Michael Bleby Reporter

Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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In construction, the standard way pays off

Published 11 October 2012 04:16, Updated 21 November 2012 08:02

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Australia has just one chance to agree on standards for the use of building information modelling (BIM) in the design and construction industries. But failure to act now means it will be used it in unco-ordinated silos to the detriment of the industry as a whole, warns a key lobbyist.

“This is the first time the construction sector has ever proactively sought to adopt a technology on a national scale,” the president of industry body buildingSMART Australasia, John Mitchell, says. “That’s the opportunity before the government. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment.”

BIM, which is collaborative software that allows professionals from various disciplines to work together on the same project model at the same time, has the potential to give efficiency a major boost. It demands a great level of co-ordination to realise that extra productivity.

Widespread adoption of BIM could immediately increase gross domestic product by 0.2 basis points above the “business as usual scenario”, with that rising to 5 basis points by 2025, a 2010 report by the Allen Consulting Group for the Built Environment Innovation and Industry Council says.

“It is estimated that this benefit over the period 2011 to 2025 is equivalent to a one-off increase in gross domestic product of $4.8 billion in 2010 and that this benefit could be as high as $7.6 billion,” the report says.

Still, Australia is playing catch-up to the US, Norway, Finland and Denmark, which already require BIM for government contracts and have set industry-wide standards for its use. Australia has only a two to three-year window to set uniform standards before different players establish their own protocols that may not fit in with anyone else, Mitchell says.

“There are significant blockages, like production of data and agreed protocols for buildings and procuring,” he says.

“There isn’t agreed consensus, there’s no co-ordination (such as) when building models for asset management handover, what information is required? We don’t know.”

BIM is still not widespread in Australia. Mitchell estimates that only 5 per cent of projects are modelled using it rather than an older technology such as CAD. The potential is great, because of the influence that construction has on the wider economy.

The alternative – as experience shows – is grim. Industry calculations show that falling standards of documentation lead to inefficiency and a lack of competition, cost over-runs and delays, high stress levels, loss of morale and declining safety standards and cost the industry $12 billion nationally in the 15 years to 2005.

In June, buildingSMART handed a report to the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science, Research and Tertiary Education recommending that government mandates the use of BIM in all building tenders from July 1, 2016.

The industry body also laid out an implementation plan for BIM in Australia, including adopting the necessary laws and rules and their alignment with international standards. It proposed government funding to help industry adopt BIM. It has called for Canberra to encourage the states to commit to follow suit.

“International experience indicates that when governments have required BIM for their procurements, other public bodies and the private property industry have been motivated to follow suit,” the report says.

Mitchell says the industry needs about $30 million to implement the prescribed road map. Last year the industry turnover was $147 billion.

“Think what tax the commonwealth gets from it,” Mitchell says. “Our $30 million is chicken feed. It isn’t big for a commonwealth program. What’s needed is consensus and agreement that will be strategically beneficial for the country.”

The Minister Assisting for Industry and Innovation, Kate Lundy, is overseeing the government response. “She will be the key person making the decision,” Mitchell says.

It is not only the Americans and Europeans who are pushing ahead with BIM. The New Zealand Department of Building and Housing is promoting it in the rebuilding of Christchurch.

In Australia, the construction slowdown makes this a good time to change methods and implement new processes, Mitchell says.

“This technology is a very disruptive technology,” he says. “It changes completely the old ways of working. Everyone’s a bit slack at the moment, so this is the time to rejig the organisation. That’s why we see it as timely.”

If the government endorses BIM in the way the buildingSMART report recommends, it would be welcomed by the industry, Mitchell says.

“In the UK, the government announced last year it would mandate the adoption of BIM for government contacts,” he says. “The industry said ‘fantastic’. The UK construction sector is much worse than ours and ours is bloody awful.”

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