Wednesday, 31 October 2012

At the end of a busy month for CIBSE, President David Fisk asks if we are out of recession and if BIM is destined to be yet another government IT disaster.

October is the month for everything…
October is a big month in the Presidential Calendar: joining ASHRAE and IMechE for Graduate of the Year Competition, opening the CIBSE Conference at Olympia, hosting the President’s Awards Dinner, dropping in on the Worshipful Company of Fan makers (as you do) and attending the Construction Industry Council. Meanwhile both my first and second year Masters students arrived on campus to systems engineer. Prestidigitation became Presidigitation.
Thank heavens for Construction Advisers
The CIBSE Conference opened alongside the Building Services exhibition on a bright autumn morning at Olympia. After a quick ‘let’s keep it simple’ from yours truly, Paul Morrell, the outgoing Government Construction Adviser gave us his wise 40Mb PowerPoint take on the industry. CIBSE gave him an Armada Cup at my Awards Dinner a little later in the week at the Royal Society. In years of turmoil when Parliament often seemed little more than a rehearsal for the next episode of the BBC’s ‘The Thick of It’, his steady keel was invaluable.
From reports, the conference and the exhibition seemed to go very well. The Awards Dinner similarly was a great evening. It is hard not to conclude that if only the Press and Parliament didn’t keep banging on about austerity and quietly sorted the retail banks rather than creating harebrained schemes for recovery, we’d just get on with normal business. It wouldn’t be a good year but it would be a year. As it is Travis Perkins must be clean out of Prozac.
Mind you, the Daily Express (I get it for my 90 year old neighbour, you understand) declared last Saturday that the UK was out of recession. So we are sorted. On autopilot apparently.
BIM mania
This was my first Construction Industry Council. I had imagined it would have been like an episode of BBC’s Merlin, with us all sitting round a vast Round Table sounding like One Voice. Actually seated in ranks, it was more like an episode of The Choir. Neither chair nor vice chair made the meeting and we ended up with PowerPoint presentations from Government’s incoming and outgoing Construction Advisers, the Cabinet Office and CIC’s ‘BIM Ambassador for Growth’.
My own take on BIM is that it is following a well tried recipe for public sector IT disaster. (Grief I can hear the special forces in Minority Report being dispatched to SW7 as I type…) It is just that Government’s track record over the last 15 years in getting anything right in big information systems is zero. Literally. We analyse two expensive screw ups on my systems Masters course, but we had plenty to choose from, since the scenario is the same every time.
It starts with a single client problem (it might be being rescued from a fire or winning a battle - the objective is clear) that needs more than one party to contribute but where the client is not strong enough to get things in order. Unfortunately all kinds of issues get in the way of spontaneous co-operation of players from fees structures, through hubris to class warfare.
The second step in the scenario is a proffered solution. Someone suggests a framework of communication that will do the co-operation for you. It is only too easy not to co-operate when you cannot communicate. So far so good. The Fire and Ambulance Services needed a better comms system for rescues (especially near county borders!), the Army needed a way to bring in air support. But then the IT industry arrives.
When CIBSE created the Knowledge Portal we engineered something deliberately simple, that worked first time and has serviced members well. You can easily imagine the enormity of ‘Knowledge Management Software’ we could have wasted Members subscriptions buying, that would never have fulfilled its promise. Unfortunately it seems that kind of discipline of managing risk never holds when Government is around. Indeed the IT industry is rather good at creating in Whitehall a feeling of techno-fashion victim to sell its next gimmick. Just suppose, purely hypothetically, that a ‘basic BIM’ was the correct Cabinet Office client solution. How could it have held that position for more than five minutes against the IT giants’ propaganda? Indeed the Secretary of State for Education’s recent speech at Polititea this October suggested such wise caution would have been an example of being ‘risk averse’. OK we have to make allowances that his only real world experience has been as a journalist not as an engineer. But the consequence of all this is that if you Google BIM you might suspect the ‘M’ stands for ‘mania’. I’m beginning to fear that having singlehandedly killed off green-wash merchants, I had inadvertently just moved the wash somewhere else. As someone said at the CIC, we’ll soon have BIM for light bulbs.
The next step in the well tried scenario is that attempts to rub down some of the rough edges that originally got in the way of co-operation fail. This is in small part because the IT industry offers an easy way out every time by promising an inclusive all singing and dancing solution that embraces everybody’s idiosyncrasies. They just have not actually developed it yet. IT firms don’t talk about a ‘systems architect’ for nothing! The software saga carries on until that magic point is reached when each software workaround and patch creates as many new problems as it has just solved…
But instead…
Wise heads in building services have been at great pains to emphasise that the basic BIM principle is about the data drops at the newly refreshed stages of work. What you drop this data into is a second order issue, not first. If the data is in good order then the infamous service clashes get ironed out before the industry arrives on site. Brilliant. But hasn’t the IT gone haring off in other directions altogether? You can find 9-D BIM if you want to look for it. Who actually is doing the good system engineering to restrain it from clocking up 12-D and counting?
I often hear people say that Information Models have been used in other industries for ages so we shouldn’t be so Luddite. No one is being Luddite, it is just a matter of getting it right. What is forgotten is that (at least of late) we do not design and construct buildings in the way you would an aeroplane or a rocket. In the latter the whole system requirement is continually broken down into subsystems and sub-sub-systems. It is then assembled from the bottom up with each assembled ‘level’ tested for performance against the corresponding subsystem expectation. The point is that when a subsystem fails its test, the designers have a problem to solve that is quarantined from the rest of the system performance. We might be able to design complex buildings that way, but we don’t. So when some part of the information base signifies a failure, it is not always obvious how much of this leviathan needs to be unpicked to fix it. The point of an information system design is not how it works when the sun shines, but how it helps when things start to go wrong. That is why good realistic engineering should probably hold back from creating leviathans and go for the lower hanging fruit.
Information Models can even be a distraction
The Apollo 13 disaster and the delay of the Airbus A380 were both traceable to Information Model failures, so it is not that others are cleverer. It is just that the systems problem is hard. Getting rid of service clash and creating a macroscopic account of progress, squeezes an awful lot of the juice out of the BIM model advantages. It is what happens on big jobs now. Isn’t going further to n-D just printing money for IT firms? If the Information Model supports a production line of widgets (if a Boeing Skyliner is a widget) then there might be some point in it serving as the repository of what’s inside all the boxes. But with a building we have the building. It is where the walls actually are, not where the information model says they should be.
Ends not means
We were draining this particular swamp, if you remember the alligator joke, because clients, including Government, are aware that UK construction is costing more than it should. We in turn are conscious that we are building less than we might because clients are wary of perceived risk of entering into a major construction project. Increasing the GDP contribution from IT expenditure was neither here nor there. If the Government client wants to discover this elusive ‘20% acquisition cost’ reduction, we shouldn’t forget to look at other issues like the visceral tendering process at the same time.
Most times contractors rely on the variations from bad drawings to recover their profit from the suicidal tender prices. If BIM was got to work but that brain dead tendering was not fixed, the client would hit a new problem. If the Stage E Drawings really were all bug free, the only contractors who would bid would be the ones who did not understand what they were bidding for! So what about some Integrated Design in the mix, with those who know how to build having an input into what goes into the drawing? Or is that only in California?
So, no argument with BIM from your President, but please as a central co-ordinating principle not a means to no end that diverts attention from other equally open wounds.
On a more upbeat note to end….the Sainsbury Laboratory won the RIBA Stirling Prize. It’s a beautiful quietly modest building, so thank you to Arup for showing what building services design can do. Cambridge, both University and Colleges, have usually been magnificently enlightened clients with an eye to the long term. Now, back in London, Imperial is mulling over its new Acton Site and UCL seems to have made an offer for half of the East End. Will they take a leaf from the same book or , because it is ‘London’, can we expect 76-storey pieces of glass junk (innovative and iconic of course) LEED Technetium, BREAM Mega, but like Manchester University’s Maths Tower doomed pretty soon to end up unfit for purpose and a pile of broken (shards of?) glass? Watch that space.

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