Twenty years ago, in my days in managing a ‘patch’ of social housing in West Yorkshire, there was no real culture of using IT to help you do your job. Arrears were managed with a pencil, a ruler and a pile of computer-generated reports that grew week by week on my desk until I struggled to see my colleagues when I looked up. Planned maintenance was tricky, too. The lesson we learned was ‘never replace all the bin store doors and frames just before Mischievous Night.’ The surveyor’s face when he saw the scorched outline of the bonfire that had been enjoyed the previous night was a picture. And suddenly, none of the blocks had any communal doors. Nor frames.
The reason I reminisce is that I’m trying to illustrate that, between fleeing angry dogs, serving notices nervously on Friday afternoons, trying to confiscate stolen mopeds and marvelling at the sheer creativity of vandalism left behind in many of our void properties, we carried all our knowledge around in our heads. If somebody asked me about 6 Sykes Close, an image appeared in my mind of a three-storey block with a central stairway and a flat roof. It may have existed on a crude, green-screen property database somewhere in the office, but that would be little used.
And all that time, although I never realised it, ‘building information modelling’ existed in a crude early form. Even now, a quarter of a century later, it is not a term that is commonplace in the housing sector. But is that about to change?
Building information modelling (BIM) is a technology used to visualise a building. A digital, three-dimensional representation of the physical characteristics of a building (airport, school, factory, block of flats) gives the viewer an immediate ability to see in their physical place all the features of that building, and to make decisions about it from prior to it being built right through its lifecycle. The data files that enable these representations are rather like GIS or CAD files, and can be exchanged in similar ways.
Therefore in construction management, data is gathered and added as it becomes known (architects’ drawings, for example). It becomes a growing resource, with room shapes and sizes, stairways, envelope and so on. As the building evolves and is fitted out, those items also become objects attached to the model, and objects can also inherit data from one another to enable predictability. This is great for architects and builders, because it enables much more accurate working and material usage.
The step change between CAD drawings and a BIM of the same building really lies in the depth and richness of information that can be made available once it has been gathered. For example, take a house made of traditional brick. What BIM can add to the traditional CAD model is all the little features that are not seen on a typical CAD rendering, such as the wall ties and internal insulation boards, as well as far richer information about those items that can be rendered in CAD – for example, if there is a lintel above the window, what is its maximum load, and, in the case of other items, qualities such as tensile strength, heat or moisture conductivity, and so on. You can hold data on information such as the standard (and the expected standard) of the brick laying or the sound insulating performance (which of course could be of interest to those dealing with ASB and noise!). Each product used in the building has detailed specification data held against it, to ensure that in the long term, its performance can be accurately assessed.
Housing providers tend to manage the entire building lifecycle, from development feasibility right through to disposal or demolition. Think about the potential that having such models would give your organisation. In the future, will you work with architects and construction companies if they cannot or will not provide you with a BIM? There are a growing number of large property-owning companies in the UK and Europe who will not!
In your housing management system or your asset management system, you may store stock condition information. So, for example, when an electrical fault is reported within a block, you enter a repair request based on (vague) information that the tenant reports and a surveyor may then have to visit the block to find the cause of the problem. If you were instead able to call up the BIM of the block on screen and locate the electrical wiring circuits (held as objects on the model), you would have a far greater chance of dealing with the problem quickly and efficiently.
Let’s look longer term. You are an asset manager and you can call up a model of a block and view its water and heating system graphically, with not only the location of the pipes, boilers, valves and radiators, but also manufacturers, model numbers, performance information, energy rating data, cost and replacement date.
Compliance is a subject with growing focus in building management – imagine being able to view all smoke alarms in properties and blocks, and see if their current positions are optimal for ensuing that residents are safeguarded from risk. It would also be possible to review general fire safety based on the construction of the building, whether extra fire escapes might be advantageous, where the ‘risk’ areas are in stairways in terms of rubbish dumping and subsequent enhanced fire risk. This kind of strategic modelling could then be the basis for planned works to reduce risks in communal areas.
BIM also offers tools for the creation of new models; for example, an enhanced energy model could be created and added to a block to enable the effects of a potential energy improvement programme to be easily visualised. This creates a far more compelling and effective view than a simple printed report is ever likely to offer. And again, because metadata and documentation can be added at any time to the model, a massive resource of information can be created and then used.
The ‘facilities management’ application of BIM is probably going to form the main basis of its potential use by UK housing providers. However, consider its uses in other areas, such as estate management. If a tenant in a block reports a noise nuisance, how often does the person taking the call know which number flat is above, below, or across the landing? Calling up a BIM model on screen would answer that question quickly (as well as giving information on wall thickness!). It would also highlight the area where the sofa has been dumped in the stairwell, so a contractor can be called to remove it.
BIM has had a slow start and it is used in different ways globally. However, its rate of adoption is gaining pace. A survey of the UK construction industry in 2010 found that use of BIM stood at 13 per cent but by 2014 that figure had risen to 48 per cent. Aareon’s experience of both the Swedish and Norwegian housing markets suggests that interest is increasing and standards are being adopted.
Will BIM become a standard tool for UK housing providers any time soon? I’d say we are currently some way off from seeing it as a standard tool.
Firstly, the sector is relatively cautious about adopting new technologies. Mobile working and tenant portals both took years to become truly accepted by the sector. I suspect BIM will be the same, until some exemplar customers begin to show business benefits are possible.
Secondly, it is a technology that is very much about ‘you get out what you put in’. The sheer volume of data that would need to be gathered to create accurate building models is a daunting task in itself for existing stock, and unless you inherit the model data from the construction company who built the units in the first place, you somehow need to acquire a digital model of the building. Given that many providers currently don’t even have a full stock condition survey (to put that into context, many years ago, during an implementation that will remain nameless I found that the customer was delighted to discover three properties that they did not realise they owned!), it is unlikely that the necessary data will be gathered quickly or easily without an intensively managed project. But like all IT implementations, that can be overcome and it is not a good reason in itself not to do it.
Thirdly, I think we need some good business case information from the early adopters. Like the aforementioned mobile working, for example, there was considerable scepticism and resistance in the early days until the efficiency case was made. Then it became far more compelling and I think the same will be true of visualisation technologies such as BIM. The possibilities I have listed above have clear benefits in terms of asset management, and I would argue that they at least have customer service benefits in the housing management sphere as well.
Take into account also the changing user expectations – the internet in general is becoming more and more visual and immediate with the ubiquity of tools such as Google Maps and Apple Maps. Almost all apps these days enable the tagging of photos you have taken on your smartphone, so that you can visualise them on a map view. BIM takes this a stage further and, when combined with geographic information systems, enables this kind of rich media tagging on a 3-D model as opposed to a 2-D map or CAD. Photos, data, documents, manuals and so on become useful and relevant in the same way as your holiday photos do.
Aareon sees the technology as an emerging one in both the commercial and social sectors and so I suspect that this could, with some hard work and creative application in future years, become a game changer in the way property and asset data is managed in the UK.
Paul O’Reilly is a senior consultant at Aareon.