By Mathias Huth. The German construction industry has just achieved a new record high with growth of 8.5%. Suppliers, planning offices, construction companies and also craftsmen are barely able to handle all of their orders at the moment. The economic downturn has hardly been felt at all on construction sites – although a decrease in the number of building permits issued in autumn 2019 does indicate that the construction sector is cooling down to some extent. However, small and medium-sized companies are currently operating at the limit of their capacities for the most part. In this busy and in some cases stressful situation, digitalisation is now leaving companies stretching at the seams.
"BIM? Yes, I’m aware of it but it’s not yet a priority for me!"
Companies who have successfully planned and constructed buildings or manufactured roof tiles for many years are now suddenly expected to engage with building information modelling (BIM). However, many companies in the construction sector do not yet even have their own website. In its broadest sense, digitalisation only plays a role for them in the context of Excel tables, e-mail, CAD or the occasional use of one or other calculation program. Yet BIM is suddenly receiving its own podium at all of the relevant construction trade fairs. Newspapers are reporting about it, specialist associations are founding working groups and new companies offering products and services that were still unthinkable even ten years ago are springing up almost overnight.
Nevertheless, the construction industry has demonstrated for thousands of years that it is able to construct buildings and infrastructure without digital tools and without BIM. Why should everyone now clamber to use BIM just because it happens to be the current trend? Everything is working fine as it is! Moreover, companies are also having to deal with many other important projects at the moment. Comments such as “BIM? Yes, we’re aware of it but we’ll deal with it at the earliest in two years’ time. We currently have more important projects.” can be heard time and again from companies. In view of the abundant number of orders described above, I can fully understand these comments. In a recent Feuertrutz study on the German market [4, only available in German], companies were asked what was holding them back from introducing BIM.
Almost 51% stated that they “had not yet received any specific instructions to use BIM from customers”. This is also something that I hear repeatedly. But this is not really the issue. A much more interesting question is what costs companies will face if BIM and digital tools are not used. Irrespective of whether the company is a product manufacturer, specialist planner, constructor, craftsman, construction company or operator, traditional construction methods are slow, expensive, ponderous, difficult and in some cases even dangerous. 30% of the construction costs are on average pure waste. More than 70% of construction projects are either concluded after the planned project deadline or exceed the anticipated costs, or in most cases suffer from both of these issues. In contrast to all other sectors, productivity on construction sites has not changed in the last 25 years . And the construction industry also has a huge influence on the climate. Almost 40% of global CO2 emissions are produced on construction sites or by construction suppliers . Naturally, it is still possible to continue building without BIM and without digital tools but the costs will be enormous if there is no improvement in the working methods.
Even if almost 80% of those surveyed in the study mentioned above have never participated in a BIM project involving preventative fire protection, more than 85% of those surveyed anticipate that the use of BIM will offer them greater planning security and productivity. This means that those surveyed are absolutely clear about the benefits that digitalisation and thus also BIM can offer them. Why is it then that BIM is making such slow progress in Germany?
The satisfaction trap
Although there are many rational arguments for why BIM has not yet broken through in Germany, there is another reason that is not often mentioned. People tend to view their current situation as the status quo and see their future development as a linear progression. We are satisfied with what we have and expect things to develop in the future based on what we know and understand. However, the fact that developments happen exponentially in the digital age has been well known since at least the development of Moore's law. The growth of new digital technologies, including BIM, does not happen in a linear manner but instead follows a steeply rising curve.
The impact that BIM has on players in the construction sector and thus on companies involved in preventive fire protection is thus immense. In the hustle and bustle of booming everyday business, it is tempting to simply carry on as usual and head home satisfied at the end of the day. Yet while some companies are simply working through their orders, others are already embracing the digital future at the same time. And one thing is already sure today: it's not the big that are eating the small, but the fast eating the slow.
The status quo with respect to BIM
It is well known fact that digitalisation knows no boundaries. BIM projects have been government funded in the USA since 2003. Since 2015, BIM has been obligatory for all public construction projects in Finland, Norway and Sweden. These countries were followed by Great Britain in 2016 and Spain since this year. In Germany, the Federal Ministry of Transport presented a strategic roadmap for the introduction of BIM in 2015. The aim is to make the use of BIM obligatory for public construction projects from 2020. Yet innovative companies do not wait for measures to be imposed by the government. They have long since understood the benefits of BIM. In this area, protagonists are sometimes pursuing the same and sometimes completely different objectives. For example, building owners want to have their buildings completed on time and on budget. Construction companies want to reduce costs and streamline processes. Construction suppliers want to guarantee that they are right at the front of the queue for those invitations to tender using BIM. Those companies who started using BIM at an early stage have even been able to increase their revenue because they are more innovative than their competitors and can use BIM to tap into new target groups and sales channels. Last but not least, planners want to or can save time and reduce errors using BIM-compliant planning. Both large planning and construction companies and also small engineering offices have entered the world of BIM and forged their own path through this complex jungle.
While the adoption rate for BIM (see Figure 1) is already relatively high amongst general contractors (GC/PC), there is still considerable potential for development amongst facility managers (FM) and product manufacturers. The levels of maturity amongst planners and architects for BIM vary to a high degree. In the fragmented German market with its small and micro-sized planning offices and architectural firms, the penetration rate for BIM is still very low. Yet an in-depth examination of the subject matter is not only important but could be essential for the survival of these companies in particular.
Many German companies are still hesitating to introduce BIM. According to the already quoted study from Feuertrutz, the top 6 reasons for why BIM has not yet been introduced are:
- 50.7 % not yet received any request for it from clients,
- 44.8 % lack of specialist knowledge,
- 36.5 % difficulties coordinating with other trades,
- 31.0 % high cost of the software,
- 28.6 % low level of development of BIM software,
- 22.7 % lack of BIM data about fire protection products
The first statement is the most remarkable. More than half of all planners, approvers, construction companies, auditors and operators are waiting for it to be requested by clients. An interesting fact is that innovators in the area of BIM have engaged with the subject matter without having received any specific requests from clients. This applies to all those involved in the construction industry, meaning construction companies just as much as planners, manufacturers or operators. Even though everyone currently talks about achieving a maximum level of customer centricity, it is imperative not to fall into the satisfaction trap. It is vital for companies to closely examine the subject of digitalisation and its consequences rather than waiting for requirements to be imposed on them. Another excuse given by almost half of those surveyed is a lack of specialist knowledge. This is an important issue especially for small and medium-sized companies who are not simply able to employ new personnel or allocate existing employees to new tasks. In order to overcome this challenge, external and above all independent support is a frequently proven method. The cost of the software is another issue. Yet there are now also interesting solutions available at an affordable price. The important thing is to closely examine the market and check which planning software to use. If a planner operates in an international environment, it will be difficult to work without e.g. Autodesk Revit. This software is now also available as a leasing model. However, BIM-compliant planning solutions are also offered by Nemetschek or Tekla. The software needs to be chosen wisely depending on the relevant trade and sales region. It is important here that companies do not blindly place their trust in just one supplier but firstly determine the precise requirements at their own company before completing a thorough comparison of the different suppliers. An independent advisor can help companies save valuable time and money gaining the required expertise. Every fifth person surveyed named the lack of BIM data about fire protection products as a reason. Product manufacturers face a diverse range of issues. BIM data is required – but in what format and what level of detail? How can digital twins be maintained on a daily basis? How should this data be prepared internally? Should the BIM data be created internally or with the aid of an external partner? Where should the BIM data be made available to customers for download? In most cases, planners provide hardly any details about what it is that they actually require. And sometimes they are not even sure about it themselves. This means that manufacturers should take an active role in shaping the process and support their customers and planners. Based on a BIM strategy (explained in more detail below), manufacturers should know the relevant contact points and the requirements of their customers.
As a result, they can develop a whole new relationship with their customers, planers and also with building operators over the long term. BIM does not only mean working on a digital model but above all working in collaboration – something that is taken for granted in everyday business but which is unfortunately still an exception in many construction processes. However, it is only through transparent cooperation between all parties involved in the process that the full benefits of BIM will be felt. From the perspective of the product manufacturer, this type of transparent cooperation is a major challenge.
Suddenly, it will be possible for a product offered by one manufacturer to be compared 1:1 with those offered by the competition. Specialist planners still have stacks of product catalogues from manufacturers on their shelves. Selecting the different products required for their planning projects from these catalogues is a laborious process for planners. Manufacturers design their catalogues with colourful images and catchy slogans to draw attention to their products. Yet these products are already comparable today. Companies are barely able to differentiate themselves through better product characteristics and colourful images but instead through their service provision, quality and by offering the best value for money. Which is why it is all the more important to focus on building good links to customers in the future. Those companies who engage with BIM at an early stage and collaborate closely with their suppliers and customers will have an advantage in the future.
Some trades have already understood that there is an urgent need to adapt. To enable planners to work in a BIM-compliant manner, products must be made digitally comparable by ensuring that the attributes used to describe a product are identical for all manufacturers. This means that “volume” is always “volume” and not “noise level”, “sound level” or “acoustic level”. Some sectors of industry have already been able to agree on common classifications. At this point in time, there are no commonly agreed rules in the area of fire protection in Germany. This means that every manufacturer, every BIM platform and every BIM planning office creates their own list of BIM attributes for fire protection. It thus still requires a lot of work to compare the individual manufacturers. Product manufacturers have the opportunity to help shape the future of their trade if they actively participate in such projects themselves. Independent consultants or specialist associations who understand the subject matter and can actively provide support are ideal intermediaries or brokers in this context. The Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics IBP is also investigating the issue of harmonising digital construction products. The aim of the “Intelligent digital construction products model” initiative is to develop a largely harmonised, intelligent and open product data model that can be used and interpreted by as many of the IT systems currently being used as possible. Innovative value added processes can be established thanks to the availability of a digital twin and the linking of data flows. Data from the use and operation of buildings can be compared with decision-making processes during the planning phases for these building using feedback channels. This will then enable the use of a new method for continuously optimizing products and services in the construction sector (see Figure 2). In the digital ecosystem of networked buildings and their intelligent construction products, it will also enable new forms of customer-oriented services to be developed.
Either you keep up with the times, or you will become irrelevant over time
Digitalisation is changing the roles played by all of the different types of company involved in the value added chain in the construction sector. This development is opening up numerous opportunities for all involved to set themselves apart from the competition, acquire new customers, work together more intensively with customers, shape the future and sustainably increase their own turnover. Whether companies engage with the subject of digitalisation and rigorously align themselves accordingly will differentiate successful companies from less successful ones in the near future. The introduction of BIM and the effort involved in this process is not the primary issue here. Instead, the important thing is for a company to understand its own role, its own strategy and its current business model. Companies should ask themselves the following question: Will what we are doing today still work satisfactorily in three years’ time?. To survive and succeed against the background of this new development, companies should develop or revise their digital strategy in the context of their overall strategy and rigorously implement it.
BIM should not be viewed here in isolation but rather as an important part of this strategy. A quick and pragmatic solution may be sufficient in the beginning but whether it is optimal with respect to its opportunity cost is an entirely different matter. Nevertheless, a fundamental restructuring of the strategy, or perhaps an enhancement of the existing strategy to some extent, is unavoidable in the medium term (see Figure 3).
The important thing when developing a BIM strategy and the overarching digital strategy is to approach the task in a systematic manner, in combination with creativity and experience. The often quoted “just do it” mentality comes with the risk of “squandering” capacities and budget. In the case of small and medium-sized companies, the method of choice is often to seek external support so that companies can achieve their goals in an efficient, cost-effective and profit-oriented manner.
Whether it is a necessary evil or a new business model, BIM will require all those involved in the construction industry to rethink the way they do things and take action. The upcoming change of generation at planning offices, construction companies and operators will also change attitudes towards digitalisation. A 24/7 mentality, viewing software tools as problem solvers and expecting to find everything as quickly and easily as possible will also change the construction industry to a huge extent. As has already been seen in other sectors, the following will apply: Either you keep up with the times, or you will become irrelevant over time.
Owner of Remote Consulting. Following a successful introduction to BIM at Bosch Building Technologies, Mathias Huth founded Remote Consulting in 2018. Using his experience from 16 years working in the B2B and B2C sectors in the areas of marketing, product management and BIM, he today helps construction suppliers get fit for digitalisation as an independent BIM expert.
 McKinsey & Company, Beating the low productivity trap: How to transform construction operations, 2016
 Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, Global Status Report, 2018
 “Intelligent digital construction products model” initiative, Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics IBP, 2018
 FeuerTrutz Study