Why upskilling is crucial to BIM adoption in Ireland
Given the huge transformational potential of BIM, it’s surprising that take-up in Ireland isn’t almost universal. Industry experts argue that upskilling and cultural change are vital to encourage adoption. So, how can these levers be used to influence BIM uptake across the architecture, construction and engineering (ACE) industries in Ireland today?
Current BIM take-up in Ireland
In 2019, The Construction IT Alliance (CitA) and NBS took the temperature of BIM take-up in Ireland, reporting a healthy headline adoption figure of 76%. However, a deeper delve into the results revealed a divide between larger firms undertaking public sector and commercial projects, and SMEs undertaking small, one-off housing projects. Typically, larger firms were embracing BIM, while SMEs weren’t. This may, in part, reflect the public-sector focus of the Irish government’s 2017 statement of intent to increase the use of digital technologies – but it’s also likely that project and practice size are factors. It’s probable that clients of small, one-off housing projects are less likely to be aware of, and to request BIM. As a result, SMEs are less likely to use BIM; in 2019, 56% of practices with 15 employees or fewer had adopted BIM, compared with at least 80% of practices with more than 15 staff. Today, there’s no evidence that this industry divide has changed.
What can shift the dial on these levels of take-up? Interestingly, the CitA survey highlighted a role for education; when it came to reasons for not using BIM, 74% cited a lack of in-house expertise and 67% felt there was a lack of training.
A reluctance to embrace cultural change
Running parallel to this lack of training and expertise is another interesting phenomenon – a hesitation around embracing BIM and the wide-ranging work practice changes it brings. A revolutionary collaboration tool, BIM’s digital model gives the ACE disciplines a point of unity. And unlocking the full range of BIM benefits involves wholehearted collaboration, but this can be off-putting for individuals or firms that aren’t fully up-to-speed on how to adapt their ways of working. This can lead to slowed adoption, as Dr Malachy Matthews, Senior Lecturer at Technology University Dublin, highlights: “Collaboration is about people and attitude and accepting a challenge to existing processes. That’s where the problem lies; it’s not the applications – it’s the mental space and whether you’re prepared to go there”.
It's true that BIM adoption, and the greater collaboration it fosters, can ‘force’ significant change to a discipline. Take design, for example: a BIM application hardens up the design process very quickly, replacing the fluidity of mood boards and sketched designs with definitive materials and plans early on in the process. This has clear benefits for budgeting and clarifying the client’s vision but requires a fundamental change to the designer’s approach. ACE industries and associated professions may not be ready and willing to make these adjustments.
The need to roll out collaborative processes within Ireland’s ACE industries was also noted by CitA, which called out the importance of promoting a culture of collaboration rather than the current adversarial approach in the context of emerging digital technologies. Potentially, current and future industry professionals need to be taught high-level collaboration skills as part of their qualifications if BIM adoption levels are to rise in Ireland.
BIM education in Ireland today
As a starting point, it’s important to recognise the extent to which training and education in BIM and associated skills are already embedded into Ireland’s construction landscape. 2020 research revealed widespread up-take of the certification BSI Kitemark for BIM Level 2, along with NSAI EN ISO 19650-2 and BRE BIM Level 2 Business Systems and, today, there’s a thriving BIM education sector across a variety of levels at 15 centres across Ireland.
The NBC Roadmap played a significant role in prompting the NSAI to develop a BIM certification programme, delivering third-party certification to IS EN ISO 19650 part 2. In addition, there’s a thriving DASBE hub for upskilling, capacity building and education in the construction sector offering BIM micro-accreditations, special purpose awards, and minor and major awards. Plus, BIM is central to the Build Digital initiative that’s creating a national centre of excellence for Ireland to promote digitally enabled, standards-based, agile, collaborative and sustainable construction capabilities in support of the delivery of Project Ireland 2040.
Using BIM-qualified people to drive cultural change
However, a successful BIM education push doesn’t just lie in providing training places – the learning acquired on these courses must be drawn into the heart of ACE organisations to influence meaningful change. BIM needs to become central to the industry, and empowering BIM-ready staff to take a leadership role is pivotal to this; it’ll establish a greater awareness of digital workflows at early design stages, helping to foster a collaborative and consistent approach to data management and ensuring only those with sufficient knowledge put together the digital building.
A growing number of individuals in Ireland are choosing to study BIM at an advanced level, such as for the RICS BIM Manager, BRE Individual certification, or a postgraduate qualification, such as TU Dublin's MSc in Applied BIM and Management. Taking the MSc in Applied BIM and Management as an example, the focus is on producing BIM coordinators and managers with academic qualifications behind them that give them extra validity in the workplace to spread awareness and take-up.
Dr Malachy Matthews was instrumental in setting up the TU Dublin MSc and stresses the importance of practical knowledge: “It’s essential that professionals can take the knowledge from this course and hit the ground running in their occupations. The course ethos centres on collaborative working and is multi-disciplinary – it’s a safe space for current professionals within the industry to be able to communicate and find out the value that each person or discipline can bring to a project”. In the final year, the students produce a journal paper that they’re encouraged to disseminate immediately via conferences, publications and presentations to get the knowledge out into the community.
Would a government mandate accelerate BIM take-up?
This growing workforce of BIM-certified professionals will certainly speed up the adoption of BIM within Ireland, particularly as demand across customers and developers increases, but should the ACE industries settle for this route of gradual change?
An alternative approach is a government-mandated implementation, as seen in the UK, where BIM level 2 has been required throughout the public sector since April 2016. The policy was designed to spearhead BIM into ACE industries, with the expectation that it would trickle through to the private sector. Dr Malachy Matthews is just one of many who think Ireland should follow suit: “Government mandate is absolutely essential – there’s no way without it because design and construction are laggard industries, and a mandate would get things moving. The UK government had this spot on – they saw the value in it in terms of their public procurement and went at it with a vengeance – that was the right thing to do”.
However, even today, the UK has yet to see universal BIM take-up and there’s significant scope to improve take-up in the private sector and amongst smaller firms. Potentially, this just serves to underline the importance of wider education alongside a mandate to create a two-pronged approach.
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