The three men who helped to drive digitalisation in the UK built environment sector reconvened this month to look back on their achievements and pinpoint the ‘next steps’ which will power forward the industry.

Dr Mark Bew, MBE, CEO of the Cohesive Companies, Paul Morrell, OBE, the Government’s former Chief Construction Advisor and David Philp, Director, Digital Consulting, Strategy & Innovation Europe at AECOM, joined forces again at the NBS’s Construction Leaders’ Summit.

The three men spearheaded the widespread uptake of digital techniques and processes in UK construction and more collaborative ways of working through their work to promote and advocate the adoption of Building Information Modelling (BIM). The objective was to transform how we plan, build, maintain and use our social and economic infrastructure and to make better use of existing assets.

Their work was instrumental to the publication of the Cabinet Office’s UK Government Construction Strategy in 2011 which detailed that fully collaborative 3D Building Information Modelling would be required as a minimum on public sector projects by 2016. The aim was to support reduction in the capital and operational cost as well the carbon emissions from the construction and operation of the built environment by 20 per cent.

BIM is a broad term that describes the process of creating and managing a digital model of a building or other facility.

In the webinar, a recording of which now available to watch here, Paul Morrell recalls: “A series of things came together -the Government had no money but needed to build, the industry had no work but wanted to build… there was an in Whitehall, an enthusiastic band of fellows who had been following BIM and getting involved with trialling it… ”

He added: “It struck me as a good moment to change the nature of conversation between industry and government.”

In addition, he recalls, a “whole series of reports” had been written about the inefficiencies of the processes and behaviours of the construction supply chain. “Almost all came down to not having clear, co-ordinated information through the supply chain. The question was, how could we start fixing that?”

Mark Bew, who chaired the government’s BIM Task Force, explained how his  digital journey began in the late 90s where “we had a whole series of projects, including the Millennium Dome and Norwich Hospital, where we tested some of these ideas around collaboration, file sharing and model sharing. “

He recalls that “we had a good crack in trying to design the BIM levels and trying to separate out how we work in a consistent collaborative way rather than just a collaborative way.

“The wedge diagram (the UK maturity model developed by Mark Bew and Mervyn Richards) we put together was the first thing that went on the table when I met Paul.”

The important components relating to the success of the digital mission, he said was getting the client ready, engaging the supply chain and the ‘touchpoint’ in the middle – ‘the standards.’

The Cookham Wood Young Offenders Institution project which announced a 20 per cent reduction in capital cost, “taught us in three months more than we had learnt in the previous decade” about core areas such as the ability to manage “big, big, lumps of data”

The project was the first of four Ministry of Justice (MoJ) projects in its Level 2 BIM ‘early adopter programme’.

David Philp, said that “to me it wasn’t BIM, it was virtual design and construction, and it was very much about collaboration, better co-ordination of information ..and the world of being able to virtually rehearse things several times.”

Communities of practice set up to engage organisations in what needed to be done, were a critical part in BIM’s success, David said. “We wanted to make sure we were engaging everybody.” The BIM Task Group, he said, which brought together expertise from industry, government and academia to provide information and guidance to industry, “was like a lighthouse.”

Quizzed on what might have been done differently, Mark said: “I think from a political point of view we did a fantastic job but from engineering point of view we didn’t spend enough time learning the lessons and ploughing that back into the standards.”

Paul Morrell highlighted the ambition vs the reality as the key ‘lesson learnt.’ He said: “We jumped to the ‘train set idea’ of digital – that one day there would be a city we could run like a train set. That’s a hugely attractive idea to politicians, that all your utilities, your traffic planning and your public transport could be run on that basis. But I felt we left a huge hole between that kind of destination and for businesses – what could / should I do next that will pay back?”

Asked about the ‘next steps’ of the digital journey Mark spoke about the value of digital twins: “It would be great if we actually finished  BIM Level 2 properly and had a common schema so we could understand the assets we have across the country, particularly the public ones and the ones we want to manage – ‘golden thread’ type assets.

“This would mean we can go and find, consistently, buildings of a certain height or bridges of a certain type across the whole country in a useful way and that’s the very first step of what you could call a digital twin at some point in the future – the basic information of what we’ve got so we can answer safety critical questions about issues that affect people’s lives.”