on delivering more “value”. There are a lot of “moving parts” that must come together. The “roadmap” is a great document, and I believe it is a template to be followed, for each organisation, for their own “digital transition”.

The challenge I see with the roadmap at the moment, is that there is no resource or funding committed, by either government, or industry, to the implementation of the actions set out in the document. As the document itself points out, without “resources” there will not be “change”, only frustration. It would be a shame, if this just remained another good “document”, and never transformed into a real transformative digital process.

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