Is There an Alternative to Digitalisation?

Author: Andrew Krebs, Digital Studio Manager, Sweco

In the previous blogs in this series, I examined the progress our sector has made in the past decade or so. As explained progress is not the neat, linear path that we would maybe wish for, but that trial and error, despite being the most resilient path to change is seldom the most direct. In addition, I described how there is no point in digitalisation acolytes, like me trying to win over practically minded engineers and facility managers, if they cannot demonstrate that their plans, ideas or tools are going to make the day-to-day life of such an individual or their organisations more effective.

To understand what truly drives businesses to act in one way or another, we need to take a pretty unromantic look under the surface of the sector, and I am going to sum that up that with a rather bold statement:

We are not focused on creating good buildings, we are simply trying not to get sued, it just so happens, if we all successfully don’t get sued, a building is created. It’s not likely to be the exact building anyone wanted, but it’s close enough that no one can force anyone else to do anything about it.

Now I can sense that some of you will have a wry smile and some of you will think I am dreadfully miserable, and both may be right. However, if we really look at what drives us as businesses, it’s risk management and making enough money to keep the wolves from the door. That’s not as bad as it sounds, provided those setting the framework for the sector understand that and act accordingly.

As I type this, we are all party to perhaps the biggest and most significant change to the legislation which governs how buildings are devised, created and managed in any of our lifetimes. This is with good cause as we all saw from varying distances the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. We have watched with resigned sadness , and in some cases embarrassment, the unfolding scandal relating to what ultimately boils down to, amongst other things, failures in information management. Where there was no accountability and no one empowered to remedy the degradation in information fidelity over time, the government has chosen to act, and how! We have two pieces of primary legislation, the Fire Safety Act 2021 and the Building Safety Act 2022 both of which have wide-ranging secondary legislation, much of it to be defined.

NOTE: As better people than I have written at great length about the ins-and out of these instruments and I won’t attempt to repeat that here, suffice to say there is now one common thread (one might say a golden thread!) running through both pieces of legislation, information must be clear, structured, accessible and resilient, and most of all, information pertaining to buildings must be stored in a digital format.

So, there we have it, the government isn’t just mandating Building Information Modelling (BIM) on public sector projects, but it is mandating that on all high-risk buildings, the information relating to that building must be created, shared and stored in a digital format. It is also being rather open about the penalties for non-compliance. Parts of the liability have moved from Civil to Criminal, that means people will go to jail, not simply have their respective employers sued. That rather focuses the mind, doesn’t it?

Let’s go back to my previous brash statement relating to what drives businesses, and we can see that the government has rather noticed this too and seems to be playing us at our own game.

We could argue that we don’t have to do this on every project, and that (non)higher-risk-buildings do not have the same requirements, which is both true and untrue. As of April (i.e. now) HSE, the building safety regulator, will still have oversight of all notifiable building works. How likely are they to want a 2-speed submission process? How efficient will businesses be if they implement a 2-speed process? Has the penny dropped yet? Do we see that digitalising our design, review, build and commissioning processes is no longer a matter of personal taste, but a legal requirement?

And lo! It turns out that whilst some of us may have been resisting these changes, that’s very much the minority approach. Our institutions, trade bodies and indeed private companies in the sector have been working for many years now in creating a digital landscape that we can all benefit from. Data structures have been created which will enable anyone to access curated, verified and structured information about building products, in fact BSI Identify is indeed one of those very systems. Institutions such as CIBSE saw fit to create the Society of Digital Engineering, the Lexicon Project has been working to implement a scalable data structure that every part of the sector can use to describe the items they interact with, and to enable services like BSI Identify and BIM Hawk to store data which has been created using pre-defined structures and which is absolutely comparable across the full gamut of products. That’s not to mention the evolution in design tools, construction sequencing tools, data visualisation and so on. We aren’t starting from scratch, we are in a world that already has most of the answers. We just need to want to engage with them. Thanks to the UK Government, we now have little or no choice!

In my next and final blog on this topic, I am going to look in more detail at the digital landscape as it exists today and help us see what is there for us to use, and where we need to pick the baton up and make some progress.

About the author: Andrew entered the industry in 2008 as a graduate electrical engineer in a building services consultancy after spending 4 years as an apprentice electrician in the manufacturing industry and studying electrical and electronic engineering at University. Andrew was an engineer on his employer’s first BIM project in 2010 before becoming their first Task Information Manager in 2015 and has spent years working to define the topic and role of Information Management within the consultancy sector, Andrew joined Sweco in 2021 as the Building’s Digital Manager and became the manager of their new Digital Studio in 2023. A long serving member of the CIBSE Digital Steering Group, Andrew was one of the founding members of the Society of Digital Engineering of which he is now the Chair. Andrew has contributed to numerous industry documents and standards from BSRIA BG6, through to the CIBSE Digital Engineering Series and Guide K: Electricity in buildings.

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