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BIM in China: University of Nottingham Ningbo launches D-CiTi BIM lab

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One of the more startling facts about the Chinese construction industry is that it poured more concrete between 2011 and 2013 than the US did in the whole of the 20th century. It is astonishing that one country, however big, managed to develop an industry large enough to accomplish that. But on the other hand, how can a government go about modernising an industry that operates on that kind of scale?

To get an idea of the present state of play, and to find out what plans are under way to persuade companies and state officials to take on BIM, CM talked to Llewellyn Tang, head of the department of architecture and built environment at Nottingham University’s campus in Ningbo, a port city of about 7 million people just south of Shanghai.

Professor Tang is in a good position to comment. When Nottingham University opened a campus in Ningbo in 2004, it was the first foreign university anywhere in China. It has developed into a full spectrum college, teaching degree courses in English to about 7,500 undergraduate and post-graduate students – and one of the research topics that Nottingham Ningbo specialised in from the start was BIM.

The research is unusual in that it draws on the UK’s experience – Tang worked in the UK for 20 years and from 2008 to 2012 he was a lecturer in construction management at the University of Reading – and as a member of the Construction Excellence BIM Task Group was involved in developing BIM standards here.

One of Nottingham’s projects is to laser scan and digitise the city’s heritage sites, such as the Church of our lady (Wikimedia Commons)

Its new D-CiTi Lab is looking at the Level 2/3 BIM strategy globally, including standards, training, implementation and R&D. It was formally launched in December 2015, with an International Forum on Digital Built Britain (DBB) attended by key partners in the area of “smart cities”.

China, he says, displays a tendency to think of BIM as a software tool. “Most interest in Chinese universities is in in software training; they think it’s just a tool. Chinese professionals think, if I learn all the software, that means that I can deliver BIM.

“But in the UK we’re talking about how we can use the tools to leverage best practice and use it to collaborate, which is a little bit different. We’re engaged in management training, so that targets senior government officials, and managers at the director level. We’re trying to implement the right way of thinking about BIM thinking.”

The Chinese government has a set a target of the end of 2020 for the big construction and design companies to be BIM ready. “It’s not just the software that needs to be brought in they also need to be BIM-trained – they need degrees from Nottingham,” says Tang.

That was a joke, but it does have a serious point. If the Chinese industry is going to make the transition, it will need an immense training programme.

Tang says: “We have too many cities in China. In the beginning the first tier cities will take the lead, and they would like to learn from experience. But if that experience fails, why not take lessons from Ningbo and use that as the national standard for China?”

This possibility depends largely on Nottingham University. Ningbo is a prosperous city, but it has no BIM specialists at all – no software houses, no BIM designers, no consultancies. To begin to tackle this gap the university has set up a specialist laboratory called D-CiTi that integrates research and innovation on BIM, and ties it into other related agendas such as Smart Cities, the Internet of Things, Big Data and green building.

For example, the team recently secured a £630,000 grant to help the Chinese construction industry use eco-friendly and “smart” building technologies. 

All of this is being carried out in conjunction with construction firms such as Arup and software houses such as Bentley. Tang says: “We’re still testing the market, but we’re clear about what we can offer. We recently got funding from the Ningbo government to train professionals, so that’s a good kick-off, and we can see this is a huge market in the future. Through the lab we can deliver a lot of stuff – not just in Ningbo but in lots of other similar types of cities in China.”

The team from US architect Gensler who worked on the Shanghai Tower had difficulties in establishing an understanding (Ermell/Wikipedia)

And here the daunting size of the Chinese construction offers the prospect of a virtually limitless market for advanced consultancy services. Nottingham Ningbo could be joined by more UK institutions and companies with lessons to share on BIM levels two and three.

What would a UK construction manager make of the Chinese industry? Tang says there would be quite a culture shock. “It’s very, very different. Things like basic health and safety are below international standard. I think if you want to really bring the whole industry to the next level – it’s more difficult than rocket science. The whole structure, the whole hierarchy, the whole supply chain is different.”

Of course, as with the construction industry in any country, there are widely varying levels of sophistication. In China, there is a gulf between the internationalised markets of tier one cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, which are directly managed by central government, and tier two and below, which are further behind the game.

On the other hand, even high-profile projects in Shanghai can pose problems. Tang says the team from US architect Gensler who worked on the Shanghai Tower (the second tallest tower in the world, completed in January 2016) had difficulties in establishing an understanding. “I heard there was a mismatch in terms of how the local design institutes understood BIM and how the international firms did, at least at the very beginning stage.”

Nevertheless, Tang is confident that the tier one cities will get there before too long: in fact the government will require BIM to be used on all publicly-funded Shanghai schemes larger than 20,000 sq m by the end of 2017.

Meanwhile, very large schemes such as Shanghai Disneyland, which is set to open in June this year, have transferred “a lot of specialised knowledge” to the local firms.

Another major step forward would be getting China’s immense state-owned contractors such as China Railway Group and China State Construction to adopt BIM.

Tang says: “These types of big dragons – they have started compiling their own databases, and they have the capability and resources to develop their own BIM programmes. Ultimately, when they develop their database they can open it up and share it with their supply chain.”

We recently got funding from the Ningbo government to train professionals, so that’s a good kick-off, and we can see this is a huge market in the future. Through the lab we can deliver a lot of stuff – not just in Ningbo but in lots of other similar types of cities in China.– Llewellyn Tang, Nottingham University, Ningbo