Why the future is in five dimensions

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Syidah Arnold


Syidah Arnold


Digital Transformation , Future Thinking , Perspective 2022 vol 2
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The future of 5D BIM has been a long time coming.

Way back in 1962, engineer and internet pioneer, Doug Engelbart, painted a clear picture. The architect of the future, Engelbart wrote, would begin each project by entering “a series of specifications and data – a six-inch slab floor, twelve-inch concrete walls eight feet high within the excavation, and so on”. As the architect works, “the revised scene appears on the screen. A structure is taking shape. He examines it, adjusts it… These lists grow into an ever more-detailed, interlinked structure, which represents the maturing thought behind the actual design”.

Engelbart’s work sparked the invention of the mouse, the development of hypertext and networked computers. But his vision for a computer program that could spit out a fully-costed design remained elusive in his lifetime.

The evolution of building information modelling, or BIM, has been more fits and starts than leaps and bounds. Designs moved from drawing boards to two-dimensional CAD in the late 1950s. 3D BIM arrived in the 1990s, and by the year 2000 the revolutionary Revit added the time dimension in 2000 to give us access to 4D. 5D – with financial costs – became the next natural step.

Slow to evolve

But construction remains among the least disrupted sectors. Despite talk of digital twins – the next evolution of BIM – one recent report tracking technology uptake finds just 37% of Australian construction companies have adopted BIM.

When I started my career as a quantity surveyor, I came to the profession with an unusual perspective. I’d spent four years studying architecture and a few years drafting, and I could see the gaping chasm between the two disciplines.

The way people design is very different to the way people measure. Because of that gap, quantity surveyors rarely trusted the information extracted from designs.

A successful construction project is achieved on the margins and project budgets rarely have spare capacity to undertake data-matching exercises. So, quantity surveyors have continued to rely on the tried-and-true methods of measurement and clients continue to pour over PDF reports.

Breaking the barriers

But RLB is determined to continue building our capability as an expert in 5D BIM, so recently teamed up with Investa and Willow to refine the data deliverables that everyone could trust.

Willow, a technology company that constructs digital twins for the built world, could offer insights into policies, framework and systems. RLB brought technical cost. Investa, one of Australia’s largest commercial office landlords, provided the pilot site at Sydney’s 151 Clarence Street and offered valuable feedback from a client’s perspective.

As part of the pilot project, RLB’s team – which included the supremely talented Kai Rala McKinnnon-Barbosa, Jennifer Wallace and Matthew Han – rolled up their sleeves to prepare various reports. These ranged from DA cost plans to pre-tender estimates, interim cost updates to embodied carbon pricing. Willow, as engineering project manager, validated the process.

Learning outcomes

So, what did we learn? 5D BIM delivers many benefits, but here are the top five…

  1. Real and right time monitoring: The 5D BIM process relegates static reporting and reactive cost management to the past. Proactive analysis – with reporting weekly or even daily – allows us to capture cost movements and discrepancies as they happen and to make adjustments long before budget black holes open and value engineering becomes our only option.
  2. Costing in many currencies: Cost is just one metric of value. The data produced in a 5D model transcends standard costing and allows us to expand our measurements into other metrics, like embodied carbon or wellness.
  3. Infinite options: Where once we may labour over two or three design options, now we can scrutinise 10 in a matter of minutes. Clients can see the design in context with an overall picture of the project budget in a few clicks. This isn’t about slapping up buildings faster and cheaper – but about building smarter and better.
  4. Devil is in the detail: We asked Investa’s team what they needed at each point of time in a project – from the earliest stage of design right through to operations. Is this enough data? Not enough? Or too much? Insights from Investa proved invaluable. Investa’s board didn’t need the granular costs of, say, each doorknob like the quantity surveyors did. But a big picture understanding of the per square metre costs of façade options, for example, can support more informed decision making.
  5. Augmented intelligence: 5D BIM frees quantity surveyors for the thinking that only a human brain can do. We can investigate new construction materials or methods, undertake the detective work to uncover new areas of value, or spend more time connecting and collaborating with our teams. When we spent less time on manual measurement, we have more time to create value for our clients.

RLB’s next step is to enhance how the 5D BIM workflow process is visualised on dashboards and to expand the scope beyond the construction phase.

What does the future look like? Englebert’s vision may be a few years off. But we think PDF documents – much like set squares and spreadsheets – are already a thing of the past and the future will be captured in five dimensions.