Is NBS becoming the Google of BIM?
John Eynon FCIOB welcomes new three new BIM initiatives from NBS, but warns we need the stimulus of competition.
“Well we’ve reached Level 3!” So said guest speaker David Philp, Head of UK BIM at the launch of the NBS BIM Object Standard earlier this week. Less excitingly, Level 3 was in fact a reference to the launch venue being held on the Level 3 deck of the National Theatre on London’s South Bank – a much nicer venue than most BIM events I’ve been to recently! Perhaps the pun was intended?! The Philpster had received a somewhat raucous welcome when he was introduced as the guest VIP speaker…but he was among friends. It was like a who’s who of UK BIM! Steve Hamill and Ian Chapman also did a great job of introducing the standard and opening the event.
The launch of the NBS BIM Object Standard is very much to be welcomed. It sets a benchmark for manufacturers and designers on the format and properties of BIM objects in a Common Data Environment. It sets a standard that most, if not all, will hopefully want to comply with. Consultation has been fairly broad across the industry: the group of contributors is impressive including well-known figures in the UK BIM Community and several leading BIM software houses. There is also a very nifty and engaging app by Solius which can be used to access models and data. Would go down well with your clients…
The 44 page standard itself is comprehensive and well worth a read, the level of detail and clarity is exemplary. The main section outlines how a BIM object should be structured, covering its general, information, geometry, functional and metadata requirements. However, it is not bedtime reading. I’d leave it for gentle stroll through in the evening with my friend the bottle of red!
And if you were waiting for the “but”, here it comes!….
NBS have led the field in terms of classification and building information for over 4 decades now. I can remember when the NBS was kept on a set of jealously guarded 5-inch floppy discs in a locked drawer in the office. The Specification Manager at the time wouldn’t let them out of his sight!! Others, such as Barbour Index, have tried to compete and failed at various times. But look at NBS now: moving on from its subscription data services it’s given us NBS Create specification software, various technical publications, conferences CPD, and the NBS National BIM Library (free for designers, but manufacturers signing up to deposit their BIM Objects in the database pay a fee).
So to be fair to NBS and parent company RIBA Enterprises they have not rested on their laurels, but have continued to innovate and develop their products, and supported the growth of the industry across the board.
The recent award of the Innovate UK (formerly the TSB) contract to RIBA Enterprises and their team for the NBS BIM Toolkit to implement the Level 2 Digital Plan of Work, as well as the related project to complete the BIM Classification system, raises a few issues here, together with the launch of the BIM Object Standard and the growing pre-eminence of the National BIM Library.
As we have seen from the tech giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter and others, there’s money to be made in information… it’s your information, my information, but THEY make money out of it! (That might change, Jaron Larnier has a few things to say on this subject) The NBS BIM Toolkit, a mandatory model checking system for public sector BIM projects, will be free to use at the point of use. But the likelihood is that NBS will also offer paid-for add-ons to the free service, creating an income stream. This is totally within the terms of the competition brief, as moving forward into legacy this has to be self supporting to remain viable. And while there will be no cost for manufacturers or design practice who decide to start using the BIM Object Standard, subliminally, will it make them more likely to start using NBS Create or the National BIM Library?
A while ago the dominance of Autodesk was voiced as a concern by many, but with the advent of OpenBIM, more prevalent use of IFC and also the software houses actually working together, the climate has changed. Full and true interoperability is still some way off but we’re travelling down that road, and we’ll get there.
But on the standard and the digital tools competition, RIBA/NBS could be seen to be developing market dominance. Dominance for a while, could be good. We need standards, consistency of practice and uniformity in use of data. Anything that pushes/pulls us along that path has to be good up to a point. The UK BIM programme has been all about Government setting the requirements but leaving the solution to industry.
But arguably there isn’t really a viable competitor to NBS in that territory. And once people get into a monopoly or dominant position, does innovation slow down? Those that remember the VHS/Betamax war will know that once VHS won out, innovation stopped. Yes we got a few more buttons, but the technology entered an evolutionary cul-de-sac, never to re-emerge. Or to take another example, would Microsoft and Apple be where they are now without each other? If you think back, it was thanks to Apple that Microsoft developed Windows. To be fair to Mark Bew, David Philp and the team, if they hadn’t gone down the TSB competition route, who would they have gone to anyway? RIBA/NBS? BRE? Maybe a few others? We have very few organisations with the depth of experience, technical and digital skills, as well as just the sheer resources and viability to take on tasks of this magnitude and importance for the future of the industry. Perhaps we should pencil in a date at the Sports Bar Victoria with the Philpster in about ten years time to see how it turns out!
I hope that RIBA Enterprises and NBS will continue to set the standard, but at the same time endeavor to speak for and listen to the industry, and innovate and develop at the same time. This is a tricky balancing act, but needs to happen for now. And hopefully, we’ll also see some competition emerge to keep them on their toes. I still think our situation in a broader context is ripe for some left field industry entrants perhaps from the infotech industry or mainstream business software. We’ve moved to a world where it’s now all about the digital information baby. Not perhaps the traditional territory for the construction industry up until now, but we’re learning albeit at what seems like a snail’s pace.. We might need to start learning faster! Darwin could yet have the last laugh!
Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s a meteorite!
JOHN EYNON FCIOB is director of Open Water Consulting and a CIOB Ambassador for BIM
The NBS BIM Object standard can be downloaded here:
An edited version of this article was published on the Construction Manager website. Thanks to Elaine Knutt. Thanks Elaine! Love you!!!! x :o)