Back to the future: digital innovation in the built environment

The construction industry has mostly survived without incorporating computational design or digital
technology into their workflow until very recently, but we’re now at a point where it would be
foolish to ignore the capability that these solutions offer, and are starting to embrace these tools.
Immersive technology is now readily available, cost effective, and being used in design offices and on
building sites; cloud computing is allowing more complex calculations to be carried out in a fraction
of the time; robotics and 3D printing is becoming a reality for making building components; access to
live building data is starting to reveal a new understanding of how people interact with the built
environment… the list goes on.

But is this BIM??? The following ramble‐chat proposes that a lot of the confusion has come from the
welding together of “information management” and “digital technology”. These two things go
together, but they’re not the same thing. BIM is the meticulously structured and organised part;
digital technology is what allows us to innovate and break the mould. Without the structure, the
innovation can’t really flourish, and without the innovation, life is boring.
With the rapid uptake of BIM has come many different definitions and interpretations, and although
the label has been useful for giving traction to a much needed review of our methods, it’s also
grouped many other things under one banner. Perhaps it’s more helpful now to look at the
constituent parts in their own right…

The UK Government’s Level 2 BIM requirements are a very useful framework for how we can
provide consistent structured information (Better Information Management, as many people like to
say). This is great; thanks Government. To make the best use of data, consistent standards are
essential in ensuring that computers can make like‐for‐like comparisons. Of course, artificial
intelligence and image recognition could potentially do away with these standards altogether, but
that’s for another blog… The important thing is that data juggling can be very boring for human
beings to deal with, but it’s exactly what computers are there for. So we have to use computers
properly to help us deliver consistent information and to allow us the time and space to create and
imagine.

Right now, the people in the digital mind‐space are still emerging from the dark corners of the office,
and starting to find their place within project teams, like fish growing legs and joining the human
race. Only in this case, the digital skillset is the natural evolution of the engineering toolbox. But like
a fish out of water, it’s taking time for them to find their feet.
One of the current challenges we’re facing is aligning digital skills with BIM tasks. We have BIM
consultants, BIM coordinators, 3D draftsmen, information managers, Revit technicians, BIM
technicians…. another endless list of people with widely varying skills and different places in the
project team. And many of our traditional project teams are still spinning from when BIM came
flying through the door a few short years ago with cries of “it’s a process”, “it’s a digital revolution”
and “the millennials are taking over”…

So although our understanding is quite spread out along the see‐saw of change, it feels like our
collective mass is now fast approaching the fulcrum, and nobody knows what’s about to appear on
the horizon. We all have an opportunity right now to set that picture; the digital era is only in its
infancy for the built environment, so we can influence and shape how we want to be working in the
near future.

After all, remember the whole reason for doing this: because we can… No, because we need to
better understand buildings to provide healthier, happier places with lower impact on our
environment. The built environment teams of the future will work alongside building owners to
optimise the running of their facility, constantly reviewing occupant wellbeing via wearable
technology and sensors, and energy performance via meters, to assess opportunities for
improvement. Design options will be calculated instantly, the optimised solutions will be presented
for the team to choose their favourite, and the components will be printed and installed overnight
by robots. A futuristic vision from a few years ago that now seems eerily tangible.

With all this in mind, we can see that the skillsets are changing from carrying out detailed
calculations and routing by hand, to focussing on optimising concept designs and operation of
spaces. The most valuable skills in 10 years will be a mixture: those associated with data analytics
and computer programming, and the wider ability to tie all these solutions together.

In 2017, we’re very much in the transition phase, and so our main focus needs to be on preparing
the foundations that will make the above utopia a possibility. And that is BIM: the idea of putting
structured data into a computer model. Once we can all do this, together, collaboratively, as a team,
the possibilities of digital innovation can take seed and grow.

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