Designers working together. Credit: Julian Richards

+ Building information modelling (BIM) shows that investment in digital design and collaborative behaviours generates a financial return.

The Big Room, also known as the Integrated Center for Design and Construction, was an ambitious project. Its goal was to bring an entire delivery team together to design and build the complex Mission Bay Hospital digitally before starting work on site.

Earlier this year when I visited during the final fit-out, I wasn’t surprised to find the hospital had been brought in at the ambitious cost the client – University of California San Francisco – had been aiming for. So what does this show? That investment in digital design and collaborative behaviours - in building information modelling (BIM) - generates a financial return. 

Back when I first visited the Big Room in 2010, I saw contractors modelling parts of the building they were going to actually build. There wasn’t double handling of information as each party added their own conventions or rebuilt models. At the beginning, everyone had agreed what they would do, who was responsible for what and they worked together to create smarter ways of solving issues over the details and building up the components of the hospital.

Despite not having a fully collaborative multi-party contract, collaborative behaviours were driven by the client and committed to by the whole project team. Success was linked to key measures that were revealed to all and these were kept simple, such as minimising the number of clashes in the virtual world, resulting in little rework on site.

I looked forward to checking up on this each time I visited San Francisco. In 2012 I was shown runs of mechanical ductwork that were fabricated from digital files using the model and on site they would start and stop at what seemed like unexpected intervals. The contractors explained this was to allow for the other services that were all coordinated and they would infill at a later date. Everything was coordinated and scheduled.

Unsurprisingly after this success, UCSF have new projects in the pipeline that will follow the same model. And it’s not just highly complex projects that can reap the benefits of BIM methodology and working practices. Almost all projects can benefit from the improved collaboration and confidence gained from implementing BIM at the right level.

The Big Room facilitated communication and collaboration - just as any room filled with enabled enthusiastic experts would - but BIM does not demand literal cohabitation to achieve results. It does require open communication, shared working platforms, common goals and understanding, and a fluid approach. 

Technology is not the barrier. No particular type of software was mandated in The Big Room but the client did use a tool to bring everything together for clash detection and quantification.

Over the years, talk has also moved towards design-assist, which means contractors and subcontractors work with designers to develop full digital models for construction. This requires higher capability, greater confidence in our partners and a more stable supply chain. 

Could we be moving into a world where project partners are selected on capability rather than price?