The conflicted state of BIM in South Africa

May 29th, 2017, Published in Articles: PositionIT


There’s a deep irony in what’s keeping building information modelling (BIM) adoption in limbo in South Africa: A technology meant to ease collaboration among stakeholders lacks the collaboration that is needed to realise it nationally.

A panel of experts in the construction sector and in quantity surveying set out to gauge the resistance to BIM in a recent panel discussion at the Digital Construction Expo which took place in Johannesburg in May 2017. While discussions centred on quantity surveyors, changing job roles and other challenges will resonate with various professionals in the BIM value chain, least not surveyors, who have also been hesitant to adopt it.

The entire panel agreed on BIM’s many advantages, both as a collaboration tool that brings together various construction disciplines to work on a single authoritative model of a project, as well as its value as a valuable measurement and quantification tool that lends itself to transparency and project efficiencies.

BIM panellists (left-to-right) Vaughn Harris (BIM Institute), Larry Feinberg (ASAQS), Christopher Allen (CIOB), TC Chetty (RICS), Graham Alexander (BuildAid), Babis Stamatakis (Nomitech), Johann Potgieter (Convirt) and Georg van Rensburg (ACE Solutions).

Despite strong advocacy by groups such as the BIM Institute, BIM adoption in SA has been all but smooth. “In South Africa we’re probably five years behind the global trend at the moment,” said Georg van Rensburg from Ace Solutions recons. “Nobody knows clearly what we need to do with BIM. There is no set standard in South Africa.” Van Rensburg explained that BIM adoption has predominantly been driven by large international organisations which employ it globally, from where it filters down to local branches.

Changing job roles and workflows

“I would say that most quantity surveyors are not even familiar with what the tool is, and how best to utilise the tool to deliver additional services to their clients,” said Larry Feinberg, the executive director for the Association of South African Quantity Surveyors (ASAQS). In Feinberg’s view it is the association’s responsibility to educate its members about how best to utilise BIM to serve their clients. “That’s a very slow, incremental process. Our members now need to respond, and stop fearing that it’s going to take valuable payments for doing bills of quantity away from them.”

Christopher Allen from the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) added, “In South Africa we’ve got to look at an identity of work issue in terms of ‘I’m not allowed to be somebody who does a take-off because I’m not registered as a quantity surveyor’, and that whole debate of quantity surveyors putting up barriers. That’s where you’ve got to change that mind set.”

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) country manager, TC Chetty, took a more conservative stance. “The understanding now is that BIM is not going to take jobs; it’s going to change the nature of how you’re going to do things,” Chetty said. “For us, as RICS in South Africa, improving the presence of BIM was about just that, collaborating with global organisations”.

Besides job roles, BIM also influences workflows, as Van Rensburg from Ace Solutions explained. “Normally we only start the design process once we start getting our drawings, and that design process should be moved to the beginning, when the whole team can have input. These days with virtual reality and the way that you can display the models, there can be a lot of input in these design meetings already at the design level. And that’s where the success of BIM comes into play; everyone can start at the beginning of the process.”

Operation scale introduces further complexity. “There are two worlds in this industry,” said BuildAid’s Graham Alexander, as he distinguished between different approaches in residential construction sector and the commercial and industrial sectors. “A residential project unfortunately doesn’t usually have a professional team, unlike a commercial shopping centre who has a whole design team, quantity surveyor, engineers… home owners loath paying architectural fees, never mind quantity surveying fees”.

Digital tool or stumble block?

To this ASAQS’s Larry Feinberg added the need to recognise the issues that South Africa faces. “Most quantity surveying firms, or practices, are two or three-man for the most part. When we look at the cost of implementing BIM, we’re talking about major costs and being able to crunch massive amounts of data. The best way a quantity surveyor is going to be able to leverage his services is on large projects, where the cost consultancy aspect is very credible. And for the most part, the data and the information that goes into these construction projects can only be dealt with on very large computer systems at this point, and there’s a cost implicit in that. When we’re talking about two or three-man shows, to shell out a large amount of money to run BIM on these large systems, that’s obviously a prohibitive factor.”

Cost is not the only concern. “The average architect in the domestic or residential environment, they’re all using different types of software, different types of drawings, now you’re trying to link those… it’s like 20 people in a room all talking a different language,” Graham Alexander said. “Talking about Excel, it’s probably a very good example of how to go about BIM. Everybody’s got it. We need simple, easy to get to kind of software that the architect, the builder, the QS and the owner can work with, so that we avoid going over budget,” Alexander said.

Compounding matters is the lack of suppliers’ content – the construction objects (e.g. windows/doors/bricks with specifications etc.) for the object libraries that is a key aspect of BIM.

Someone who’s worked extensively on educating the industry and raising awareness of BIM in South Africa is Vaughn Harris, the executive director of the BIM Institute who chaired the panel. He too asked, “How can we introduce the software and educate our professionals on tools of the trade, methodologies, implementations of new ideas and concepts when the suppliers we’re relying on don’t understand what talk about when we talk about BIM?”

For Christopher Allen BIM adoption is a demand-driven issue. “The problem is actually the quantity surveyor’s role in the whole delivery plan,” Allen said. “If they’re not prepared to engage with it, they’re not going to advise the client to use BIM. If you start talking about digital elements and objects from suppliers, you’re going to put pressure on suppliers if you want those objects.”

A standard way of business

As a single authoritative information model and information exchange tool, everybody’s buy in is required to make BIM work. To achieve this, Harris believes implementing BIM as a standard could be a solution. “It comes back down to setting standards,” he said. Harris also asked: “Whose responsibility is it to set those standards. Will it have to be an African standard?”

RICS’s TC Chetty agreed, “Standards are the thing that needs to drive this, and the other issue is the accountability of who should set the standards. I don’t think it’s the responsibility of one organisation, or association, or even a group of associations,” he said. To this, ASAQS’s Larry Feinberg added, “It really does delve into everybody, everybody on an international level having a say as to how BIM should be dealt with, how are the estimates going to be dealt with. I don’t think that we can isolate quantity surveyors from architects and from engineers,” he said.

“I’m also concerned that we’re talking about BIM as though government doesn’t come in to this,” Feinberg continued. “Government is a major contributor to the construction industry; and if management at municipalities and management at large government departments don’t embrace BIM, it’s just going to be an uphill battle for every single one of our professions – architects, engineers, or quantity surveyors – to get on board with BIM at the same time.”

Harris didn’t see this as a viable option thought. “As an industry we need to work together, with vendors, with associations, if we’re going to get this right. If you’re going to wait on government, it’s not going to happen; it might happen in 15 to 20 years from now, when things change within government, but I don’t think we can wait that long with the speed with which technology is changing on a daily basis.”

Natural progression?

Perhaps BIM adoption will come with time as the technology proves itself more publicly. Christopher Allen gave one example of BIM’s progression in the UK. “Ten years ago in the UK you had all the independents, now there’s pretty much none of them left. It’s all multi-nationals and in essence they’ve cornered the market because they’re using technology to in drive a more efficient process.”

BIM software developer Johann Potgieter from Convirt takes a similar stance. “I think that when we talk about BIM adoption, it’s quite important to not just look at today’s current leaders, but to look at the guys who are going to be tomorrow’s managers, and to look at how these guys work with and interact with software. I think most of the young guys are using software and have come to expect interconnectedness between systems.”

TC Chetty also added: “I don’t see us lagging behind globally as a negative. I see we’re in the fortunate position to learn from other people’s experiences and even their mistakes where these things have happened. We need to grasp the opportunity, and make it clear that it’s about new ways of doing things that will enhance efficiencies.”

Related Articles

  • Draft of National Spatial Development Framework unveiled for comment
  • New guide to green building costs and trends
  • SAR handbook for forest monitoring and biomass estimation
  • NOAA celebrates 25 years of developing climate services in Africa
  • New open mining format under development