Building4Change Interview: Don McLean, Managing Director, Integrated Environmental Solutions

By Don McLean on Sunday 9 September 2012

Don McLean talks about how a sustainability hub is helping to deliver a better built environment, and sounds a note of caution about BIM…

Building information modelling (BIM) has been promoted as the panacea for many of construction’s ills. But Don McLean, founder and managing director, Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES), cautions that in reality BIM does not always live up to the attractive concept.

McLean speaks from experience, as his business has been working with BIM on projects around the world for some years. IES helps businesses reduce the carbon emissions of their buildings, delivering measurable results through the powerful tool of performance analysis. Those varied stakeholders are in turn part of a sustainability hub that is dedicated to delivering not only more efficient buildings, but also entire low-energy communities and cities. McLean begins by explaining the hub.

What is the sustainability hub?
By 2050, the cities will contain 70 per cent of the world’s population, so the question is how we can make those cities as efficient as possible. Our part in the process is to create tools that enable people to do that, but we can’t do that all by ourselves.

More and more organisations are coming to us and asking us to help get their product or service to market. We develop the tools that show something can perform – or maybe can’t perform. We work with rating systems like BREEAM to help building designers address fundamental problems, like reducing waste. We worked with US architectural programming software provider Trelligence to generate early stage sustainability analysis, showing how a building will operate so that you can optimise its shape.

We provide a catalyst, a hub in creating the smart city, and the more partners we work with, the more we can fill in the gaps in our capability.

Does bringing stakeholders together in a hub give scope for companies, sectors and industries to learn from one another?
We’ve got to look at lean construction in the UK. In construction surely we can learn from other industries. It is sensible, but the question is why hasn’t it been done? It is not that it can’t be done, but the way construction operates works against doing it – because of its continual churn rate

The industry is not adapting to take account of other processes – the car industry has adapted and a car is now much more intelligent than a building. Construction needs to change fundamentally, and that’s where we come in. The hub is about having a system that will make the construction industry more effective, and bringing industries together under the hub is prompting companies to start to talk to one another and do things together. We’ve created an environment which allows people to communicate, using our tools.

So what do you see as the greatest challenge for the construction industry now?
There is a significant challenge in the recession because it creates a lack of confidence, which means people are less willing to invest in sustainability issues. But the bigger challenges come in lack of knowledge in the construction industry and the resulting need for education and answers.

Architects and even engineers are intimidated by simple building physics. Traditionally they have not had to worry about the performance of a building because its services were oversized, but we can’t do that any more. Building physics is the alphabet to writing a cohesive story for our buildings and cities.

More people coming into the industry are being educated in building performance and that’s what we’re doing with a lot of our technology. But if you are a 40-year old working in the industry you should be saying ‘I’d better understand this’. We could see buildings being developed through integrated design from other industries, disenfranchising the architect and the engineer. Someone will come up with a solution.

And will BIM make a big difference to the way the UK industry works?
We’ve been operating worldwide for some time and so were working on it before it arrived in the UK. As a client it’s a system that can give you everything, but I see some problems.

I always say that BIM is good, but the marketing is better. It’s a seductive concept, but the practice is a long way from the concept, and that creates problems.

The quality of BIM models is often poor, and when that happens the concept falls over. The way in which BIM information is passed for analysis is often extremely poor. We’ve created alogorithms to correct information problems, but problems can’t always be corrected.

I’m not knocking it, but I’ve seen the US go from tremendous enthusiasm to hard bitten reality. I’ve seen common problems, but no one talks about them.

So what is the future for IES?
Around a third of our turnover goes into research and development, so the more revenue we can generate the more we can put into R&D. R&D is fundamental to our business. On a recent business trip to Australia I gave a presentation entirely on what is coming in the future – it is all innovation.

This article was originally published in Building4Change on 9 September, 2012 http://www.building4change.com/article.jsp?id=1110#.VPcpa_msVUU