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The power of joined-up thinking

Notable architect Richard Saxon CBE is one of the foremost thinkers in the construction industry and a keen advocate of building information modelling (BIM) and the Internet of Things (IoT). Here, he explains how they could help shape our future

BIM is an intelligent 3D model-based process

Hello Richard. Can you give us a bit of background about BIM?

Richard Saxon CBE

In April 2016, the UK Government mandated that it would use BIM on all central government projects. It was designed as a lead to ensure the industry began to change, because everybody waits for everyone else. Other industries like retail, automotive or aircraft decided to go digital long ago, and everyone who wanted to work with them or supply them had to change. But nothing like that happened in construction, so we’re a whole generation behind, which is why the government decided it had to do something. It’s now gradually beginning to spread out from central government and be picked up by local authorities and developers. Many contractors now use it as their default method of working, although it’s still spreading too slowly in the specialist contractor area. It’s difficult because it’s a big change so people are still being asked to produce information in different formats for different contractors. So although you have a consistent standard of information for designers and contractors on a certain project, the same standard hasn’t yet emerged for the actual products being specified for that building. However, that could change during the next 12 months as draft standards are currently being agreed. So we will have a clearly defined and consistent method of defining information about a product – but just not yet. I know it’s frustrating, and a lot of people are still saying, ‘Well, tell me when you’ve got the standard and then we’ll do something. Until then, we’ll just have the documentation in the old way on paper.’

Is this reluctance to change a common thing?

Oh yes, but particularly in the product industry, where people still can’t make a single investment to create standard data about their components. Instead, they still have to do it slightly differently for everyone who wants to specify. The Holy Grail is to be able to download information about any component from the web, with every detail of installation, operation and maintenance provided. But we can’t do that until the manufacturers and suppliers have actually uploaded that information – and they’re saying, ‘Well, until we know how you want the information, we can’t do it.’ So it’s a Catch-22 because their own industries still haven’t agreed how that information should be structured! The good news is that the concept of a common product data template is in the final stages of being approved, with the Construction Products Association leading the charge and the British Standards Institute close behind. Once it’s agreed, everybody can do it and there can be no more excuses.

So what are the benefits to installers of using BIM?

Well firstly, detailed information will no longer just be available on paper, but on screen for any mobile device. So installers can take it with them and call it up onsite when they need it – and it’ll never be out of date because there’s only one standard version. So there’ll be no mistakes made about what you’re looking at – it’s the single source of truth. Secondly, if you want to see a detail in the design, you can rotate the model, magnify it, and see how one thing interacts in relation to another. Plus, if you’re in the building itself, augmented reality can show you things in situ from every possible angle, which is much more helpful than a bunch of 2D drawings. You can also use the model to set out your installation and project it with the same device that does the scanning surveys. So you can project the model onto the floor, ceiling or wall and instead of having to measure out the setting, it’s actually projected onto the piece of work you’re doing. Also, before work starts you can go through the installation sequence, see how you’ll access the location and identify any safety issues – essentially, you’re rehearsing it before you actually do it. It’s already led to considerable gains in site safety as people aren’t just being told what to do, they can actually walk through it first. It’s especially useful if anything bulky is being moved – particularly equipment going into plant rooms.

So are we behind other nations with BIM?

Actually we’re not. Compared to other countries we’re ahead; the only people we might be behind are the Scandinavians. It’s a slow process everywhere, but we’ve decided to make an effort to expand BIM from mere geometry of design to total installation and maintenance. There’s now a set of draft standards called Public Available Specifications (PAS) that have gradually increased the detail of ways in which you can use BIM for initial design, construction, operation and maintenance, cyber safety and health and safety. We’ve actually overtaken the USA because they’ve drawn up protocols for the geometry of the design, but not the data attached to individual installations and products. They were very much capital project focused, where we’re whole life focused. But this fixation with first costs and on-time completion is an industry-wide issue, and we need to change it to a focus on best value over the whole life cycle. The government understandably regards this as very important because it tends to spend too little at the front end and then waste too much after it’s actually got the building. Buildings tend to not actually work as originally conceived because they’ve been value engineered down to ensure that capital targets are hit and to provide maximum profit for the contractor. It needs to be about the best long-term performance for the client, but everyone is so short-term minded. So BIM is actually trying to encourage a cultural change by identifying best value rather than lowest cost – and to do so over the building’s whole life cycle. When something is installed using BIM, it’s part of a whole life asset model, so you can immediately find out everything about a component or system by going back to the model and raising the data. This tells you exactly what products were used, how they were installed and what the recommended maintenance approach is. It reduces the cost of operation and maintenance – and the Internet of Things (IoT) will help with even more savings.

That brings us to our next question: Why should the industry embrace IoT?

I liken BIM and IoT to the tortoise and the hare. BIM is the tortoise – it’s been coming along for more than 20 years, slowly gaining ground. IoT is really only about five years old and is easier to install and understand from a customer point of view. So it’s shooting past BIM as people buy gadgets to help run their houses, adding them to what they already have. IoT is simple to them, whereas BIM can often seem very complicated. But interestingly, IoT and the artificial intelligence inside it need BIM to actually operate the building successfully. It’s like a self-driving car that doesn’t have a map – BIM acts as the route finder that enables the sensors to make sense of what they’re seeing. So a building will have a mass of sensors all over it, usually driven by the lighting system because that’s the simplest way of connecting them back to the central management system. These let the building know if it’s performing to set standards, whether rooms are being used and who’s in them. It can even pick up a mobile phone presence, so if you ask the system, ‘Where’s Fred?’ it will tell you. It enables you to tighten up building management, so you can turn lights off in rooms that aren’t being used and check how many desks are actually being used.

How about from the electrical and technical side?

Well, it will tell you if anything is on the point of breaking down, i.e. is anything showing distress? Should we go out and fix it before it breaks down? The old approach was to wait until it broke down or just do preventative maintenance visits. Now you can actually wait for the system to show distress, ask it what’s wrong and send out exactly what’s required. Alternatively, if it’s a software-driven thing you can fix it down the line. So it will dramatically change what needs to be done in terms of looking after a building; you’ll only need to make one trip, you’ll know exactly what’s needed and you’ll get instant diagnostics.

What about retrofit and the challenge of installing in older properties?

IoT is not a physical problem – it’s actually a very un-invasive technology. So largely it operates without wires, but where it needs to, it can make use of things like existing lighting circuitry. For example, Glasgow is replacing all its streetlights with LED versions that also contain sensors to report on things like air quality, traffic density and security issues. It suddenly makes the idea of a smart city idea possible. Another things that’s been done in Glasgow is, if you drive over a pothole, your phone registers the vibration via an accelerometer, which is then picked up by the phone company or streetlights and registers the defect. IoT in buildings works on exactly the same principle and gives you a fairly quick payback by reducing the cost of operation and maintenance.

So it’s an exciting time for the industry?

Of course, but it’s also challenging, particularly as we have a skills shortage; we’re still looking for productivity jumps at the same time. So we’re looking to stretch the existing technology to do more, making it quicker and easier and reducing the number of jobs that require human input. It does mean a lot of retraining and updating, which is one of the industry’s great challenges.

Why is that?

Sub-contracting seemed like a great idea 20 or 30 years ago, but it practically destroyed the virtue of training. The thinking was that if you train people, you make yourself less economic in the short term. The standard complaint is still: “What if we train them and they leave?” But the reply to that is: “What if we don’t train them and they stay?” So it’s a challenge to the culture of the industry – constant upgrading and updating needs to be done, and the firms that do it are going to stay in the business.

Does anything else need to change?

Yes. The old way of doing business is to carry out a piece of work and installation then hand it over to the building owner. Yet with IoT, who is it then going to report to? The building owner doesn’t know what to do with the information, but as the installer, you do. So maybe what you should do is rent it to the owner, not sell it, and give a guarantee that you’ll look after it and solve any issues that require attention in return for a cash stream. Instead of selling things as a capital payment, people will be leasing mechanical and electrical systems into the building and only the dumb concrete bits will be bought and sold. We’re all talking about whole life now, rather than just first cost, which is a big change in the business model.

Find out more about Richard and his work at


What is building information modelling (BIM)?

BIM is an intelligent 3D model-based process that gives architecture, engineering, and construction professionals the insight and tools to more efficiently plan, design, construct, and manage buildings and infrastructure.


What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?

The IoT is a giant network of devices all connected to the internet and/or each other. These include everything from mobiles and washing machines to coffee makers, headphones, lamps, pumps and fans…and almost anything else you can think of. It also applies to components of machines, for example within an aeroplane jet engine or oil rig drill.

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