It’s an idea that has the potential to radically transform the way in which buildings in every sector are designed. Working in partnership with the Mackintosh Environmental Architecture Research Unit at the Glasgow School of Art, Cartwright Pickard Architects has for several years been working on what it calls 7D BIM, which aims to layer additional levels of information onto what building information management software is already capable of doing.
A prototype of the software was launched at events in London and Manchester earlier this year to provide proof of concept and James Pickard, director of the eponymous practice, says that it attracted a lot of attention. So, what is it that 7D BIM can do that makes it so revolutionary?
According to Pickard, his firm have long been advocates of BIM and make extensive use of the technology. However, he realised that in the face of two particularly testing targets, it has severe limitations. Firstly, there is the fact that the UK is legally committed to be carbon neutral by 2050. Secondly, the government has a target to reduce the whole life cost of a building by 33% by 2025. As things stand, BIM can’t be much help with either. “The thing we realised was that there was a huge elephant in the room in terms of both carbon footprint and lifetime cost,” says Pickard.
The fact that BIM doesn’t include lifetime cost should come as no surprise – after all, what most clients, designers and contractors traditionally cared about is how much it costs to build something. “All the consultants in our industry work to a capital expenditure cost,” says Pickard. “No one really has much of an idea about whole life costs. And yet, the capex cost of designing and building a building represents just 20% of the total cost of the building in its first 30 years.”
If the intention is to build something and then sell it on straightaway, there is little incentive for a client to pay attention to lifetime costs as it simply isn’t their problem. However, if a building is to be retained, it is in the client’s interest to pay attention to such things. “Basically, if you’re a school or a hospital or a university or any public sector building or a build-to-rent investor, working to capital costs is a bit silly,” says Pickard. “What you really want to be focused on his whole life costs. There’s no point in building a cheap building that is then going to cost a fortune to run and maintain later.”
The same, says Pickard, applies to carbon emissions. “Most designers and in particular architects don’t understand the consequences that their building will have for the next 30 years,” he says. “They don’t think about how a design will impact the carbon footprint over the period. One of the reasons they don’t understand it is that the information isn’t readily available.”
Indeed, Pickard says that finding data on whole life costs and whole life carbon was a major – if not insurmountable – challenge for the 7D BIM research project. “Any whole life cost or carbon databases that do exist are usually quite confidential – they are really hard to get hold of,” he says. “It’s almost an impossible task, which is why it isn’t done. If you own a building and its operational costs are very high, that’s embarrassing. You don’t want to wash your dirty laundry in public.”
An early discovery in the project was just quite how front loaded the design process is when it comes to influencing the whole life cost and whole life carbon of a building. The team found that the first 20% of a design process – so, the concept stage – is where 80% of the decisions get made. “So, that’s when the die gets cast and once that has happened there is no going back,” says Pickard. “Contractors can only influence 20% of the design. Once something has planning permission there are very few places you can go.”
Clearly, then, the project needed to come up with a way for architects to understand the impact that their decisions have on whole life cost and carbon. “What you need is a decision support tool that basically links whole life costs and whole life carbon databases with a BIM model – and that’s what we’ve developed” says Pickard.
“We’ve developed the software capability to take hold of different organisations’ whole life carbon and whole life cost databases, process it and allow a BIM model to communicate with it. It’s never been done anywhere in the world so far as we are aware. It’s very complicated and it took us two and a half years to crack how to do it.”
But crack it they did. The prototype launched earlier this year is just the beginning, but it is already a powerful tool. “With every line you draw and decision you make [as a designer], it will tell you about the impact on whole life carbon and whole life cost,” says Pickard. “And when you change the design it will tell you if you’re making it better or worse.”
However, the idea is that the software will become ever more powerful. Once it is launched, all the data entered into the system will be retained to make forecasts more accurate. “As it develops, it gets more and more detailed. You could test 10 different types of windows on your building in a click of a button it would tell you the implications of that change for whole life cost and whole life carbon,” says Pickard. “All the real time data about energy use and costs and so on can also be added – it will all go up into the cloud.”
To get to that stage what is required is investment. Pickard says that interest from both investors and large construction firms has been strong since the prototype’s launch. However, he confirms that he is still actively looking for more partners. “We’re going to need several million pounds and two or three years and then it will be out in the industry,” he says. “The only way we will get the funding is people get some equity in a commercial product.”
Assuming the money is found and the software is brought to market, Pickard believes that its impact could be transformational. Firstly, it should radically reduce the cost of buildings over their lifetime, which should free up government resources – Covid-19 response costs notwithstanding – to provide additional facilities. “What we’re saying is that if you address whole life costs and whole life carbon, you can actually afford to build more schools and hospitals,” says Pickard. “We’re generally building buildings that are high energy and high costs, so we can build fewer of them.”
What’s more, the software should help contractors to increase their productivity, which is currently dire. “The construction industry in the UK – and it’s similar in most places – is 60% less productive than manufacturing,” says Pickard. “Productivity hasn’t gone up in the last 12 years. It’s a basket case in terms of productivity. That’s because in main contracting there is no profit. And if there is no profit there is no investment in R&D. It’s a vicious circle.”
If the 7D BIM software were to become the norm, however, Pickard believes that the way contractors work would be transformed. “A contractor would be armed with for more and better information about what that building is going to cost, how to build it, how it’s going to perform,” he says. “At the moment they are operating in the dark. In manufacturing, you build a digital twin and test it, test it, test it. We should do that with buildings but we don’t. Every single building in Britain is a prototype, which makes it a very high-risk process.”
So, the 7D BIM project has already yielded tangible results, but it is also clear that Pickard is restless and desperate to get on to the task of working up an all singing, all dancing version of the software.
“Because of the lack of investment in R&D, the lack of training and the lack of digital tools, the UK is the most expensive place on the planet to build any form of building,” he says. “It really makes me quite cross that I’m in that industry. I want to help it get better. I want to challenge the status quo.”