UK Construction Online’s Matt Brown talks exclusively to Director of the RICS Built Professional Groups Alan Muse about the UK’s BIM journey, International Construction Measurement Standards and 2017 predictions.
Alan Muse has been leading RICS’ response to the government construction strategy and sits on the CIC BIM Forum. He is a member of the group established to develop the BIM protocol and leads project management, quantity surveying and BIM initiatives within the RICS including the development of skills, training and guidance for RICS members.
Come April, we will be a year on from the BIM Level 2 mandate. How would you describe the construction industry’s place on its BIM journey?
The figure I saw on the last comprehensive survey on Building Information Modelling was around a 54% take up. That was in answer to the question ‘are you using BIM?’
There’s always the issue of the definition of what BIM actually means in practice when people are asked such a question. One of the concerns from our perspective has been a lot of the debate and thought leadership on BIM to date has been design-centric and related to the design professions.
There’s nothing wrong with that of course because obviously BIM replaced Computer Aided Design. Therefore it’s quite natural for the debate to have progressed in that way. However, we do feel that in with regards to business management – project cost and facilities management – there is much more work that needs to be done in that area using BIM.
It is interesting that Level 3 aspirations and also some of the BIM Alliance work that is just starting up is geared more towards things like life costing operations than perhaps the work in the past. We feel that the industry has been nudged to take up BIM and the Level 2 mandate has been at least partially successful but the real progress now depends upon changing the conversation about BIM into more of a business management setting.
That will allow greater engagement with the private sector who, to date, have not been as enthusiastic the take up of BIM as the public sector. I think the other issue, which certainly crosses over with the RICS, is existing buildings’ conversion, refurbishment, heritage and all that type of work that surveyors obviously get involved with extensively.
A lot of the BIM debate has been related to new ‘sexy’ projects and we need to expand that debate to include technologies that are available for scanning existing buildings into BIM and then using that digital information in a way that creates efficiencies for the process of existing properties portfolios and property management.
So that’s where we are placed but actually we think we are in a good place in terms of continuing that debate and furthering the BIM take up in industry through professional discourse and professional knowledge.
Do you feel there is close collaboration between the BIM design and business management process?
Yes, in my experience the collaboration on BIM between the different professional institutions has been good. It’s one area where professional institutions have shown they can collaborate well, probably because they have had to in order to further the BIM debate.
We do need to shift the conversation away from the design-centric nature of some of the debate to date more to business management. This would mean more engagement with the technologists’ solutions and their response to market demand and impacting client decisions. One issue that probably hasn’t been addressed, as much as it could be is that the private sector client and the decision making process that he goes through and how BIM feeds into that process.
Some government departments, such as the Ministry of Justice, have analysed their processes in quite a lot detail. Private sector clients work in a much more state of flux and transformation in their response to market needs, particularly private sector developers. There needs to be a lot more thought in how business management process is applied to and benefiting private sector clients.
Is the government’s commitment to significant infrastructure spending an endorsement of the huge advantages of working within the BIM process?
I don’t think that it is necessarily cordial but it is correlated. The fact that we do need to spend a lot of money on infrastructure over the next ten to 15 years in the UK and globally is a huge opportunity to integrate BIM from the beginning as HS2 and others are beginning to realise.
That large infrastructure spending allows the infrastructure market to realise the benefit of BIM in a way that might not have been possible in the repair and maintenance arena which infrastructure spending in this country has been conventionally restricted to.
The three H’s – Hinkley Point, HS2, Heathrow’s third runway all have a capacity and capability to bring BIM right into the process from the beginning and use BIM in a way that can produce a more efficient design process but critically allow the information for asset management to be controlled and structured in a much more cohesive and cogent way than has been possible in the past.
The advantages accruing from that will only be evident through time but if the government is committed to the digitisation of the industry, then infrastructure is one arena where, because of the nature of the repetition and the industrialisation of the process is possible, the benefits of BIM maybe even more significant than in building.
Was the International Property Measurement Standards a stepping-stone to the International Construction Measurement Standards (ICMS)?
Well in so far as it’s a suite of standards – yes. The context here is that following international financial reporting standards, we thought as a professional institution involved in land, property and construction, that it was important following on from the global financial crisis that we developed global standards in the areas of land, property and construction.
As surveyors, the first standard developed was the valuation standard called the Red Book, which looks at standard ways of valuing property around the world.
Following on from that, the main input into valuation and property is floor areas and they also vary significantly around the world, so International Property Measurement Standards (IPMS) was the logical next step.
Obviously people amend, adapt and build new property so construction having a consistent standard for cost classification around the world at a high level was the reason we embarked upon International Construction Measurement Standards. In all these cases, its been done through collaborative international coalitions.
ICMS is a coalition of 43 professional bodies around the world. We feel that professional bodies are the right people to at least initiate these standards and write them in the first place, although clearly we want industry to shape them.
By doing it through professional institutions, we can get the right expertise around the table to write the standard efficiently and quickly, then put it to the market and shape it through industry feedback.
How has the lack of such a system as the International Construction Measurement Standards restricted the construction industry?
First of all, the problem that ICMS is solving is a lack of a consistent classification or standard to compare construction costs around the world. Although we’ve had in recent times political populism with people retracting behind their own borders, there is no doubt that globalisation has a large effect on the world.
Investors in construction are increasingly global and want to compare the cost of projects and infrastructure on an international basis and there is no common standard for doing so. You will recall the debate on HS2 and how it compared with other high-speed rail networks around the world. There simply was not a comparable standard that could be used to make those comparisons.
Sometimes people think of international as somewhere else and not relevant to the UK market but look at the amount of Chinese investment we are about to receive in the UK both in railways and nuclear energy.
Chinese investors in the UK will want somewhere to compare their costs that they’re going to undertake for construction in this country with costs in other parts of Asia. The need for a global standard and regulation in the profession is important because, unlike accountancy and the medical professions, quantity surveying is quite fragmented and does not have global standards.
This is a first step in creating that framework and unifying the quantity surveying profession.
Harmonising the language will also be key, for example cost engineers working in some parts of the world think they are doing a different job to quantity surveyors in the UK but actually, when you analyse the skills of those two different professions, they are very similar.
The introduction of International Construction Measurement Standards makes a lot sense. Has this been the general reaction you have received?
We have just finished the first public consultation on the 15th January. I was looking through the comments received and one of the questions that we put to the consultation was ‘What do they think about the need for this standard?’ Almost without exception, we received an awful lot of very positive comments.
Most people, regardless of their market in the world, seem to immediately see the need for this and the benefit of it.
What has been the reaction of SMEs?
Positive. Once it’s explained to SMEs how it interfaces with existing national standards, such as the new rules and measurements, people do understand the need for this.
I was speaking to an SME director in quantity surveying a couple of days ago, who hadn’t actually seen the consultation on ICMS.
I asked him to have a look at it and he came back to me within a couple of hours. He thought it was a no brainer and was extremely positive about it.
Even if you work at an SME level and think that large international projects are not something you necessarily are involved in, the issue is that we now have global supply chains. We have certainly got supply chains in this country in quantity surveying where some of the larger practices are using the smaller practices.
If the larger practices are talking about this standard on an international basis then the smaller practices need to understand it and how it is being used.
As RICS is primarily made up of SMEs, we are very keen to make sure they are engaged in this standard and that they understand its place in the market and how they can become involved in it.
Does Brexit make having these standards all the more vital?
I think that is an extremely good point. When we were developing ICMS, we actually went to the European Commission and their construction unit is very much in favour of it because it allows them to harmonise rules across the European economies.
That’s important for us but at the same time allows harmonisation and a standard for the profession on a global basis.
With regards to Brexit, as Theresa May said, we need to be seen as a truly international nation now and one of our major export potentials is in professional services.
Global standards in professional services is something that we should be involved in, just as a general principal.
Some of the other professions have been involved similarly so it makes absolute sense that the surveying profession – something that the UK is well known for – is involved heavily in the globalisation of standards.
Has the resilience of the construction industry in the face of uncertainty surprised you?
There have been some ups and downs along the way and there is no doubt that the depreciation in the pound is going to affect input prices.
That is probably going to feed through into costs but in construction, price doesn’t always follow cost. Whether that can be subsumed within the industry to some degree, time will tell.
The construction industry was in pretty good shape in terms of demand in the UK and therefore it’s not really surprised me that it’s been generally resilient.
There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding business decision making because of Brexit but at the same time there isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with the economy. We do still have a low interest rate environment although people are expecting inflation to increase because of the exchange rate.
The issue is that shouldn’t be insurmountable and therefore the idea of industry suffering a major recession is unlikely.
What are your predictions for the construction industry in 2017?
It’s going to be a bit of a curate’s egg with regards to sectors. Obviously we have a lot of momentum in the infrastructure arena and we all know the need for housing, so those are two sectors that will do particularly well.
The general macroeconomic environment should keep retail, commercial, and industrial sectors fairly level. I don’t anticipate there’s going to be same type of skill shortages and high demand that we saw a few years ago but I do think that might be prevalent in one or two sectors where work is more in demand such as housing and infrastructure.
Across the board and taking the overall position, it will be steady as she goes; our forecast is construction output rising 2% in 2017.
The elephant in the room, however, is the pressure on input prices from the lower pound. There are various scenarios there, but we expect to see price levels contained within construction because the industry is not necessarily operating at full capacity.
There may well be cost pressures in certain sectors that are seeing higher demand such as housing and infrastructure, where there is clearly a potential for capacity constraints in both trade skills and professional skills. So the capacity of the industry to deliver what is demanded by the economy might start to push up prices in certain sectors.
Did Theresa May’s recent Brexit speech provide business with enough clarity?
It was a big step forward in terms of the clarity that has been provided to date. Is it enough? Industry would always ask for more information; but that’s just the nature of industry.
My personal view is that given the situation Theresa May is in, that’s as much as she could give at the moment. The fact remains it takes two people to negotiate and you don’t know what the other party is going to say.
Overall, I would say it’s positive not in so much what she said but the fact that she said it.
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