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BIM is a big opportunity for small practices

BIM is a big opportunity for small practices

16 November 2016

Contrary to received wisdom that BIM is best suited to large practices working on major projects, David Miller has become something of a BIM evangelist for small practices, arguing that smaller businesses have a real opportunity at the moment to subvert the big boys who have to struggle with change management.

His practice, David Miller Architects, has enjoyed astonishing growth of around 25% per annum since embracing BIM, which has played no small part in the story.

The practice is organised for BIM: it’s the approach applied to all design work, it is built into the practice management system, it is the glue that holds together a network of like-minded collaborating partner firms that has helped the practice get 90% of its work as repeat business;- it even dictates the seating arrangement in the office.

David’s argument is that small practices can adapt more quickly to BIM. His own practice decided to take on the large firms that were sweeping up a lot of work through public sector frameworks when it was just four strong.

‘We didn't want to stay a boutique practice, we wanted to be a full service architect. We took the decision [to adopt BIM] and came in on a Monday morning and set out to do everything with BIM as default. A large company just cannot do that,’ says Miller. The move proved well-timed.

‘Almost every tender these days has a BIM element to it, even if the client is not clear what it means. As a practice we’ve gone from lonely BIM, which we came to from 3D modelling, to collaborative BIM and to contractual BIM – 60% of our contractual work now has a BIM element to it,’ he says.

BIM not only allows, or rather requires, a collaborative approach, it provides the practice with embedded quality control. David Miller Architects has a Best Practice Management System built from Level 2 BIM protocols as well as the usual ISO9001 Quality Management and ISO14001 Environmental Management.

Miller refutes the charge that BIM tends to lead to standardised designs. Schools are a practice mainstay, for instance, but each one is a bespoke response. He says it is the design approach that becomes standardised, never the design.

The layout at David Miller Architects is optimised for peer-to-peer learning and BIM workflow. Photo © Agnese Sanvito

He likens his practice’s BIM assets for schools as a kit of parts that can be blown apart and re-assembled in a different arrangement, but with the same quality control of design details still maintained.

The practice delivered a major school extension in Redbridge from start to finish in 18 months. All of the main consultants and contractor were using the same BIM model.

The cross-laminated timber structure was detailed in the BIM model to the extent that dimensions could be fed directly into the fabricator’s CNC cutting machines, with each timber element automatically bar-coded so that it arrived on the lorry on site ready to be plugged into place in the real structure.

Such is the detailing of construction elements on such projects that a quantity surveyor is no longer required. The schedule of work is all there in the BIM model and so it becomes an extension of the architect’s service.

Back in the office, work stations are laid out to facilitate BIM through peer-to-peer learning and communication.

The arrangement provides peer support, but also encourages innovation, says Miller. Younger architects work with more confidence, because they know they are working within the practice’s quality-controlled BIM framework.

‘It’s a safety net that lets them be creative, as long as you make sure people don’t wander too far off-piste,’ Miller says.

Miller advocates that small practices should consider taking the plunge into BIM-based practice. All of the key BIM working documents, such as the BIM protocol and the outputs from working groups such as the BIM Overlay to the RIBA Plan of Work, are readily available. Key documents and guidance on BIM Level 2 standards is available on the RIBA’s BIM resource.

Miller suggests that architects can get up to speed over a long weekend, but then he was the project architect for the Lord’s Media Centre when he was at Future Systems, so he may be more able to assimilate systems more quickly than some of his peers.

Investment is needed, with staff training being the largest cost, but Miller says costs will shrink as a proportion of turnover with time. His practice saw rising efficiency through BIM, which he says is now rising again with greater contractualisation of the BIM process.

‘We also tend to work with the same people, who are all familiar with the way everyone works. It is a very comfortable place to be,’ he says.

David Miller gave a presentation, ‘Putting BIM at the Heart of Small Practice’, on CPD day at last week’s RIBA Guerrilla Tactics event.

Text by Neal Morris, © RIBA

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