When Heathrow Airport needed to submit a master plan for a new, third runway to the UK’s Airports Commission, the challenge was passed to its Integrated Design Team (IDT) to help make it happen. As a member of the IDT, Mott MacDonald—the London-based global consultancy—faced a staggeringly complex decision matrix: where to put the runway, how it would function, and how to evaluate impacts on surrounding villages, roadways, rail systems, and rivers.
This kind of many-headed problem is uniquely suited for technology that quickly processes massive amounts of data, iterates design options, and produces optimal results. The challenges inherent in such projects—including inefficiency and human error—were behind a 2011 UK mandate requiring collaborative BIM (Building Information Modeling) processing for all central government-funded infrastructure projects, from roads and railways to schools and hospitals.
This national-level approach was among the first of its kind, arriving nearly a decade ahead of a set of international standards, and their influence has opened a path for BIM to flourish across borders. Here, Andy Moulds, head of information advisory within Mott MacDonald’s Smart Infrastructure group, shares insights from projects delivered under the new mandate, offering practical advice for firms undergoing BIM transformation.
1. Understand the Terminology
The BIM Level 2 guidelines mandated curtailing carbon emissions and reducing the cost of the UK’s public assets by up to 20% by April 4, 2016. The rules also govern how information-rich 3D models and nongraphical data are created, shared, and managed throughout a project’s lifecycle.
The first step in meeting the terms of BIM Level 2 is understanding what the guidelines require—and how definitions are changing. Over the past eight years, Moulds says, British standard 1192 of the mandate has been an “important and common-language approach for how people can share and manage information in a collaborative way.” Recently, the standard has been the basis for the international standard ISO 19650, which applies to the organization and digitization of building information across the lifecycle.
The Digital Framework Task Group (DFTG), a UK government-funded group working to build consensus around shared definitions for information-management standards, was created in 2018 to build on the foundational work completed in the past few years. Moulds says BIM Level 2 applies, in practice, to the “design-and-build” phase of a project.
But standards are evolving to reflect the broader role BIM can play as an approach to information management, guiding the handover and end-user operations of large-scale infrastructure projects and smart assets. “One way of looking at it is that we’ve managed to get the Trojan horse into the city,” Moulds says. “Now we have to get the soldiers off the horse and take over the city.”
For now, the chief lesson is to “think about your client base, where they are located in the world, and consider who is driving their agenda to ensure your operations are meeting the needs of your largest clients,” Moulds says. He adds that the British mandate is being replicated, in principle, in many countries: Australia, the UAE, and increasingly in Europe—and estimates that perhaps in three to five years, this kind of approach could spread to the United States.
2. Use BIM to Improve Multidisciplinary Coordination
For large-scale infrastructure projects, coordination within and across teams is a key benefit of using BIM. In helping develop the master plan for Heathrow Airport’s third runway, Mott MacDonald used collaborative BIM technology to integrate the work of master planners, airfield engineers, architects, urban designers, and legal and business professionals. “With BIM you can evaluate many more options at far greater speed and with more constraints than ever before,” Moulds says.
As part of the IDT, Mott MacDonald led the development through a complex master-plan process, covering hundreds of options for the airport and the surrounding transport and environmental infrastructure, evaluating a myriad of considerations. The BIM information formed a common basis for regional-scale planning decisions, such as the prospective impact on the M25 roadway, major river diversions, and the surrounding landscape, and facilitated coordination with other local development projects.
3. Use BIM to Win Business and Improve Workflow
The mandate has also led to a new willingness among business leaders and government bodies to invest in BIM as a fundamental part of their growth and development strategies at a national level. “Our Smart Infrastructure team was in Indonesia last week where Mott MacDonald is providing BIM technical training as part of a government-funded sustainable development program,” Moulds says. “The main difference from three or four years ago, looking at stakeholders’ attitudes toward the UK mandate, is that there used to be reservation or doubt. Last week, there was little nervousness and much more positivity,” adding that, “in middle-income countries, applying BIM can really help with transparency and opening a path to tackle bribery and corruption.”
Once a project is underway, using BIM can mean significantly less time at the drawing boards. Citing a 2017 study of the approach taken on the Thames Tideway Tunnel—a London infrastructure project designed to reduce untreated sewage flow into the River Thames—Moulds says BIM model-based delivery led to far greater efficiency by reducing the number of 2D drawings required at early design stages and as changes were incorporated.
Predicted to take 18 months, the design for the joint venture by Costain, Vinci Construction Grands Projects, and Bachy Soletanche was completed in just 12 months. Mott MacDonald is also using BIM to design the complex Ordsall Chord railway expansion in Manchester, UK and Los Angeles Metro’s Regional Connector line—the first 3D design delivery for the Metro system.
4. Lead From the Top
Above all, Moulds says, leveraging the new collaborative BIM standards to cut project costs and pursue new business opportunities requires a proactive leader with the conviction to advocate for a digital-first approach. “In a traditional industry, there must be a push for the positive uptake of new ways of working,” Moulds says. “Sometimes there is reluctance, but if people actually trust in the process and believe their colleagues and stakeholders are increasingly working in this way, there is a huge amount of gain to be had.”