BAM & Robin

BAM & Robin

Is building information modeling just one in a long list of reasons why facilities management is changing for the better?  BAM FM's Kath Fontana tells simon Iatrou of i-FM why her organisation is desperate to stay ahead of the curve, and discusses Project Robin, the BIM & CAFM project between BAM FM, Autodesk, and FSI's Concept Evolution web-CAFM solution.

It is a rare, yet refreshing, thing to hear an FM person say they are more comfortable with the built environment than they are with the people that inhabit it. Today, as a result of an incredible PR juggernaut, most FM professionals are at pains to tell you that they are people persons who just love the social benefits and opportunities to grow that come with interacting with others.

That is not to say Kath Fontana (right), BAM FM's Managing Director, isn't interested in the softer side of facilities management; it's just that she's more comfortable with the bricks and mortar. She also argues that it is just as important.

Convergence, or more specifically the integration of different business functions, such as FM, HR, and IT, is the latest big industry talking point. It will also be the key theme of next year's Workplace Futures conference. The idea behind this is that each of these components together is greater than the sum of the parts. Once you are able to exploit the synergies that exist between these functions, they can be a far more effective force and agent of change in the workplace.

In conversation
Up until now, most of this conversation has centred round the BIFM initiative with the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD). The goal of the The Big Conversation, which was introduced by BIFM collaborator Chris Kane at ThinkFM earlier this year, is to bring together a number of key people from across these two professions, as well as anyone else who feels they can make a difference. This concerns the softer side of FM: the workplace's relationship to its people, for example, or its impact on factors such as staff productivity and employee wellbeing.

However, Fontana believes an equally important convergence is happening at the other end of the scale, long before the occupiers of a building have moved in - and that is the link between FM and design and construction. Fontana refers to this as a ‘grey space', but one with plenty of opportunity to exploit. And with BAM FM, she is attempting to fill this gap.

"We talk to our own people and say we see facilities management as a construction discipline," Fontana explains. "So it's not just about bogs, bins and boilers. There is more to it than that, and FM needs to be involved in the whole construction process."

So, how can FM do more in that respect? True to her word, over the past few years Fontana has been one of the most vocal proponents of building information modeling (BIM), the process by which you collect and manage all the data of a building, including an accurate 3D representation. 

BIM forever
BIM isn't new - it's been around in some form or another since the 1970s - but after the government announced its intention to mandate the use of Soft Landings and 3D BIM on all public sector projects by 2016, more groups started to take notice. Driven by the Government Property Unit, the property arm of the Cabinet Office and the team responsible for managing the government's estate, the subject has been a prominent feature in many of the discussions, seminars and FM conferences of recent times. Together with BAM FM, a number of FM companies have sought to keep up with this trend.

"It tends to be those companies that have a construction arm because they have access to software," says Fontana. BAM FM is a subsidiary of the Royal BAM Group, a Dutch-based construction organisation. "The interesting development is that the CAFM developers are starting to create BIM modules," she adds.

"It's really important that the CAFM suppliers get on-board with it. Inexorably, people are going to start being given some form of BIM because all these buildings are being built and all these refurbishments are being done on BIM. I think you'll find it quite hard now to go and get a set of 2D drawings."

In 2013, with the help of CAFM provider FSI and Autodesk, a producer of 3D Revit software, BAM FM formed Project Robin, a two-stage pilot at UCL Academy's site in Camden. The building had what Fontana describes as a fairly fraught end-stage construction period. The main MEP contractor went into liquidation just 16 weeks before the scheduled completion, so BAM FM was tasked with the challenge of making sure that they had very accurate surface drawings and everything ran smoothly. "We clearly needed a good set of drawings," says Fontana. "You can't build a building without one - though many people try."

So with BAM's existing BIM capability, rather than pay someone to survey the site and re-do all the drawings, Fontana made the decision to re-create them all in 3D. "That's where it came from: a practical problem we had," Fontana explains. "We then decided we wanted to link it to the CAFM and have it available on tablets for our engineers - not just a dusty old model that sat in the cloud."

By feeding the 3D BIM data into FSI's CAFM system, it allowed engineers to help maintain the school. In January, Project Robin was still at the pilot stage but the judges of the i-FM Technology in FM Award (of which this author was one) saw enough to declare it the winner of the Operational category, impressed by BAM FM's ability to produce positive outcomes through the practical use of BIM.

Today, Project Robin is fully operational and Fontana expects to see legitimate commercial rewards. While the teams are still benchmarking and measuring the data, BAM FM is about to implement it in a Yorkshire hospital.

"We want to do it in a different sector, which is health, in a different region as well, so that our construction regions get more exposure to it," Fontana explains. "Now we have a working model, we have a process, we know how to do it well, and we can do it on another project, it has commercial potential."

But a large contingent of the FM community doesn't quite feel the same way. BIM has its nay-sayers and they have greeted its emergence as the next big thing with a mixture of scepticism, cynicism and antipathy. Facilities managers don't need it, they say. It's just an extra cost, they argue. One of the main objections to BIM, at least from facilities management's point of view, is that if there is a problem with the physical asset, it automatically becomes the landlord's problem.

As one of the foremost champions of BIM in the FM sector, Fontana is clearly frustrated this view, because to her it's a no-brainer. "I couldn't get my head around that perspective. Why would you not want good asset information?" she asks.

Understanding what FM is
So, why has there been such a fervent backlash? Fontana accepts that BIM can be, conceptually, quite hard to explain, though she claims she saw the benefits straightaway: "I didn't know anything about BIM until I joined BAM. In my first two weeks' induction, I was sent across out our South East region and they showed me a BIM presentation. It clicked in my head immediately."

She believes other people struggle because they misunderstand what FM is and the subsequent ways BIM can help. There are many instances today, Fontana claims, in which those people in facilities management roles are dealing with the physical assets. In fact, there are some facilities managers whose responsibilities cover the entire estate.

"Theoretically, if people follow the standard processes, when anybody creates BIM data, it should be validated and verified," explains Fontana. This helps by ensuring the job is priced accurately first time rather than leaving the client at risk while the contractor goes out and performs dilapidation or condition surveys.

Misconceptions of FM are nothing new either, but if anyone is trying to fix things, it's Fontana. In recent years, she has become a prolific speaker on the FM conference circuit through her association with RICS, as that particular institution attempts to build its own standing in the FM sector.

However, given Fontana's work with RICS, it may surprise many to hear that her connection to the organisation isn't that old. In fact, she hasn't been surveyor for very long. Originally, she worked in social housing as part of the estates management team in the London Borough of Kingston. Here she looked after the repairs and maintenance of buildings as well as aspects such as rent and other tenancy issues, and it is here where she became much more comfortable with the building side of things.

One of the contractors deployed by the borough was Serco and soon Fontana decided to jump the fence and turn poacher. During her eight years there, she worked in a variety of different roles, but primarily in contract management and PFI.

She then hopped the fence another couple of times: firstly, working for the Ministry of Defence PFI at Salisbury Plain and Aldershot, where she was the garrison facilities director; and secondly, at Interserve, where she was responsible for a portfolio of contracts.

Whilst at Interserve, Fontana received an invitation to a RICS presentation on membership. She admits to always being impressed by surveyors, having worked with many in the field at places such as Serco to such an extent that it was always in the back of her mind as something she would like to do. However, she didn't have a construction degree and was by this point too far in her career to make that a viable option.

Nevertheless, Fontana's curiosity got the better of her and she attended the RICS presentation, though she realised quickly that it was focused on entry-level qualifications and thus of no value to her. She told one of the RICS staff members that they should really start thinking about doing something for people in facilities management who don't have a construction degree but do have a lot of experience.

RICS immediately began a pilot scheme for a professional experience route, and Fontana was one of the first seven people to be put through - and although she passed successfully, she quickly concluded that the APC competencies within its structure were not necessarily relevant to FM. As a result, she applied to become a member of the RICS's FM Board Professional Group and was once again successful.

Fontana has been a member of the board for almost three years now and has made a significant contribution to RICS's work in this time, having helped write both the Strategic FM Guidance Note and the recent RICS Case Studies. She also achieved Fellowship.

While some people are still to make the connection between chartered surveyor and facilities manager - Fontana recalls her first interview at BAM, in which her boss immediately assumed that she was a quantity surveyor and admitted to being completely unaware that the label could be given to facilities managers - she believes that the tag has helped her career tenfold.

"I feel having that badge and that status of chartership gave me the edge, really," she says. "I'm sure I was appointed for all the right reasons - skills, experience, cultural fit and all that good stuff - but I do feel that being able to appear with a professional status is really important.

"When you're working with other surveyors and architects, like I do every day, to be a chartered surveyor yourself is a just a really good short-cut to people understanding you are competent."

Having chartered status and being on a RICS board has not only given Fontana the chance to advance her own career but also the profession as a whole. On a personal level, it provides her the opportunity to speak at RICS events and gives her the chance to shape the future direction of FM. Fontana claims that her active involvement with the BIM agenda has also given the BAM FM business a great platform from which to push, something she believes would not ordinarily happen to a company its size. 

Status and recognition
Status, or lack of, remains one of the FM profession's biggest challenges, which isn't helped by the notion that facilities managers are multi-skilled and further compounded by the recent popularity of the TFM service model.

Fontana describes it as a "very broad church" but believes a move in the opposite direction is perhaps necessary if FM is to make any real progress in this regard: "People need to start thinking about specialising a bit more. If I was advising someone, I would say get a good grounding in a general discipline but choose a patch and own that."

She adds: "It's important to understand all aspects, but I do think with the way the market is and what has been procured, you probably need to be competent in a specific field. People need to start specialising a bit more."  She sees FM splitting into a number of fragments if it wants to achieve better recognition.

Ultimately, that's the goal of the convergence the industry now faces: to give FMs a better standing in the workplace and the wider world of business. Whether it's about people, workplace or the built environment.

Source: Simon Iatrou, Author, i-FM, 6th August 2014: