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Need for High Safety Standards in the Building Industry

The construction industry has made major headline news in a span of two months. First, the Grenfell Tower fire in June that took many lives in London, followed by the Singapore TPE-PIE worksite collapse just in August that left one killed and 10 others injured. This is both shocking and unacceptable in the building industry where safety is always top priority, writes Thomas Phang, Area Director, Southeast Asia, Trimble.

While the construction methods have evolved from brick-and-mortar building to advanced software that can virtually model complex projects, the key pillar that governs the International Building Code remains unchanged – the need for buildings to be safe and reliable.

Investigations into the Grenfell Tower revealed that the rapid ignition of the building was found to be largely due to a major construction fault. Instead of being furnished externally with fire-resistant materials cladding, it was fitted with aluminum composite tiles and insulation which is highly fire-conducive. Similarly, in the TPE-PIE viaduct incident, the supporting corbels, which are traditionally sturdy structures that do not break easily, had collapsed during the construction stage. These key oversight, that proved to be costly mistakes, serves a keen reminder to all of us in the building industry that quality of construction cannot be compromised in any way.

The important question is; can technologies be used to improve safety?

Using BIM to Ensure Safety Standards

During the planning and construction phases of the building process, it would have been beneficial for possible problems to be highlighted by regulators, eliminating room for error in the decision making process. To facilitate early planning and collaboration between multiple stakeholders, Building Information Modelling (BIM) presents targeted solutions to these requirements.

As its name suggests, Building Information Modelling is a technology that constructs three-dimensional (3D) models of buildings with multiple information sources on materials, design and code requirements. In an industry where a myriad of factors influences key decisions, BIM enables end users to visualize all this data on a single platform, and facilitates the sharing of perspectives to minimize errors in construction.

Here are some applications of BIM that can optimize the different phases in the building process, especially in ensuring safety standards:

  1. Facilitating floorplan design: In the preliminary planning and design phase, 3D modelling with the input of vital building information aids engineers and designers in visualizing how the building will turn out. It is at this first step of the construction process that safety measures can be incorporated. Vital information of how much weight and pressure that a specific structure can withstand will guide planning for both the construction process and in the completed structure. This not only ensures the safety standards of the finished building but also importantly drives down possible accidents involving on-site workers. Well devised evacuation routes throughout the building can be effectively mapped out, addressing a vital fire-safety requirement.
  1. Pre-construction risk assessment: BIM used in the planning phase also enables a pre-construction risk assessment to be run, allowing possible problems like conflicting structures or inappropriate choice of materials to surface before the construction phase. Even when the model has been altered, key components of the structure that are associated with the changes will be updated and conflicting or missing parts will be flagged. Information from building codes can also identify these plausible issues, empowering designers and architects to take corrective action as soon as they are surfaced. In this way, BIM acts as a safeguard, minimizing the errors made in the design process.
  1. Creating collaborative platform to systematic identification of potential hazards for stakeholders: A hardware-agnostic BIM software allows multiple users from different locations to contribute their input on the same project and receive real-time updates as they are occurring. Expanding on this, a possible BIM-safety integration framework can operate rule-based safety-checking algorithms that automatically alert safety hazards and updates the team in real-time on their mobile devices. It is especially prudent to have regulators on board to provide strategic advice, allowing the building firm to attain higher levels of building safety, both ensuring on-site safety and giving people the assurance that their buildings are of desirable standards. In fact, 48% of companies surveyed in a McGraw-Hill study reported improved project quality after adopting BIM technology.
  1. Maintaining a robust data system: The implementation of building safety systems does not end with the construction phase. BIM also extends its benefits in the post-construction management phase, facilitating a robust data trail that acts as a reference for future uses. For instance, the building management may use it to plan evacuation routes for its tenants. Future renovations can also get access to vital information of the building, to facilitate decisions in renovation works. In the Grenfell Tower example, the exterior’s aluminum cladding had only been added years after the building was constructed. In utilizing BIM, the multiple users would have been alerted to these problematic aspects and revise their building decisions.
  1. Prefabrication improves safety, as well as quality: BIM also inherently embodies prevention through design concepts that improve worker safety through prefabrication. With BIM, we are able to eliminate risks and improve safety by reducing trades working on-site. Not only are there fewer people working around each other, we also see less debris or stored materials, less construction traffic, and safer installation practices being put in place. Off-site manufacturing can also play a role in improving the safety of bridge construction, greatly reducing the amount of time that workers must operate in potentially dangerous settings. Prefabricating certain bridge elements reduces the time spent at the construction site and reduces the effects on the road users and the surrounding community. Besides, plant operations are standardized, thereby ensuring consistent quality of production.

Incorporating BIM in a Singapore building firm

In Singapore, BIM is steadily being incorporated into the government’s strategic growth plans. In 2010, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) implemented a roadmap, aiming for 80% of the construction industry to use BIM by 2015. Furthermore, under the Construction Productivity and Capability Fund (CPCF), companies are encouraged to invest in BIM – in the technological hardware, software and manpower training, with incentives up to $30,000.

Research bodies, institutions and governments are recognizing the substantial benefits that BIM can offer, not just in terms of increased productivity, but also how it can support the basic foundation of the building industry – the highest safety standards. With technology that can achieve both reliability and excellence, it is well worth for building companies to consider adopting BIM in their daily operations.

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