Singapore Sports Hub at night. Credit: Darren Soh

+ Building information modelling (BIM) puts the focus on quality and value, not cost.

It is my opinion that Building Information Modelling (BIM) can help reverse the commoditisation of engineering by re-establishing the value of what engineers do – providing quality engineering solutions. 

Engineers solve problems; they provide solutions that help make the world a better place. Yet all too often that skill is being reduced to a commodity in the global market. 

Increasing competition in the engineering industry is pushing down costs. To compete, some firms are outsourcing the engineering or documentation to low cost centres. Other firms are growing rapidly through acquisition, using economies of scale to keep the price point low. 

If this commoditisation of skill and expertise continues then the skills of engineering will be diminished and eventually disappear. With it will go the opportunities to shape a better world. 

True engineering expertise only comes through experience. Advanced software can get you so far, but the highest quality work can only come from real engineering know-how. It is this engineering know-how that will enable us to deliver smarter more intelligent, sustainable cities into the future. 

Of course, for some clients, any cost saving is a good thing. But why compromise on quality? Is lowest cost best value?  

I believe BIM offers a welcome opportunity to focus on quality and value rather than cost. Instead of getting engineers doing as little as possible to save money, why shouldn’t they capitalise on BIM to do more? Why shouldn’t engineers do things such as shop detailing for steelwork if the result is a higher quality, better value design for the client by improving the knowledge supply chain. 

I know the industry struggles to show clients how spending a little bit more upfront on higher quality design could save them more in the long run. And I agree with Peter Bowtell, the chair of Arup’s global BIM taskforce, that better measurement of BIM could help us make this point. 

With BIM, I think we also need to look at whether procurement structures such as design-and-build are really giving clients the best results. They can force risk onto engineers, who are then less likely to seek innovative solutions. This negates the collaborative design environment that BIM fosters. 

To get the most from designing in a collaborative environment, the way a project is procured has to mirror that approach. I think performance-based arrangements that reward the quality and value a design team gives a client are worthy of further investigation.  

At a recent seminar, I listened to Mark Bew of the UK’s BIM Task Group explain how the close collaboration fostered by BIM across a number of projects had resulted in excellent value for the client. It had enabled the government to effectively get one free school for every five built – 20% more for their money. 

If engineers working with BIM can produce much better value for clients, why shouldn’t they share in that value? Engineering fees typically make up between 0.5% and 4% of project cost. I’d say getting 20% better value for a comparatively small increase in project cost looks like a good deal, wouldn’t you?