Infrastructure Construction Embraces BIM

Interview with Tarmo Savolainen

Tarmo Savolainen is Development Manager, InfraBIM, at the Finnish Transport Agency. He has witnessed a dramatic change in built infrastructure design and construction: information modeling is becoming the norm and for good reasons.

The Finnish Transportation Agency is in the vanguard of their industry and Savolainen has a finger on the infraBIM pulse. He is the chairman of buildingSMART Nordic and a steering group member of buildingSMART International’s IFC Railway Room.

“I think that Finland has been leading in the practical implementation of open infrastructure BIM because of our common national modeling requirements and open information format, InfraModel,” says Savolainen, “but other Nordic countries are catching up.” 

All Nordic road, rail, and waterway agencies are members of the BIM clients’ group where they exchange experiences regularly.

Open vs. Industry Standards

Infrastructure construction clients are predominantly governmental or municipal organizations. They manage large portfolios of projects and built assets and the information thereof.

Clients buy design and construction services from companies that use a variety of tools for information creation and exchange.  Clients have to decide which information modeling formats they want to use for data exchange.

There are three alternatives: native software formats, industry standard formats, or open standard formats. The Finnish Transport Agency has chosen the last option. It requires that their suppliers hand over BIMs in an open, maintained, standard format.

Open Standards Benefit Everyone

Savolainen believes that adherence to open formats, like IFC and GML, is in the best interest of clients. That way, they can open today’s design files 10 or 20 years from now even without the original design software.

Open formats allow designers bid on projects regardless of the software they use. Hence, a public sector client can be software-neutral in choosing their consultants.

Handing over information between projects and phases over the life cycle of infrastructure becomes systematic. Information is not lost between phases, which happens when BIMs are not used. 

Savolainen says that the challenge with open standard formats is that they develop relatively slowly and gradually. “We must demand more than what’s possible right now. Otherwise, the industry does not evolve,” he adds. “We must also accept the fact that open formats don’t always fit the bill.”

BIM is Going Mainstream

Savolainen talks about a “BIM tsunami” that has swept over Finnish infrastructure construction in just a few couple of years. Admittedly, there are still differences in BIM maturity between companies and even departments in large firms. Those who already use BIM would not want to go back to the old ways.

Engineers are using modeling in design, even if the final output would be 2D drawings. Papers, however, are starting to disappear altogether. On a road or railway construction site, no-one uses paper documents any more.

Contractors are eager to get their hands on BIMs and other digital data. Machine control is becoming digital and on-site workers use digital measuring and other devices regularly.

Contractors are already using BIMs for quality and risk management. Savolainen mentions the Transport Agency’s project in Central Finland where as-built measurements are read back into and verified with the infrastructure information model. 

The project contract agreement states that the risk of extra work derived from deviations between the design model and the measured ground conditions is shared. Differences of less than a meter are covered by the contractor. The client pays if the deviation is bigger. This way, the contractor does not have to add risk reservations in the original bid.

Let Data Flow

In Savolainen’s vision, data will flow uninterrupted during the life-cycle of the infrastructure. He sees BIMs as communication media. Decision-makers, contractors, and maintenance teams can use a model to communicate their specific needs well before the actual construction.

“To enable the digitalization of the infrastructure life-cycle, we’ve started the Velho Alliance project,” Savolainen explains. “It combines all our road registry data with as-designed and as-built data as a unified service using open standard formats. It will offer initial data for designers. Furthermore, operations and maintenance can look up for correct data in our repository instead of having to do measurements on the site. This will save a lot of time.”

Standardization of the data exchange opens new opportunities for automation, for example, automated checkups of designs.

Setting the Pace

Savolainen thinks that international standards will prevail in tomorrow’s infrastructure construction. China has been developing earlier its own modeling standard for railroads, but Chinese authorities have realized that even China is too small a market for developing world-class software. That’s why they offered their standard to the international community for joint development for IFC Rail.

The EU’s BIM Task Group published The BIM Handbook last year. It emphasizes the role of public sector clients as BIM trailblazers.

“Our agency and 10 biggest cities make up the bulk of infrastructure construction volume in Finland,” says Savolainen. “If we together decide to do something, it will affect the whole industry in Finland. As an example, we and six cities agreed to make InfraModel 4 mandatory in new projects, soon after it was released this spring.”
 

Aarni Heiskanen, AE Partners

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