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Bringing BIM down to earth: new technologies, humble uses

Allan Hunt, Director at AHR Building Consultancy, explains why Building Information Modelling (BIM) is not out of reach for schools

Posted by Lucinda Reid | October 27, 2017 | Facilities & buildings

The fact that schools’ budgets are now tighter than ever is hardly news. And it’s not just budgets: what with seemingly interminable changes to schooling remits and funding, time is also a precious commodity. So it’s not surprising that non-urgent tasks such as planning ahead on school maintenance or future capacity can end up taking a back seat. It’s even less surprising that the promise of new time and money saving technologies can seem more of a burden than a help. No wonder then that so few schools have made use of new technologies such as laser scanning and BIM for school improvement works.

The higher education sector has embraced BIM, but while not without their problems, universities do currently for the most part have healthy budgets, and in trying to attract ever higher numbers of students have been keen to undertake ‘flagship’ projects. Often rather glamorous new-builds, BIM – itself often seen as a glamorous technology – has understandably been perceived as lending itself to this sort of work. Ironically, though, it is often through these higher-profile projects that HE estates managers also come to see the more low-key benefits of BIM for smaller works to existing buildings.

Most schools will need to work with what they have when improving, remodelling or expanding, and BIM can come into its own for these smaller-scale projects

Schools are largely in a much more humble situation. Remaining local authority schools find that, what with the phasing out of the Education Services Grant, estate management expertise is being drained away, whilst academies, especially those going it alone, may have no one in-house with this sort of expertise at all. In this respect there are certainly advantages to Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) who may be able to justify an expert estate manager for multiple schools – and working in this way can also mean efficiency savings, since by bulking works together discounts from local contractors may be more forthcoming.

Whilst shiny new academies hit the headlines, the bulk of school buildings are less newsworthy: according to a report out in February this year by the National Audit Office, roughly 60% of stock was built before 1976 and the estimated cost of returning all school buildings to ‘satisfactory or better’ condition is a full £6.7bn. And whilst many schools, in the most need, are being completely rebuilt through the Government’s Priority School Building Programme, this is a very small proportion of our education stock. What about those that are neither shiny-and-new nor in dire need of repair? Most schools will need to work with what they have when improving, remodelling or expanding, and BIM can come into its own for these smaller-scale projects.

The often touted major benefits of BIM, including improved cost analysis, easier computation of materials, improved health and safety, and possible future uses of data-rich BIMs for facilities management are impressive, yet may seem somewhat distant: an ideal scenario that is ‘not for the likes of us’.

3D models lead to a far better understanding of design proposals which can be invaluable if you are an estates manager for a MAT wanting to get various stakeholders on board or a school trying to get buy-in from PTA members

Certainly the rare county council with an active school buildings programme and some particularly daring MATs have begun to embrace BIM wholesale. But for most, the very basic benefits of, for example, laser scanning and modelling may be enough. Not least, 3D models lead to a far better understanding of design proposals which can be invaluable if you are an estates manager for a MAT wanting to get various stakeholders on board or a school trying to get buy-in from PTA members. It also leads to a much more collaborative design process since discussions can be had over the model and tweaks incorporated at very little effort or cost. As with one example, at Shelley College, Huddersfield, where getting buy-in for a new lecture hall and dining room was made far easier through highly realistic modelling that even the least architecturally-minded could understand.

Indeed BIM’s more low-key advantages at the small scale, over time and for existing assets are still not yet well-known. For example a small BIM model of a single asset can be slotted into another BIM down the line, without the need to come at BIM ‘all guns blazing’. Laser scanning techniques are also particularly suited to historic assets – as so many existing schools still are - due to their complex shapes and wear and tear, and can easily be scanned and modelled in the process of, say, a low-key infill or extension project.

Far from being glamorous, ‘out of reach’, time-consuming or expensive, judicious use of laser scanning and BIM, utilised on humble smaller-scale projects and embraced over time, really is a boon rather than a burden. Let’s not let its high-profile reputation get in the way of the simple, tangible benefits it can bring.

For more information about AHR Building Consultancy, visit their website.

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