Are you ready for BIM?

Building Information Modelling – or BIM as it is more commonly known – has become something of a buzz word for the construction sector since the Government launched its Construction 2025 strategy in 2011. Claire Cameron investigates why timber businesses should be embracing the technology

Timber is increasingly being used as the building material of choice by developers as the wider construction sector begins to recognise its potential to help solve the housing crisis.

And with fast build times and environmental benefits, its use looks set to continue growing, with the Structural Timber Association (STA) predicting that it will represent 27 per cent of new housing projects by 2017.

But if timber is to truly rival concrete and steel as the preferred building material, manufacturers must adopt new technologies, including Building Information Modelling (BIM). What is BIM and how is it used?

Cited as an integral part of the sector, BIM is a process for creating, gathering and exchanging information relating to a construction project. Using specifically-designed software there is the potential to improve the construction process and enhance the end product.

“BIM models define objects as building elements and systems which encompass all the information related to the project and its processes to ensure the correct performance and products are used,” explains Nick Milestone, managing director at B & K Structures.

“This allows teams to work in unity, bringing their design data into a single intelligent model through model transfers from intelligent model files. This process helps to identify design faults, predict and execute the desired building performance, as well as assess and address lifecycle issues during the design stage.”

Why is it important for the timber industry to adopt BIM? In April, the UK Government mandated that all centrally-funded public-sector building projects must be BIM enabled to at least Level 2, a move which Christiane Lellig, campaign director at Wood for Good, believes will have a positive effect on the timber industry.

“It will encourage architects and developers to model their construction projects and quickly exchange materials of different components to gauge how competitive they are,” she says. “The easy to use nature of BIM means that it’s likely to enable better experimentation and exploration – meaning those that have traditionally defaulted to using concrete and steel may have their eyes opened to how timber can be used.”

The housing sector is a vital market for timber manufacturers, says Andrew Carpenter, chief executive of the STA, so it is essential for them to adopt BIM or be left behind.

“As more housing associations and developers explore what BIM can deliver for them, the widespread adoption of BIM will inevitably accelerate within the housing sector, dictating that the whole supply chain become BIM enabled,” he says.

“Equally, structural timber frames’ inherent strength, durability, cost effectiveness and speed of build makes it a material that can ease the current housing shortage. Therefore it is vital that timber manufacturers embrace BIM to retain their competitive advantage.”

What are the benefits? BIM is part of the digitalisation of the construction industry and brings many benefits, including consistency around how information related to products is cascaded through the supply chain, explains Iain McIlwee, chief executive of the British Woodworking Federation (BWF).

“BIM should help joinery manufacturers and woodworking companies in the way they manage and protect specifications, particularly in areas such as fire doors where the compatibility of components is absolutely critical and contractors must be taught not to break the spec.

“BIM’s core strength is that all the parties contribute to the central model and draw from it, which should mean manufacturers get the same access as contractors and clients.”

BIM can also help reduce alteration costs, enable communication, allow clearer scheduling and swifter fabrication, and improve facilities management.

Anthony Thistleton, co-founder of Waugh Thistleton Architects, believes the emergence of BIM in conjunction with the increasing use of pre-fabrication and offsite manufacturing is no coincidence. The world leaders in timber building are currently constructing a BIM-designed Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) development at Dalston Lane in Hackney, and Thistleton says: “The discipline and collaborative working that BIM requires and facilitates are ideally suited to the needs of pre-fabrication in terms of early coordination and three-dimensional design information.

“Specifically with CLT, the output of the design process, the IFC model, can now be directly imported into the fabrication software eliminating the time-consuming translation of engineer’s information into cut lists and assembly drawings. Further to this, it reduces the risk of errors in the process and the need for cross-checking.”

BIM also enables a more streamlined and efficient building process from the design to the final construction, explains Stewart Dalgarno, director of product development at Stewart Milne Group.

The client order process is more efficient and by the time products arrive onsite, the contractor will know the timber systems will integrate seamlessly with other products such as heating and electrics.

“Architects can use ‘intelligent objects’ – i.e. elements of our timber systems which have data attached such as dimensions, insulation properties etc – to quickly draw accurate blueprints which can then be fed directly into factory software systems for offsite manufacture,” explains Dalgarno.

“That means if you want to move a window from one wall to another, the rest of the building is amended immediately by the software to allow for a realworld model of how it should be designed, specified and built.”

However, Dalgarno warns that in a BIM environment every partner in a project has to be BIM-ready. If that is achieved “BIM has enormous potential to create huge efficiencies of scale, speed and cost for the entire building industry,” he says.

Carpenter agrees and says the “visual nature of BIM also enables the production of marketing and promotional material to be created with ease – allowing potential customers to view the building before any construction takes place.”

Because of these benefits, Lellig expects BIM to help drive the use of timber in the construction industry. She says: “BIM is already being used to deliver some of the largest timber projects around the UK. The increasing prevalence of additional tools like Wikihouse will really bring the timber industry into the fold in terms of incorporating data and collaboration across the wider construction industry.”

Are timber manufacturers ready for BIM and what can be done to assist them? TRADA chairman Milestone is backing the use of BIM in the sector and believes the collaboration between teams is something that the timber industry has been calling out for.

“BIM helps to provide the platform for teams to integrate and work together,” he says. “This is something that I feel the industry would benefit greatly from and would help to deliver projects with heightened quality through efficiency of communications and accuracy of planning and design.”

But according to McIlwee, cultural changes and training at all levels is needed if BIM is to be a success. He also warns that although BIM will generate savings in the long term, initially it will require investment and that will be a cost burden to manufacturers already challenged by thin profit margins.

“BIM delivers, but also demands, transparency”, he says. “That means ensuring that the system is accessible and used by everyone who may have an impact on what and how timber products are used.

“The British Woodworking Federation has developed a BIM strategy for its members and is progressing with the development of industry-specific guidance, generic BIM models and other resources which will help joinery and woodworking businesses optimise the commercial opportunities coming from BIM.”

Meanwhile the Stewart Milne Group is in the middle of a CITB-funded collaborative pilot project with Mactaggart and Mickel to provide in-depth research into the benefits of BIM.

“Part of that project is to disseminate the findings to industry, and we’re very excited to be part of an initiative which could have a transformative impact on how the construction sector works in future,” says Dalgarno.

Many like Carpenter believe the implementation of BIM is a progressive step that helps to challenge outdated assumptions about the construction sector and encourage more young professionals into the industry. But he warns that just like any new technology, BIM faces resistance because people do not easily embrace change.

“The premise of BIM and the technology it uses can seem daunting and complicated at first,” he says. “However, when people begin to engage with it in a collaborative manner, the benefits of the technology and the distinct potential it holds in terms of saving money, time and attracting talented people to bolster the industry become apparent.

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The pros and cons of BIM
• Speed
• Less waste
• Optimised design
• Better cost control
• Improved safety
• More detailed information
• Enforced collaboration
• Reduction in reworking
• Reduces quantity of bulky materials on site
• Assists with DFMA and LEAN manufacturing

• An upfront commitment – time/money/training/software
• All subcontract design elements must be brought together to ensure the design is coordinated collaboratively

This article first appeared in the Summer 2016 print edition of Timber in Construction magazine