At the centre of it all

New BIM centre of excellence aims to boost industry productivity and competitiveness

The tremendous potential of Building Information Modelling (BIM) for improving productivity in the construction sector recently spurred the Alberta government to provide some seed money to set up a BIM centre of excellence in the province.

The money, $250,000, provided by the provincial government, came in the wake of studies that examined ways to improve Alberta's competitiveness. And, it seems, some prodding by experts.

Clearly, the province sees room for improvement. A recent advertising supplement from Alberta Finance published in an Alberta-based magazine notes that productivity in Canada has been declining since the early 1990s and that "Alberta is Canada's third-largest manufacturing province, but has the lowest productivity growth rate in the country."

Targeting the province's construction sector makes sense. It is typically a major driver of growth in Alberta's economy, often accounting for about 35 per cent of capital investment. This is significantly higher than provincial and state averages across the continent, which are around 22 per cent.

The rationale behind the Alberta Centre of Excellence in Building Information Modelling-ACE-BIM for short-appears all the stronger in light of the fact that many in the design and construction sectors are unfamiliar with the full range of technologies and software programs that support BIM systems. This is often the case not just in Alberta, but also across North America.

"The centre is virtual right now and likely to remain so," explains Klaas Rodenberg, chief executive officer of ACE-BIM. "We hope to have a couple hundred members within the next few years. The centre will operate on moving technology forward, building capacity and sharing best practices. Building capacity will involve training and education via institutes and the workplace, and sharing information between companies and institutes."

Rodenberg, sustainable design coordinator at Stantec Inc., and John Leurdyke, a professional architect and director of building products in the Advanced Industries Development Unit of the Alberta government who is on the board of directors of ACE-BIM, are among a growing body of expert opinion that believes that BIM is about to revolutionize design and construction globally, largely because of the potential productivity gains.



Over the last 40 years, they note, productivity has improved in most sectors, but not in construction, in part because of the growing complexity of construction. If anything, Leurdyke says, productivity in the construction sector has declined. BIM can help turn this around.

"BIM has shown it can improve productivity by 30-50 per cent," Leurdyke says.

Instead of treating design, documentation, construction and building maintenance as separate steps, BIM systems support a more integrated approach and provide a central tool that brings together owners, architects, engineers, consultants, manufacturers and fabricators.

The U.S. National Institute of Building Sciences defines BIM as "a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility. As such, it serves as a shared knowledge resource for information about a facility, forming a reliable basis for decisions during its life cycle from inception onward."

As Rodenberg and the National Institute of Building Sciences point out, BIM is not only a technology using 3-D modelling and visualization. Although those aspects are important, BIM is primarily about information-a long-term shared resource for a building from the earliest design conception, through construction, during the years it is operated and maintained, altered or added onto, and throughout its entire life cycle.

According to a paper by Doug Bevill, president and founder of American business consultancy Bevill & Associates, and Peter J. Arsenault, a Stantec architect, "The integration of both graphic and non-graphic information in one place gives the model much more value as a resource that can be accessed by many people instead of wasting time and money to duplicate."

The two believe the "wastefulness and redundancy in building design and construction work is estimated at nearly U.S.$400 billion annually plus notably more when operating processes are taken into account."

The use of BIM appears to be increasing rapidly across the continent. Pointing to a joint study by McGraw-Hill Construction and the National Institute of Building Sciences that was based on information from surveys across North America "from all parts of the architecture, engineering and construction spectrum," the authors of the paper note that 49 per cent of the sector was using BIM in 2009, up from 28 per cent in 2007. Also, current users expect to increase their use of BIM, according to the joint study's findings in McGraw-Hill's SmartMarket Report series called The Business Value of BIM: Getting Building Information Modeling to the Bottom Line.



The use of BIM systems was pioneered in the automobile and aircraft manufacturing industries. Users of BIM in the construction sector are finding that construction projects that use BIM can achieve about the same levels of accuracy and precision found in the automobile and aircraft industries. The higher levels of precision and accuracy apply across the BIM environment, says Leurdyke, who points to three bids on a multi-million-dollar building for the University of Alberta, all of which used BIM. The three bids came within $1,000 or $2,000 of each other.

In Alberta, BIM is being used by the architecture and engineering community on about 30 per cent of projects.

"The next logical step is for contractors to get on board," Rodenberg says. He adds, "BIM-based design is contractor-ready."

But one of the challenges, he says, is that smaller consulting firms and builders don't yet see an advantage in BIM: "They can make money doing what they do. But in a downturn, those using BIM could have a competitive advantage."

Some Chinese builders are using BIM. A recent project in China involved an office tower whose 15 stories were built in 15 days, Rodenberg says.

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