Digital technology has transformed education, leisure, entertainment and business practices, and now it is set to drive a new era of smart construction and digital design in the interiors sector. Andy Pearson takes a look at some hot topics.

“The interiors industry is waking up to digitisation. Across the sector things that were done in an analogue way are now moving into digital,” said Joe Cilia, FIS technical manager. In fact, digitisation is such a hot interiors topic that FIS has just formed a special interest group to consider opportunities that digitisation will provide and its impact on the sector.

The digital revolution in the interiors sector and in the whole of construction is being led by Building Information Modelling, or BIM as it is more commonly known. BIM is a collaborative way of working, underpinned by digital technologies that have the potential to unlock more efficient methods of designing, building and maintaining an asset. In the digital BIM environment, product and asset data are embedded into a 3D computer model. The model is then used to manage information throughout a project lifecycle – from earliest concept through to the building’s operation.

UK government has described BIM as “game-changing” for the construction sector. It has a mandate that all government building projects will be created in a BIM environment from 2016 onwards. In advance of the directive, forward-thinking major architectural, engineering and contracting companies are starting to embrace collaborative working in a BIM environment. “In the past, BIM was pushed by architects, tier 1 contractors and developers; what we are now starting to see is a pull from clients, including county councils, who are looking for project outputs like maintenance schedules for their newly built assets,” explained Mr Cilia.

Construction services company ISG already uses BIM in its fit-out, construction, engineering and retail divisions. “In some sectors, BIM is client-driven: if you don’t use it you’re not going to get the job. In other sectors, we use BIM to give us a commercial advantage through adding value,” said Mark Norton, head of BIM at ISG fit-out and engineering services, and chair of BIM4FitOut, the task group set up to ensure the sector supply chain is ready for this new way of working.

ISG exploits the BIM digital environment to help spot and resolve potential problems before they get to site. It even has a 3D holographic projection cabinet to enable virtual walkthroughs and to help in sequencing works. “When you see a scheme in virtual 3D, the model comes alive so it becomes quite obvious where there are problems,” added Mr Norton.

Additionally, ISG has embraced 3D printing using digital information from the 3D model. “If we think that there might be a problem with, say, a construction detail we’ll 3D print a solution to show the client and the construction team how it might be improved,” he continued. “The 3D print allows the team to take the model apart, like Lego, so that they can see how it works, and they can take the model away with them if they wish.”

On-site, ISG is digitally scanning spaces using point cloud laser surveys to validate the dimensions of a space. The digital survey information is input directly into the BIM model. Mr Norton explained that cloud point surveys have proved particularly useful on very old buildings and for installations such as service risers where space is tight and where there are a lot of interfaces that need to be resolved.

Digital technologies in the form of tablets and smart phones linked to the BIM model are increasingly being used on-site to improve site practices, share information in the field, and to help plan, manage and coordinate the construction process. Projects can even be set out digitally using robotic total stations which take datum points from the BIM model. The benefits of a digital site are up-to-date and accurate information which can lead to programme improvements of up to 25 per cent.

Mr Norton’s advice for anyone in the interiors sector is to start to embrace the opportunities created by digitisation: “The sooner they get on the BIM bandwagon the better because it will give them a commercial advantage,” he said.

Michael Page, joint managing director of workplace consultant Saracen Interiors, echoes Mr Norton’s point: “The sharing of critical information [in BIM] means that, when the build happens there are fewer errors and far less rework is needed,” he explained. “Improving information quality makes outcomes more predictable and it makes sense that tighter collaboration and information flow provide the basis for a new level of best practice,” Mr Page added.

Manufacturing is one interiors sector that is now starting to embrace digital technology. “Where we’re likely to see the biggest change is manufacturers having transferable digital information through the use of product data templates,” said FIS’s Mr Cilia. The transformation is being helped by organisations such as BIM4M2, a working group instigated to support manufacturers become BIM-enabled. And once manufacturers’ data is available digitally, this information can then be embedded into a project file so that lead time, cost, performance and when the product might need replacing are all available.

Not all digital technologies that are transforming construction are BIM-enabled. Paul Little of Coen Building Solutions has developed a simple piece of software to manage the firm’s labour only plastering subcontractors. This enables workers to use their smart phones to log onto an app on the company’s website which details the area of the job to be plastered and the rate they will be paid for a job. When they’ve finished the job they log in using their phones and complete the job sheet in order to get paid. “They know that if there are any site changes and these are not on the app they won’t get paid, so all site changes are now reported,” said Mr Little.

An advantage of the system is that he can message the site teams, who then have to tick a box to acknowledge they’ve read the message before they can proceed to input job information. The app has been so successful that Mr Little is now looking at using the take-off information he has for each job to develop a tool to order job-specific materials.

A digital development set to transform the interiors sector, one which does not require a sophisticated IT system, currently being explored by BIM4FitOut is called BID4Free. This initiative involves the development of a free BIM viewer which will enable a main contactor to tender for a job digitally but without the subcontractor having to buy specialist software to view the model, complete a take-off and return a tender at little or no additional cost. A second part of the project will bring together main contractors to develop a protocol that uses standard practices so that tenderers can return tenders to multiple contractors using the same tool.

Another initiative designed to bring suppliers and procurement teams together is the West Midlands Virtual Hospital. This BIM-enabled portal is, as its name implies, a virtual 3D model of a hospital. It has been created by Virtechs for Sandwell Council to give local businesses the opportunity to pitch to supply goods to an actual £430 million hospital which is soon to be built in the region. The idea is that suppliers can walk through the virtual building, click on a component that they manufacture and upload their details, including their BIM proficiency.

Carillion is the preferred contractor for this hospital. It is using the virtual hospital to access potential suppliers’ names, products and capabilities and to identify companies that they want to work with that are not sufficiently BIM proficient and will need additional training from Carillion and Virtechs. “We will help manufacturers create a virtual representation of their product range, with all of the information embedded, so that the objects can be downloaded into a BIM model and used in the management of the facility for the next 15 years,” commented David Emery, a director of Virtechs.