Interview With BIM Crunch

john staves

Listen to John Staves talking to BIM Crunch Editor, Jack White on their popular “Company Spotlight” feature.

Find out how an SME adopted BIM in the middle of a recession and the risks that presented and how an SME utilises BIM on ALL projects and more.  Click here to listen to the four-part interview, or read extracts from the interview below! (link now expired).

Welcome to a very special audio edition of Company Spotlight, the popular feature that enables you listeners to learn about the past, present and future of a BIM-related business. Today, I am going to be chatting to the Managing Director of Michael Aubrey Partnership Ltd., a structural engineering SME who have been utilising BIM on ALL of their projects since 2009. Please welcome John Staves, hi John!

Hi Jack, thank you for inviting me to talk to you.

It is a pleasure to have you hear and I know that it would be a pleasure for me to hear you give a brief summary of Michael Aubrey for the listeners. Can you discuss the origins of the business and maybe reflect on some big moments for the firm in its history?

Michael Aubrey was formed back in 1994 to deliver the right structural design information to the right people at the right time for the project.  I’d had a good blend of consultancy, contractor and client experience.  Sometimes as the Client we bought in structural consultancy to supplement the small in-house team capability.  My experience of the industry from the Client perspective was not good – suppliers wanted to deliver the job how they always did, rather than listening to our requirements, which were not for calculations and drawings – we needed the building completed for the business to operate from.  There was a lack of willingness to engage, to collaborate.  So Michael Aubrey came about to change this, to work in a better way.  So by 1999 we’d got to the point where the only staff were the Directors, but we were outsourcing a huge volume of the work we were winning.  We were becoming administrators.  After some discussion, we made the decision to employ, and our first employee started on 1 January 2000.  We grew quickly on the back of some niche work in telecommunications base station roll out projects.  Then in 2002 there was a bit of a slump in that sector as the licensed operators adjusted their plans.  Fortunately we had a broad spread of consultancy work by then – in building structures as well as the telecommunications work. In 2009, we faced the same challenge as many other practices with recession, but managed to avoid the compulsory redundancies and pay cuts that many suffered, but the business reserves were depleted.

I touched upon how long that Michael Aubrey have utilised BIM for in the introduction there and whilst you began implementing it in 2009, you first identified the positives that are born as a result of BIM in 2007. How did you discover BIM and was the process hard to implement within the company? Was it very costly and time-consuming?

Back in 2007, when everything was going well, confidence was high and project scale was increasing, we were looking for some improvement to our structural analysis and design tools.  One of my team came to me and said he had seen a tool called Revit which merited a look.  At that time, Revit was the product of a standalone US company.  We did some research and although it didn’t do what we wanted immediately, we could see the potential for it to help with our basic philosophy of getting the right design information to the right people at the right time to make the project go well.  So what came about was that we purchased Structural software that linked to Revit.  By the time we moved to look at adopting Revit in 2009, Autodesk had acquired the company and started to develop it.  The process to adopt BIM was very easy for us because it facilitated our collaborative style and desire to make the project work.  The direct costs of the tools and training were painful as the recession ate into reserves, but in reality were down to a core team, we had real time available to develop the skills.  I really think that not taking what was a bit of a leap of faith back then would have probably cost the business.  So yes, there was a short term financial pain, but the value, the return on the investment has been exceptional with last year being one of, if not the most, successful years in the business.

To strengthen your BIM offering for clients, Michael Aubrey believe that change management is a crucial part of facilitate the BIM process and helping your clients get up to speed with BIM quicker. Can you explain that methodology?

It’s all about attitude.  If people don’t genuinely want to collaborate for the good of the project, BIM alone can’t solve that.  It’s like when you interview for staff; you need the right basic skills, but probably most important is the attitude.  So the first part of a successful adoption of BIM is doing it for the right reasons.  If you adopt BIM because your Client says I want you to do BIM, or under sufferance because you have to do BIM to win work, your projects won’t be anywhere near as successful as those with parties who genuinely want to collaborate.  Like any successful construction project, it all comes down to the relationships between the individuals and their attitude to collaboration.  So it follows that you need to get peoples attitude and relationship right before starting.  This can be achieved by good alignment of rewards.  Just telling people to collaborate won’t help!

Your team at Michael Aubrey utilise BIM on every single project that they do. Whilst many people may think that some projects are just too small to bother using BIM for, do you see those smaller projects as opportunities for your team to gain BIM experience?

They clearly are good experience for new members of the team, but that isn’t why we do it.  We do it because efficiency and design quality are improved.  Because there is a level of automation to production of the design drawings (and yes, Clients and builders still expect to have drawings!) more of our fee time is spent refining the design to make it simpler or easier to build, which saves the Client money and delivers what they want.  And of course that leads to good referrals and helps deliver growth.

What are some of the BIM projects that you are most proud of?

Headmaster’s House – This project was a house with tricky foundations as it was partly built over an old outdoor swimming pool.  We worked for the design and build contractor, but none of the supply chain had any experience of BIM authoring tools.  So we worked with each party to develop their model for them, using an innovative process behind the scenes.  We then brought all the separate models together for coordination and published the construction information from the federated model.  The result was an early finish, on budget and with zero snags at handover.

Nine Mile Ride School was a small extension project.  Having taken the scheme through planning and Building Regulations, rather than tender and administer the contract, the school asked us to bid for the build.  We won the contract, delivered on budget on time and with zero snags.  The school had assumed we would be late and booked their carpets and furnishings for the following week, so they had a week of float, but all was ready for the new term as planned!  We have now been asked to help with planning another area of their buildings and working out a phased implementation plan to run alongside available devolved capital budgets.

We are just a few months away from the UK Government’s 2016 mandate. Do you think Michael Aubrey Partnership is ready for March 2016?

We have been ready for some time, but finding fully collaborative teams capable of working to level 2 is virtually impossible.  But that is why we worked like we did on the Headmaster’s House project – to facilitate the benefits of BIM without the perceived problems.  We can offer a similar service to others.

Do you think that people are taking the mandate, and BIM in itself seriously enough? Do you think a lot of people still need to wake up and understand the power of BIM?

I think there is a still a lot of misunderstanding out there.  People are still looking for short term what’s in it for me answers.  BIM facilitates collaborative working.  It is not some magic wand which makes construction more efficient, designs better and operational costs lower.  But if you genuinely want to work collaboratively, it is a great tool.  I actually think that the main benefits come from the collaboration and traditionally, that is not how the construction industry works.  The real problem is not BIM, it is the need for change in the way the industry works.  Like with any change, there is the issue that if attitudes are wrong, the benefits won’t be realised and the people who resisted change will say told you so!  The self-fulfilling prophecy conundrum.  But do you know what?  Businesses can’t stand still.  They either change, adapt and develop, or resist change and fall back.  The same goes for our construction industry.  We have historically exported construction skills around the world, but going forward the new world competition will overtake us because they are better at changing, better at adopting new technology and methods and don’t have the baggage that the UK has.  So yes, a lot of people still need to wake up and understand the implications of not changing how they work.

What would your advice be for businesses that are maybe similar to you, or those who involved in different stages of a project lifecycle, who are yet to reap the benefits of BIM?

Just get on with it.  If you genuinely want to deliver better projects through the capital phase and provide better handover information to the operational phase, what are you waiting for.  Your Clients will value the outcomes.  Imagine if you consistently delivered on time, on budget, to quality just as we have on the projects mentioned earlier?  Would your Client’s not order more work from you or tell everyone they know about you.  How would that affect your career and your business?  Wouldn’t it be more fun to be part of projects where everyone collaborates and delivers what the Client needs for their business, without all the adversarial squabbling that construction is well known for?

Elsewhere in the industry, you were recently recognised at the RICSBIM4SME Awards, and were nominated in the Best SME Innovation category. How did it feel to receive recognition for your efforts?

Brilliant.  The team work hard to deliver high quality designs to our Clients, but more than that, this recognised our contribution to finding better ways of working .

The nomination was related to your Headmaster’s House project, quite brilliant in that neither the client nor his supply chain used BIM yet the project was done successfully to Level 2. What do you think this project demonstrates that others can be influenced by?

Simply, that it is all about working together, not about adopting some new piece of technology.  One of the sticking points seems to be that there is an assumption that all parties in the supply chain from Client to specialist sub-contractor have to be using BIM authoring tools.  That is not the case.  By working with a supplier like us, Clients and Contractors can gain the benefits of BIM without imposing BIM authoring on all parties involved.

What is next for Michael Aubrey as the 2016 mandate looms ever closer?

We are actively developing our ways of working to get more use out of the data.  From simple three dimensional coordination and scheduling from the models to cost planning and programme management including test builds and FM data output, the next shift in value will be using the model data as fully as possible.

We are also talking to specialist sub-contractors about developing parametric objects of their components.

A key area of development is to help Clients to unlock the potential that they can see is there with BIM.  At the moment, it seems to be Contractors who are recognising the potential and gaining the rewards.  We want to help Clients engage with BIM so that they can gain the benefits.  We are increasingly hearing ‘we want to do BIM‘, but with little understanding of what that means.  As devotees of collaborative working and experienced BIM users, we are well placed to bridge this knowledge gap and deliver tangible benefits.

Are you ready for 2016? If not, what is the main reason that you haven’t introduced BIM into your organisation?

2 thoughts on “Interview With BIM Crunch

  1. Su Butcher says:

    Really interesting to hear more about the Michael Aubrey story, thanks for taking the time to transcribe some of the interview too, it really helps people who can’t access audio.

    I’m interested in the challenge of bringing about collaborative working in construction. The industry has been talking about it for so long, and there’s plenty of evidence that doing it properly works, but somehow most of us just aren’t doing it properly. So often projects end up with some parties profiting at other parties expense, and of course we all lose out when that happens because it just contributes to the image of the industry being wasteful and unreliable.

    What do you think can be done to break this chain?

    • Gail Williams says:

      Hi Su. Thanks for your comment. I think it needs a bold Client to try a different strategy.

      Maybe try working out what the new building is worth to them and seeking suppliers to work with them to deliver it for that price on a shared risk and reward basis. Rather than fixating on the cheapest supplier in every category of design and construction, in the hope that the combined effect will be best value, the Client could take the lead and collaborate with the supply chain to deliver the best overall value (which will usually mean taking account of operational costs as well as capital costs).

      There are two issues that Clients have to get over for that to work; the first is our industry’s dreadful reputation for delivery and adversarial methods, and the second is trust. The public sector are in a particular quandary on this as they often have most to gain as owner/operator of a facility, but have tied themselves up in rules that almost oblige them to take the lowest price, whatever the real outturn cost.

      Imagine how much effort the team would put into lowering the final bill, if they all got a share of the savings or a share of the costs if the project overspends. The main squabbles would come from such areas as ‘unforeseen ground conditions’ and client driven changes, but if there is a will to make this work, there will be a way to exclude these elements from the target price.

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