A year ago, Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, used her policy address to highlight the need for greater Building Information Modelling on construction projects. Aurecon’s Francis Leung, the current and founding chairman of the Hong Kong Institute of Building Information Modelling, looks at its impact and calls for greater understanding and awareness of the technology.
When people think of technology that has transformed our working lives, construction isn’t an area that immediately springs to mind. Yet there is a technology that has profoundly impacted this industry and brought revolutionary levels of speed, accuracy and efficiency to the sector: Building Information Modelling, more commonly referred to as BIM.
To understand why BIM is important for Hong Kong you need only look to its heart. Hong Kong’s skyline embodies the country with its seemingly endless array of glittering skyscrapers packed on both sides of Victoria Harbour. These supertall buildings generate billions for the economy, but also cost tens (or hundreds) of millions to develop.
Consider, too, that Hong Kong famously has some of the highest real estate costs in the world. While land prices contribute significantly to this, construction costs are a major portion too. So, it’s easy to understand why Chief Executive Lam is keen to harness BIM, given it not only lowers costs but also speeds up construction times.
BIM is a software package that brings unprecedented ease and efficiency to the design and construction of projects. Its combination of 3D visualisation, advanced design software, and real-time data brings huge advantages to all parties involved in a project, from the development owner in the corner office to the construction worker on site.
For architects and developers, BIM offers a virtual ‘walk-through’, simulating the user experience of an office, school, mall, hospital, etc. Advances in virtual reality are making this experience more realistic every day. By using BIM, clients can see exactly how their ideas will be brought to life and what their finished project will look like ‒ before the foundations have even been poured.
For engineering consultants and their partners, BIM provides a clear overview of a project in a single package. Crucially, it allows design adjustments to be made in real-time and shared instantly with everyone – architects, engineers, contractors, sub-contractors and more.
A building’s design, services, construction methods and daily operations are represented in one dynamic package, bringing closer coordination between all parties. Computational analysis determines the fastest and most efficient way to construct a project, while greater levels of detail mean higher quality and reduced risk. It’s a technology that’s continuing to advance too, with exciting new possibilities discovered almost daily. For my own company Aurecon, the potential of BIM was a major driving force behind our acquisition of market-leading digital agency Unsigned Studio.
BIM is not a new technology – I first encountered it in 2005. But like any technology it has taken time to refine. Recent technological advances also mean today’s BIM packages have capabilities far exceeding anything we’ve seen before.
In Hong Kong, there has been quite a split in terms of adoption. It’s fair to say that the majority of construction companies here are not using it; or are only barely using it. However, we do have a sizable minority of companies that have embedded BIM deep into their businesses. For these companies, we see them reaping the rewards it brings.
There are a few of reasons why we have this split in BIM usage in Hong Kong, and most come down to a lack of understanding. The first big hurdle in its adoption is a lack of awareness among developers (and a surprising number of construction companies) of what the technology does, how it works and what efficiencies it can deliver. Harnessing BIM on a project means taking a completely new approach to construction. Implementing it in a company means working in new ways and driving a cultural change around many areas of a company’s activities. Of course, this can seem daunting and disruptive.
And yet it is unquestionably the future of our industry. In addition to the productivity and efficiency benefits it brings to projects, BIM also represents the single most important element in the digital transformation of the construction industry. Whereas in the past, we used drawings and designs to show how our buildings will take shape, today with BIM we use graphics, animations and data to transmit that information digitally to a wider group of stakeholders than ever before.
BIM can be the single source of information and digital communication for any project. In that sense, it is quite different to traditional models based on an analogue practice. If you have grown up working in this way and are suddenly presented with BIM, of course it’s hard to understand it or see the true value it brings. But not only does BIM bring your project to life in new ways, it also brings features and value that were previously unattainable with traditional design and construction approaches.
In addition to the lack of understanding, there is the issue of cost. It’s hard for developers to commit to paying for BIM on a project if they can’t see how that cost will be recouped, and it’s the same for construction companies. The cost of BIM is not only about the software itself, but also having the personnel required to run it. But whatever investment is required to implement BIM will be paid back many times over. In my own experience, I have seen projects where savings of up to $10 million are achieved thanks to BIM, and there are thousands more examples that demonstrate its value.
So I believe the most crucial issue around limited uptake of BIM is that as an industry we’ve not been powerful enough in our efforts to communicate its benefits. And it’s why its inclusion in Chief Executive Lam’s policy address is such an exciting development. It puts BIM into the spotlight and gives us a base from which to build some momentum.
Encouragingly, we’re already seeing some changes, with the Government of Hong Kong taking the lead. For example, from January 1, 2018, all state-funded projects with a value of over $30 million were required to include BIM in their design and creation. We’re also seeing stronger leadership from the government-backed Construction Industry Council Hong Kong (CIC).
As an industry it’s now down to us to support those efforts. We need to do more to promote the success stories of BIM and use this opportunity to take a significant step forward in bringing our construction industry into the digital age. If we succeed, we can look forward to an ever-evolving landscape in our country with construction playing a major role in driving our economy into the future.
Francis Leung is Executive Director (Structural Engineering & Digital Delivery, Great China) at Aurecon, a global engineering and infrastructure advisory firm. He is currently the Chairman of the Hong Kong Institute for Building Information Modelling and was its Founding Chairman.