Lee McDougall of AHR Building Consultancy explains how the integration of BIM and FM software has the potential to transform the management and maintenance of buildings
Once considered a niche pursuit prized among architects for its use in major new build projects, BIM has gone mainstream, with even its retrospective application to existing assets more widely appreciated. Yet its benefits post-build, especially for facilities managers, are still often overlooked, and by comparison with the rest of the construction industry, take-up within FM has been low.
While some sector-specific hurdles remain, these are slowly but surely being resolved. Software packages have been developed that make FM software and BIM compatible, and BIM software itself is increasingly affordable. So what is causing the resistance? For some, even thinking about switching from existing software feels like a burden. In addition there are training costs, and simple human resistance to change.
Nonetheless, as the rest of the industry marches towards BIM level 3, and as clients themselves are increasingly BIM-savvy, there is mounting pressure for the construction and property industries to get on board. The day is not far off when clients will want to hand over a BIM model and expect FMs to make full use of it. Some FM companies have already realised this and are turning it into a competitive advantage.
Another barrier is that early misconceptions about BIM remain, such as that the technology is basically about impressive fly-through visualisations. While this aspect has genuine value for those trying to get stakeholders on board with new projects, the real benefit of BIM – and where it comes into its own for FM – is as a 3D database.
With newbuild projects, detailed design data is embedded within the model, and alterations to the design automatically recalculate this data, enabling better accuracy, better safety, and the ability to consider numerous permutations. For existing assets, it is all about the asset data, both in terms of accuracy and in terms of speed of retrieval. In traditional FM, viewing two sets of data through both schematics and spreadsheets is time-consuming. Bringing both sets together, accessed from a single point, radically enhances the speed of asset retrieval.
Accuracy is also a major factor. These data-rich models of existing assets have been made possible by combining laser scanning techniques with BIM technology. Scanning is a rapid process that has transformed surveying and easily captures vast amounts of information. More to the point, it can capture the complex shapes of older buildings and minute detail about wear and tear to building fabric, to a degree not previously possible.
The accuracy (and therefore usefulness) of data is also vastly enhanced by the addition of other new technologies. For example, photography via drone enhances accuracy because a drone can get very close to the fabric of a building. Face-on, the parallax effect (in which background content moves at a different speed from foreground content) is eliminated, and since images are captured well above the human eyeline, shadows are also minimised – both of which avoid distortions. By attributing RGB colour values and ‘draping’ these photographs on to cloud point data, we can then tie down the precision of the images to extract highly accurate measurement data.
From an FM perspective, what is ultimately achieved is a data-rich ‘virtual building’ in miniature – an incredibly powerful tool for asset and estate management and FM. Knowing the exact location, reference number, maintenance regime and associated costs of a particular asset is crucial. Yet how many working hours are wasted physically trekking around actual buildings or entire estates?
Even though assets can now be scanned with smartphones (which makes FMs more mobile), the data contained is often limited and cannot provide time-bound information – such as when that asset part was last replaced. Time wasted scrolling through asset repair manuals and separate logs of activities is further time wasted.
The sheer quantity and accuracy of data also makes long-term asset management and maintenance planning far more effective. The level of detail that scan-to-BIM can achieve in terms of understanding wear and tear on an asset could not be achieved in any other way. Drones can gather data about otherwise inaccessible areas without the cost and inconvenience of cherrypickers or scaffolding. Adding another technology into the mix – GIS – also provides contextual information about the location and orientation of an asset. This can lead to valuable insights, including how a given asset is likely to weather.
We continue to make advances at a rapid pace. While it is true that certain glitches remain (for example, Revit features no clock, which currently limits the capacity for provision of accurate live maintenance schedules), we are ultimately looking to create assets whose barcodes give full, live asset and maintenance data, and to this end we’re exploring new combinations of technology.
For example, while a facilities manager can track barcoded items via a smartphone, they must still physically locate the asset to retrieve the FM data. What happens when this is embedded in a 360 degree asset capture, using barcode or QR technology, so that the facilities manager need only swipe a smartphone across the digital model on the computer screen? It means more time saved. And since the barcode or QR code merely tells the computer where to look, the information can be updated at the back-end of the file (which can, for example, have an Excel spreadsheet or database embedded) without altering the barcode information.
Some of these developments are, of course, works in progress. However, other parts of the industry – not to mention clients – found themselves in a similar position not too long ago. Public sector clients, faced with the government mandate back in 2017, divided into those who waited until the last minute and those who took advantage and placed themselves ahead of the curve. As we inch ever closer towards the advanced FM capabilities that BIM enables, it may pay to look ahead.