If you spend your day looking at property, Smart Home or 'Internet of Things' technology (what we’ll just call ’proptech’ for this blog), you will have found it hard to avoid the acronym BIM on social media and in the trade press. You may have wondered what it covered, but understood BIM to be an issue for the construction industry and not relevant for the data or property tech community. This post makes the case that the proptech world needs to know and care about BIM and that now is the time to start.
What is this 'BIM' of which you speak….?
At simplest, BIM or ‘Building Information Modelling’ is a 21st century reinvention of the process to create and manage the information produced by construction & manufacturing professionals for decades. Its ‘re-invention’ was necessary because of the overwhelming and varied demands for the industry to evolve, driven by the wider digital and data revolution.
BIM is an attempt to reimagine not just the file and data formats used in construction, but to create a new digital working environment that can support the kind of business and behaviour revolution that is expected to hit construction. The best way to understand this, and to see the proptech opportunity, is to look at BIM’s impact within the four typical phases of the design and construction process. These are normally defined as the concept design phase, the detail design phase, the manufacture & construction phase and finally the operation & maintenance phase when buildings get handed over for occupation and use.
Each of these phases is undergoing its own BIM revolution, learning to use the core BIM models, as well as developing plug-ins & apps suited to the specialised needs of each phase. Each phase holds issues and opportunities that the proptech world need to understand if it is to join in the revolution and make sure its products and services are compatible.
Phase 1 - Concept Design.
Architects have always tried not to design buildings in 2D but to think creatively in 3D. Unfortunately 3D functionality came late to CAD and its use in design and construction has always been patchy. BIM was built with 3D as native and it offers a much wider range of 3D functionality as core. The use of 3D modelling in BIM to realise ideas and concepts is now become a fundamental part of the design process.
Equally, to create 3D visuals for clients was hard and expensive in CAD. But in BIM it’s a capability that is assumed from the start. A new generation of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) plug-ins & apps that can extract data from BIM models are great examples of the extensions designed to keep core BIM files small and efficient. The simple accessability of BIM 3D means that clients, and even planners, can be engaged in the early creative processes like never before.
For property tech people, particularly those looking at AR and VR, this is a gift, as architects are now producing the raw models that could feed into these new formats as standard. It makes the use of VR much easier if someone else has done half the work before you get involved. However the two industries need to standardise approaches to ensure that this data flow is possible. VR models should follow a property’s journey from concept through to ownership and on-sale. It would be madness to have two 3D cultures working in parallel without engaging. Proptech VR without BIM is unthinkable.
Phase 2 - Detailed Design
Once construction professionals get to the detail design stage, the shift from CAD to BIM becomes even more interesting for proptech innovators. Previously in CAD an architect would specify building components (whether construction materials or more complicated components like central heating systems) by putting an outline of the product on their drawings and describing it in written notes alongside.
In a previous generation, the big CAD innovation in this area was for manufacturers to produce pre-drawn icons of their products in a CAD-friendly format, for architects to copy into straight into their CAD drawings. This was a laborious process, full of inaccuracy and mistakes which, in design & construction, translates into delays and cost overruns.
BIM has super-charged this idea for the digital age by enabling product manufacturers to produce intelligent 3D drawings and data packs, known as BIM ‘objects’ for their products. Although simple outlines and pre-drawn icons are still used in BIM, the new objects enable a BIM-using professional to drag huge amounts of intelligence into their working BIM models or create links to cloud-hosted data sets. BIM objects can hold, or link to, supporting information such as operating manuals, performance benchmarks, maintenance schedules, repair instructions and replacement information. This kind of information would have previously been sent out as PDFs after construction.
Now its being included in BIM models and a market for BIM Objects has grown up (around companies like BIM Store). This means that product and component manufacturers are having to undergo their own digital data revolution. They are now creating file and data formats that anyone developing ‘smart tech’ or ‘internet of things’ devices needs to be aware of and engage with. At simplest, any new ‘smart’ or ‘IoT’ device needs an accompanying BIM object file if it wants to be included in designs for new buildings. The really ‘smart’ manufacturers of new tech would be working with the BIM community to establish how to do this effectively, and how to ensure their products are included in BIM models from the start.
On top of this, the new capability is also enabling the building design process to include performance design for the first time. Architects can analyse running costs in data models at concept stage and this is where the link with proptech and IoT becomes key. Many new proptech innovators are working on property management apps that include performance and cost management analysis for finished buildings (the chimni app is one). In a utopian world, the performance data sets they produce would be co-ordinated with BIM performance modelling formats. Once again, it would be madness for two separate analysis & performance cultures to develop without co-ordination. The BIM, proptech and IoT industries need to co-ordinate the development of ‘performance-design’ science with ‘post-construction and usage analysis.
Phase 3 - Manufacturing & Construction
From a property tech point of view, the construction phase is potentially the least interesting area. But its important for the proptech world to understand this revolution from the contractors point of view. Previously, a contractor would be given print-outs of drawings, and revisions would be worked through on paper. Now, the contractor is invited to share the online model as a participant in a process and issues are worked out in 3D.
Once again, a generation of construction focussed plug-ins and apps are appearing to work with BIM models and data. A contractor can deliver direct feedback on the professional teams intentions, data models can be updated in response through the process and the potential to remove delays and avoid costly mistakes is huge.
For the construction sector the prize is dramatic productivity improvements. Proptech and IoT innovators need to consider the needs and interests of the contractor when thinking about the lifecycle of their products, if they want them included, installed and configured correctly as part of the construction process.
Phase 4 - Operation & Maintenance
The operation and maintenance (O&M) phase of a building’s life is potentially the most significant for proptech and IoT innovators as most tech innovation in our world (if we briefly ignore online estate agents) is focussed on changing how we run buildings.
Previously, in social or managed housing, where a building was going to be run by a facilities manager (FM), a CAD file would have been treated as an archive resource. The operator would be given print-outs of the construction documents and PDFs of all the maintenance manuals. After that, they were on their own. The new BIM world treats the BIM model as a potential ‘operating system’ for the building. Now, the BIM model gets handed over to the FM to use and a new generation of FM software & plug-ins is emerging to help them use it. The proptech world needs to integrate with this world.
Homebuilding was always a problematic area in this fourth phase. One of the major reasons was that there were few professionally recognised ‘operators’ outside of the social housing sector to hand information to, once construction was finished. Buyers of new homes had no way of using CAD data and most of the 26M existing homes in the UK have no CAD file available, even if they could use it.
However, buyers of new homes are increasingly taking ownership of properties built using BIM models full of useful, digital information. Over time the new BIM formats will allow construction & maintenance info to be delivered into consumer friendly apps (this idea is core to future developments stages of Chimni). We just have to work out how to unlock it for them.
Beyond new homes, the retro-fit and refurbishment of existing homes will also benefit because of the BIM Object data now being created by manufacturers of systems like central heating. This data is currently targeted at contractors, but it has huge potential if made available to consumers. We need manufacturers of proptech and IoT devices to participate in the process of creating data formats configured to support consumer apps and services for retro-fit equipment. This is not futurology - anyone with a British Gas ‘Hive’, or Google ‘Nest’ attached to their central heating has already made a leap in this direction. It is now time to bring our different industries together.
The design and construction world is managing the adoption of new BIM systems and practices very carefully. Supported by the Government, they are making the transition to the first working level of BIM – what the industry is calling BIM Level 2 (where Level 1 is the old CAD standards). However, the industry is already looking forward to the next innovation stage - BIM Level 3 – where web friendly data and apps are integral to the development of BIM based services. Rather hopefully called iBIM, this is where the two worlds of design & construction and proptech will collide. We might as well start planning for it.
Its likely that the initial areas where BIM and proptech can collaborate will be in areas around data for performance and maintenance. It is likely that there are areas of potential collaboration that are hard to define at this stage. However, to manage for this in the long term, both industries will need to develop a shared vision for how people will expect to manage their homes in the future and the data they will require to do that.
Nigel Walley @ChimniWalley