Paul Newby, engineering services director at national M&E specialist SES Engineering Services, evaluates the successes and failures of BIM Level 2, and explains how firms can ensure they stay on the digital front foot moving into 2020.

The UK BIM Framework was launched in October – formed of the UK BIM Alliance, BSI and the Centre for Digital Built Britain – designed to help create “a framework for implementing international standards within a UK context”. Yet with a recent survey revealing that fewer than half of construction businesses regard themselves as compliant with BIM Level 2, the industry still remains sceptical of BIM’s impact.

In April 2016, the government mandate of the BIM Level 2 accreditation was hailed as a significant digital leap forward for the UK’s construction sector. At last, there were clear guidelines for best practice delivery of BIM on construction projects, as well as commitment in place to ensure they were followed.

While only mandated for firms wishing to supply public sector works, Level 2 set a precedent for all to follow, as demonstrated by the Bew Richards Wedge Model.

The previous standards referred to on the model as “BIM Level 1” sought to establish the foundations, but were so basic they were often overtaken by the complexities of even the most simple project and offered no real industry advancement.

Level 2 was to be the solution, encouraging not only the use of fixed standards but real collaborative working between each stakeholder so that the single discipline models (with specific client requested data) are combined to create a one source of truth “federated” BIM model.

To ensure an aligned take-up of the requirements, businesses could apply to become Level 2 accredited, proving their expertise in this field, and providing employers with a level of reassurance that the right experts had been selected. At SES, we were one of the forerunners, becoming the first MEP contractor in the industry to receive the accreditation, which we have since recertified twice.

Creating a benchmark was intended to improve understanding of BIM and the role digital processes play in construction across the board. But more than three years on from its introduction, tangible progress and value creation is unclear. Now that the initial anxiety is over we can look back and evaluate BIM Level 2’s successes, failures and, most importantly, where the industry needs to go in the future.

Collaboration and productivity

One of the mandate’s biggest successes is changing the way the construction industry considers digital processes. By making them a key part of design, coordination, pre-construction and project delivery a greater cohort of people (beyond the evangelists) now understand the value and opportunity that BIM and digital engineering present.

Its impact on collaboration has been successful in part, although there is still much to be done to make this consistent. Early collaboration is undoubtedly a critical success factor in ensuring schemes are delivered on time and on budget. BIM Level 2 projects embrace this when done well.

Integrated working in a 3D environment undoubtedly reduces the number of clashes out on site, improving productivity – a tangible and real benefit. There are also important tangential safety and quality benefits. Offsite manufacturing has been able to flourish through digital technology, making it easy to specify, design and create prefabricated assemblies that also contribute to improved productivity, safety and quality.

Specialists vs generalists

The guidelines set out for BIM Level 2 allow processes to be adapted and applied to suit all projects. This can be a double-edged sword, however, as the industry has become susceptible to the bandwagon effect. While its deployment on more projects is undoubtedly a positive, EIRs and BEPs are often far more complex than they need to be, which can have negative impacts on costs, time and value. Digital engineering is a complex process but, in many cases, simplicity is more successful and in the last 18 months there is evidence that a more pragmatic approach is emerging.

There is a dearth of people who currently fully understand digital engineering and can deliver its complexities: a new approach to training and development is essential to bridge the skills gap. As important, a culture of collaboration, integrated project delivery and early procurement is essential and without this we will be unable to deliver the full benefits that BIM Level 2 can provide.

Maximum value of Level 2 will only come when it is truly understood and embraced by all project stakeholders. BIM Level 2, for some, has been a buzzword, with little understanding of what it means or how it can improve projects, but for others it is an opportunity that they are seizing as a tool to be more efficient, culturally integrated and with full maturity to create long-term business value.

We believe that our role as a tier one MEP contractor is to help our clients realise their BIM Level 2 ambitions by understanding their enterprise goals, helping them learn from our experiences and insights and creating value through digital engineering, prefabrication and use of data. To this end we’ve had great success with one of our clients, a major pharmaceutical giant, where SES is supporting the delivery of a £94m expansion to its world-class facility in County Durham.

This project is using extensive 3D BIM models and clash detection to optimise the design and maximise prefabrication. In partnership with our client, we have also utilised virtual and augmented reality (VR & AR) technology to enable an immersive experience of the end product from the earliest design stages.

This use of technology and the collaborative one team culture driven by the client has created significant value, allowing them to virtually experience their facility and interact with it in the virtual environment. This has influenced the design and installation, health & safety and future access and maintenance programmes. These trials have received highly positive feedback and we are looking to implement these on future projects.

A long way to go

Despite the successes, there is still a considerable amount of work to do. It could be argued, as we enter a new decade, that while 3D modelling is well established, collaboration, integrated working and, in particular, meaningful use of data is still in its infancy.

Uptake has been hindered by the investment time and costs of creating a truly digitally enabled business where information is shared internally and externally across the project lifecycle. Software and hardware development, lack of BIM advancement in the supply chain, training costs and a shortage of skilled users has forced implementation and delivery costs up – probably more than the government anticipated.

For those that did make the early leap, their return on investment is only just beginning to pay off and many have suffered the pain on projects of becoming BIM Level 2 enabled and literate.

The paradox for MEP contractors is how and when we are procured in the project lifecycle. Earlier engagement and procurement would unlock significant value through “designing for safety and prefabrication”, supply chain expertise, innovation, technology and engineering influence.

Despite delivering complex BIM projects that are linked to our business enterprise systems, offsite manufacturing facility and delivery processes for over a decade, we have still found the change to be challenging. By having a clear strategy for putting digital engineering, innovation and technology at the heart of our business we have embraced the change and the challenge.

Foundations for the future

So, if BIM Level 2 hasn’t quite delivered everything that was promised, where must the industry go in 2020?

As an industry we need to continue developing a skilled foundation of BIM specialists – and quickly. New roles and skills need to be created and people developed with new thinking and different attitudes embraced and encouraged. A positive culture of collaborative integrated working is essential, where we share knowledge and experiences to maximise efficiency and productivity; innovation and technology is key. We must start thinking “win-win” for all, every time, until it becomes embedded into the industry psyche.

True digital integration remains at least a generation away and most of us have a lot of work to do. Moreover, until procurement routes change, and early engagement becomes the norm, what government thought was possible in two years is more likely to take 20! By this point, of course, BIM Level 2 will be majorly outdated even with the release of ISO 19650…  Yet many people still talk of the target of when we will be delivering to BIM Level 3 standards.

A more realistic view needs to be taken – albeit this should in no way be construed as a lack of ambition or commitment to newer and better ways of working.

Until we embrace the holistic opportunity as an entire industry, the success of BIM, whether government mandated or otherwise, will always be limited and we risk standing still as an industry.