The Digital Engineer

Bored with BIM? For all the potential that the technology holds, it’s something that industry professionals are finding hard to get excited about. CIBSE BIM Consultant Carl Collins writes for us this week about how we can fall back in love with data. Be honest: How many people do you know that are actually excited about BIM these days? It is trumpeted every day in trade media as the solution to just about everything in its many forms, and the possibilities are undeniably exciting. So why is it that, on your average project, the BIM aspect is about as inspiring as doing your tax return? It has an image of rules and regulations, compliance and guidelines. An annoying box to be ticked.

Somewhere along the line BIM got institutionalised – it ditched the jeans and t-shirt and put on a grey suit. It stopped being inspiring and became just another tool in the box for meeting project requirements, and staying the right side of the law. But it wasn’t always this way.

It might be a relatively new phrase, but we’ve been digital engineers for a long time. When I started in mechanical engineering, I was a draughtsman – the big desks and long rulers that are almost museum pieces today were commonplace, and computers were few and far between. It was the sort of thing you invited visitors to your office to come and look at, like a new baby or a car.

Ok, maybe not QUITE that long…

Back then, we were using simple CAD applications on computers that were little more than virtual drawing boards – these were the ancestors of the modern 3D BIM models we know today, but far more important was what else we were doing. For the first time we were using computers to interpret and store information for us, to help eliminate errors and to automate certain processes. That’s when BIM truly started, and when the digital engineer was born.

And that’s the really exciting part of BIM that I want us to re-capture – the massive iceberg under the surface that represents the most valuable part of BIM: The way we capture, organise and deploy data. It’s not just an expensive add-on to a project, it’s more like a way of working that permeates everything we do. Part of what I’ll be doing at CIBSE is training people to think differently about BIM in order to use it better by using it more creatively.

The best thing about BIM is its freedom, rather than its constraints. At the end of the day it’s just data, and it’s how that data is organised that determines what it does – so it’s really up to you to use your imagination, and apply the technology in novel ways to solve a problem. If that sounds simple, it’s because it is. Fundamentally, it’s no different to what engineers have always done: solving problems by doing creative things with the tools available. So we’re all digital engineers, but we need to embrace this role to make the most of its potential.

Engineers have always solved problems with innovation, like Atelier Ten’s 2014 Building Performance Award winning ‘Gardens by the Bay’

But why is this relevant now? We’ve been using BIM for years, and using computers in this way for decades – but the more recent rise of ‘smart’ technology which embeds sensors in just about everything is revolutionising the types and quality of data that we can collect. At the recent IFS Digital Britain event, the Chairman of the HM Gov Construction BIM Task Group Mark Bew gave the NHS as an example: If we can make people healthier by making the buildings they use better, we can save the NHS billions every year just in money they’ve not had to spend. Similarly, the cheapest way of saving energy is not to generate more clean power, but to ensure that this electricity is never needed in the first place through more efficient buildings.

This sort of whole-life thinking will be the bread and butter of BIM level 3, and will enable a future full of data-enabled collaborative working on projects that will maximise the use of the supply chain’s capability to deliver value to clients. It will allow us to create better performance-based project briefs with the means to prove compliance, and it will allow an unprecedented level of real-time control over a building’s assets.

Building services engineers are pretty unique as a profession because they can claim ownership of one of the biggest shares of data afforded by new smart technology – that produced by buildings and everything in them. It’s comparable in scope to that first wave of computers that dropped into engineers’ offices and changed our jobs forever. The opportunity is there, but it requires us to think more creatively about BIM and what it means if we are to grasp it.

The future of IT, circa 1992