BIM and climate change

Leading carbon reduction with BIM

Authors: Romy Rawlings and Mike Shilton

Invitees were selected based on the sector of the industry they represent and range of knowledge of the process. This included early adopters, novices and advanced users, including representatives from landscape clients, private and public sector, manufacturers, suppliers and education. A detailed summary is being prepared at the moment.Although practitioners have been taking account of carbon issues in specifying and maintenance planning for many years, BIM offers the chance to formalise the process and which enables all agencies to work to the same low carbon goal.

An estimated 40-50% of global carbon emissions are linked to the activities of the built environment industry - those of us working in the sector therefore have the potential to make a positive impact to reduce this[i]. If we have any hope of achieving this, we must start thinking differently about the impact of our action as professionals and, in particular, we need to look at the impact of how we specify our work.

From its inception Building Information Modelling (BIM) has had the potential to bring about 20% savings [PL1] of cost, time and waste over the whole life of a construction project. The key words here are whole life of a project. We cannot continue to focus only on the construction phase, with barely a thought given to long-term management. This is particularly relevant for landscape, where ongoing use has the greatest potential for carbon savings compared to the construction phase.

BIM enables the management of project-related information throughout the entire life cycle of an asset. A digital database allows a project team to analyse data relating to each aspect of specification and management. This includes resource use, energy consumption and the resilience of the completed landscape. Every environmental impact of a project can be modelled and fully considered at its inception, so that whole life carbon is minimised and the impact of any substitutions be fully assessed. This process maintains key asset data across the life cycle to be passed to relevant parties as a project progresses.

For the benefits to be fully exploited, we must start to consider landscape management at the beginning of the process and give it the focus it demands. Maintenance needs to be fully explored during the design and construction phases, so that the implications for sustainability can be understood, specified and modelled. This shift in thinking – from reactive maintenance to proactive asset management – is urgently required and has the power to bring about improvements in every aspect of the landscape, especially carbon.

The climate emergency declared by the Landscape Institute presents an opportunity to bring about a move away from the damaging, short term thinking that has for so long governed our industry, in favour of a more considered, lifetime design approach. As much as we need to see meaningful action to reduce carbon emissions right now, a shift away from the price versus value focus and ‘value engineering’ is urgently needed. Perhaps the greatest challenge (and opportunity) lies in client awareness and education, as good design decisions can have significant benefits – both cost and carbon - over the lifetime of a project.

The potential benefits of BIM go beyond the most commonly understood – for instance, improved work efficiencies and reduced site rework due to clashes. BIM has great potential to be employed at the feasibility stage for major infrastructure projects, to maximise environmental benefits. The exchange of accurate information between stakeholders makes for greater collaboration and an improved outcome for any project, at any scale.

As we understand more about the value of landscape assets – in terms of ecosystem services, amenity, health and wellbeing and natural capital – BIM offers a compelling argument for longer term thinking around carbon analysis. Once the whole life carbon emissions of a project can be modelled and assessed, the data can then be used to drive specifications, bringing about the lowest possible emissions (or highest possible sequestration) at the outset as well as throughout the life of the asset. It should be possible to model, measure and plan carbon in order to meet targets.

It is important to remember that landscapes, particularly the ‘greenest’ ones, have great potential to sequester carbon. This means that, unlike almost every other built environment asset, a well-designed and managed landscape will accrue value over its lifetime and can continue to make a meaningful contribution to climate change mitigation.

Every aspect of a landscape project has an impact – whether from the extraction of raw materials, manufacturing processes, transportation, management or ultimate disposal. Through BIM, accurate models facilitate the minimisation of waste through accurate take offs for procurement; detecting conflicts that would otherwise lead to errors and rework on site (thereby reducing waste) and timely sequencing and planning of construction to allow accurate procurement.

For the landscape profession to meaningfully address the climate emergency, we must adopt a global approach, with greater collaboration than ever before. This will require a fundamental shift in behaviour. The open sharing of data is facilitated through BIM. This will be crucial if we are to make the most of the opportunities for change. Data sharing of aspects such as biodiversity, biosecurity, landscape connections and corridors, storm water management will enable a holistic view of sustainability.

A key deliverable of a BIM project is a ‘digital twin’ – a virtual representation of the real world facility. As on-site feedback from sensors and drones becomes more cost effective and common place, issues on site can be flagged up in the virtual model and a response coordinated in a focussed, timely manner. In addition to the aspects that data can highlight around carbon, there are many very tangible benefits that digital design and construction can bring.

  • The use of drone surveys and 3D scanning means the need for site visits could be reduced as a digital model can be made available to all
  • The reduced need for design team meetings and last minute consultations
  • 3D printing is now commonly used in prototyping by furniture manufacturers and stone/concrete suppliers to test bespoke designs: sign off is straightforward and waste is minimised
  • Offsite construction is another important means of minimising waste and re-work, as well as ensuring high build quality; fewer errors mean building once, with minimal waste

BIM offers the profession a measured and effective way of tackling carbon reduction in collaboration with other built environment professionals. It is important that this process accelerates.


Romy Rawlings is a chartered landscape architect, UK Business Development Manager for Vestre and the LI Honorary Secretary

Mike Shilton is director of Keysoft Solutions and chair of the LI Digital Group

BIM for Landscape is published by Routledge and the Landscape Institute and can be purchased here: