Think BIG (DATA)

By Benedict Wallbank RIBA, SmartBIM Solutions



The exponential growth of storage capacity allied to plummeting costs mean data capture and analysis is possible in a way not thought of 5 – 10 years ago

These are exciting times for the construction industry as we take our first faltering steps to provide non-proprietary sharable structured digital data for our projects.  Government has understood that for the UK construction industry to compete on a global scale we must acquire data management skills, which add value to our services.  If we fail to do so, it is inevitable that competition from other parts of the world, who have lower labour rates or who successfully move to digital processes, will see our industry shrink.  

Each time we drop an object into our BIM authoring tool, it is given a Globally Unique Identifying number (a GUID).  It is that number, which allows us to attach data to an object in the same way that the bar code has allowed data to be added to the elements of retail.  The data added, however, only has limited use if it is in a format unique to that project or project team.  

In the UK, the industry’s “trainer wheels” for sharable structured data is COBie .  COBie is a sub-set of ISO 16739, known to most as IFC (Industry Foundation Classes), namely those parts of IFC, which relate to FM and O&M.  80% of the cost of a building lies beyond construction and COBie seeks to offer savings and efficiencies to built assets (be they buildings or infrastructure).  

There is already a vocal COBie backlash.  Early adopter projects, have struggled to provide COBie data (much of which has had to be entered manually). Inevitably there is a learning curve for new skill sets and changed working methodologies adding cost to COBie adoption.  People ask why not go straight from proprietary BIM system to proprietary CAFM  system.  Clients are also asking for COBie without defining what they require in the form of a COBie spread sheet issued as part of the EIR  or knowing how they wish to utilise the data.

Don’t judge COBie yet and don’t lose sight of the end objective of an industry capable of producing and using sharable structured data.  By adopting COBie Government will be able to compare the data on say a school in John O’Groats and a school in Land’s End developed by different teams using different software.  We still lack PAS (BS) 1192-4, which will document COBie as part of Level 2 BIM (due this year). We also lack a standard classification system (Uniclass 2?).  Software providers are only just starting to provide easier ways of generating and checking COBie data.  All of these will come with time and costs will reduce as staff learns the necessary skill sets.  

If we can master sharable structured data on an individual project, beyond 2016 and level 2 BIM the really exciting use of data will start.  Full IFC will be at the heart sharable structured data for the construction industry . Cross sector “big” data (for example social data related to housing) will be able to be used not just on a single building or facility but on


As the network is replaced by the cloud, closer collaboration and the move to BIM Level 3 becomes increasingly possible

whole neighbourhoods and cities.  

Nobody said this would be easy, and there will be short term pain, but the potential benefits in the longer term are enormous.


The Machine Age 2.0


Cezanne’s 19th card players – waiting for progress through technology

Mechanisation and automation are two processes that have affected all our lives since the start of the industrial revolution. A new book charting the effects, ‘The Second Machine Age’ by two MIT professors is causing a real stir amongst the chattering classes worldwide. It notes an uncomfortable truth about industrial progress, sometimes technology and a better life don’t go hand in hand (at the same time). In the 19th century great gains were made in productivity in the early Victorian period but significant rises in wages and living standards only happened 40 – 50 years later.
This trend might be repeated today – we’re enduring a period of little jobs growth and no real wage rises, but automation marches on apace. How is technology changing the labour market dynamic at the moment? Recently the CITB forecast that 182,000 new construction jobs would be created by the recovery expected over the next five years. Within that, only 1,000 new architect jobs are needed. Is it really the case that roughly one in 200 people working on a project will be an architect in the future?  Anecdotal evidence for this is mixed – senior partners and directors in large firms tell me that BIM software is helping to reduce headcounts on individual jobs by between 50% and 66%. In contrast to this labour saving efficiency, I’m told by others that new graduates that are BIM proficient are entering the London workforce and earning £29 a hour – a surefire sign of a chronic labour shortage. For now the main conclusion you can draw is that if your BIM/CAD skills are good you won’t be a victim of what John Maynard Keynes dubbed ‘technological unemployment’ – but if you’ve steered clear of BIM software until now perhaps it’s time to start worrying.
The Second Machine Age notes that invariably when technology improves it’s the least skilled, most boring and repetitive tasks that are eliminated first. BIM is doing exactly this with its automatic inventory updates, eliminating a lot of tedious admin and cross checking. Perhaps architecture is evolving to a position where a smaller number of designers add more value and are therefore more highly paid.
Often the construction industry agonises over its lack of innovation. Working practices on site haven’t changed radically in 30/40 years and the type of buildings being delivered, especially in the housing sector, don’t change much either. There are good reasons for this – the construction industry constantly deals with the bespoke – different shaped sites, different client briefs. If you look at certain sectors such as building schools the volatility of policy means steady progress through learning and repetition is impossible.
Perhaps it’s useful to look at other sectors where physical products are tech-heavy – where innovation occurs within the context of certain constants. The aviation industry is extremely risk-averse due to a stringent safety culture. Change goes down certain paths however and the industry is abuzz due to new materials, carbon fibre composites could replace aluminium as the main exterior to passenger jets. Why is this innovation set to succeed? It costs airlines $1m for every Kg of weight during the lifetime of a plane, carbon fibre could reduce weight by 20%.
The car industry is in a similar position – there are exciting changes taking place – self-driving cars, electric or hybrid engines.

WWII England Morris Van Assembly Line

Assembling Morris Vans at Cowley in WWII – the auto industry has benefited from constant changes in production processes, benefiting from a highly-controlled environment

The automotive and aviation industries will find it easier to improve on processes as these are standardised and in a highly controlled factory environment. The construction industry doesn’t have this luxury on site, every job is different and improvised solutions aren’t shared industry-wide. In this context the progress wrought by BIM is more important as it’s not happening in parallel with other product innovation.

Next year’s model – same as this year but with more detail

By Matt Pennell, BSL 2014 Conference producer

Hello and welcome back to BIM Show Live. This year’s event will take place in late April at Manchester Central. Preparations for the event are well underway and we’ll fill you in on what’s in store later. Many of you will have noticed that 2014 has started with a splurge of commentary on BIM in our sister title Building. Everyone in project teams now has a perspective on BIM, how it relates to their job or indeed the wider world. So it’s subject more talked about than ever.

We know that Government policy is a driver of BIM use, but on top of the Morrell mandate a fast evolution in software and hardware is changing BIM too. Two technology trends are set to have a major impact on BIM. The New Scientist recently ran a piece on the next generation of TV – Ultra High Definition TV, otherwise known as 4KTV as it uses 4,000 lines. UHD is four times sharper and clearer than current HD TV. As with most new technologies the price of a brand new UHD TV is high and sales are only expected to be in the tens of thousands this year, however observers predict that UHD TV will be standard across the industrial world by 2020. Where TV leads computer monitors will follow.


Ultimate Play the Game led the way with 3D computer games in the 80s

At the moment software allows for rendering of surfaces to a respectable degree, and is a good way of presenting exteriors to clients. UBM’s own internal research shows that when it comes to interiors however, most people look at intricate FF & E products in a showroom first, even if they buy online later. UHD could be a game changer for architects presenting high-end design rich environments to clients, such as luxury retail, high end resi and 4/5* hotels. Producing a 3D model with a complicated interior layout will be possible, and the image quality should be credible.

Distributing large files with UHD images should be straightforward by 2020 as broadband speeds are set to make a quantum leap. A recent test by BT successfully transferred data between London and Ipswich at a rate of 1.4 terrabits per second – that’s roughly 14,000 times faster than the average Virgin Media broadband rate of 120 megabits per second. We keep hearing about big data, usually in the context of storage, but it won’t be static – soon capacity will be in place to move data around in a way we never imagined before.

3D Modelling is still seen as a bit of a luxury by some sections of the construction industry. I traded office gossip with a Revit technician recently, his civil structural practice hired a young graduate who was in and out of the doors within a few weeks – a 3D modeller who refused to do anything else. My friend observed that this wasn’t a good career move considering most images used by construction managers on site were still in 2D.


Oscar-nominated Gravity was shot at Shepperton but the CGI was created in Soho – part of a £1Bn hi-tech post production industry in London that has grown exponentially since the first Harry Potter films were digitally enhanced in the UK

How are we to view 3D images? The UK is a world leader in producing 3D images for entertainment – Grand Theft Auto V (made in Edinburgh) and Oscar-nominated Gravity (all CGI produced in London) are prime examples. If UK architects take a lead with 3D modelling will this give them an edge in international markets, or is it a nice cherry on top to present to clients after winning a bid? Opinion will vary on this but at least it’s a technology trend we can see coming.