The future is digital for built environment

Newcastle has the world leading skills to host a BIM centre of excellence that can boost the UK’s productivity and bring enormous export potential

World beating tech businesses are bidding to establish a centre of excellence in the North East to put the UK at the leading edge of the international built economy.

The vision for a £40m Newcastle-based International Centre for Connected Construction has been launched at the House of Lords in January 2018.

Northumbria University and regional IT network Dynamo have been working on the IC3 project for several months, to further the region’s growing reputation for building information modelling (BIM), virtual reality, smart cities and cloud computing.

Matt Ridley, a keen supporter of the North East’s science and technology sector, hosted IC3 presentations at the House of Lords with further presentations hosted by the Institution of Civil Engineering in Westminster.

IC3 will be a hub for the global construction sector, researching and developing digital technologies and smarter working practices and applying them to the building lifecycle. It will also enable industry, academics and the public to co-design and co-develop the next generation of technological innovation in the built environment, and develop opportunities for exports in intellectual property.

Professor Andrew Wathey, Northumbria’s vice chancellor and chief executive, said: “Building information modelling, smart cities, sustainability and the digital industry will come together to play a significant role in the economic future of the North East. This centre, building on core research strengths at Northumbria University, in association with other partners, will make a key contribution to this process. The new centre will establish the North East’s role in the global leadership and application of this work.”

The North East has become a powerhouse for BIM with more than 4,500 people working in the sector. They are developing it into a wider offering around digitising the built environment and related industry sectors from initial concept and design to service management and maintenance to provide smart buildings and infrastructure.

Businesses and organisations working in the sector include RIBA’s NBS Division, Ryder Architects and the internationally renowned BIM Academy, an award winning partnership of Ryder Architects and Northumbria University.

Anne Macdonald head of engagement for Dynamo Build said: “We have multiple businesses co-located almost within a mile of each other which have bounced ideas off each other and got together to collaborate over the years and that has led to the great ecosystem we have got now.’’

IC3 would explore the technology opportunities for the future of smart construction, from design and planning, through specification and commercial transactions, mobilisation and completion, through to whole life management. It would see businesses working together alongside academic researchers and students and with a strong element of public engagement.

It would also deliver direct benefits – not just to North East England, but to the whole UK – in terms of export opportunities, skills and standards, jobs, innovation, enterprise and productivity.

Dynamo chair Charlie Hoult, said: “There is a huge opportunity for UK plc to gain from leading the push for international standards in digital building – like the benefits we have from initiating Greenwich Mean Time or the English language dominating global trade. BIM has that potential to make the UK centre stage in an industry that accounts for easily 12% of the worldwide economy.

“The UK needs to push our economy’s overall productivity so any support for the digital transformation of the construction sector will help. We hope to capitalise on this vibrant cluster to align with other initiatives in the recently announced £170m for construction listed in the Government’s Industrial Strategy.’’

Case study – BIM Academy

Newcastle’s BIM Academy was co-founded by Northumbria University and Ryder Architecture in 2010 as a centre of excellence for digital engineering and transformation.

Ryder had been pioneering the use of BIM software to drive productivity in architecture design and Northumbria was researching the use of 3-D digital information to optimise the design processes so they set up the Academy as a joint venture. It now has a Newcastle base and people working in Australia and Hong Kong, it guided Sydney Opera House building management team on the creation of a digital FM system, it is advising BA Systems and a major fine art museum.

But the further potential is vast.

Peter Barker, managing director of the Academy and a partner with Ryder, explained: “The principles behind BIM are applicable to the entire built environment: infrastructure, water, even mining. There are a whole series of other digital initiatives that have emerged in the last five years: machine learning, the Internet of things, artificial intelligence. IC3 would operate at a macro level looking beyond the narrow field of building information modelling. It’s a way of joining up many broader initiatives in a centre which can draw upon the expertise in the region and also address a lot of the government’s aspirations in terms of improving the productivity of the industry using things like a machine learning and artificial intelligence.’’