This is the first of several articles in which I’ll explore the current state of technology in the construction industry, the role technology might play in the future, and the different factors that will influence what that future looks like.
As I will demonstrate, it’s clear that more buy-in is required—financially and especially culturally—from those within the industry, and from the technology companies developing the solutions, to ensure the best possible future for the industry.
Technology has an important and necessary role to play in tackling the problems endemic to construction. It’s not that we’re taking an already brilliantly performing industry and looking to make marginal gains. Instead we’re addressing an industry that needs to improve on multiple levels.
We all know that it’s difficult to make a reasonable profit working in the construction industry, and we know that it’s a risky environment to work in—but the ways that you become more efficient, more effective at what you’re doing, and ultimately more profitable are not through incremental change. They require major shifts in thinking and in approach.
There is already some leadership pointing the way regarding better information modelling and management; the UK government encouraging the adoption of BIM Level 2, the UK BIM Alliance raising awareness, and the development of new standards will all contribute. For widespread takeup however, we need clear evidence that the change is worth pursuing and we need to better understand the benefits.
Digital tools are now a widespread reality in construction and their usage is becoming more and more integral to the different ways we work. Technology firms no longer dwell on the outskirts of the industry in the ways they once did, and the tools they produce are becoming more sophisticated. Construction is not an industry that has high performing technology in its DNA, but slowly and surely the case is being made for wider adoption of new tools.
There are examples of this everywhere—for example later this year the 1st International Conference on Optimization Driven Architectural Design will take place. This demonstrates to me that there’s a growing focus in the industry to become one that is more technologically enabled.
Understanding ‘Digital transformation’ in construction
As the construction industry continues down the path of digital transformation, a fork in the road becomes apparent. As in parallel industries, there is the potential to replicate existing processes with digital ones. Then there is the more ambitious attempt to use technology to illuminate entirely new ways of working. It’s through this guise that the state of technology in construction must be comprehended.
This isn’t to lessen the already significant progress that’s been made in the industry. But some firms will understand that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ and invest in technology having seen the paradigm shifts it has wrought in other industries. Others will drag their feet—perhaps digitising assets to keep pace with the ongoing movement to a paperless industry—seeing the basic digitisation of their processes as a leap into a brave new world. For meaningful change we must ask ourselves—how can we work differently to get better results?
For a real shift to take place it’s also necessary for the developers of technology solutions to develop a wider understanding of how people work in the construction industry.
But before making predictions for what comes next, it’s important to understand the current state of play in construction and how that will impact our direction of travel.
The current state of play of tech in construction
Construction is a significant contributor to UK ‘plc’, with an ecosystem of many SMEs and much larger firms who in turn often work with many smaller firms.
Nevertheless, improvements in performance are desperately needed. The statistics on inefficiency make for damning reading. At the core of this, we need better predictability, both for tackling risk as well as to hit targets for timescales and costs for project delivery. But this doesn’t go far enough.
If we consider a built asset as it’s developed through a project, whether it’s an example of infrastructure or a building, we must think of that asset in terms of its functionality, and the needs of its eventual occupants.
It’s not just that we should be concerned by how long or how much it costs to deliver a built asset, it’s really about the performance of that asset over its lifetime. A built asset should and could be a major contributor to the performance and experience of its occupants. With this mindset shift, built assets can really be thought of as assets, rather than as liabilities (noting that one of the key ways in which built assets become liabilities is through poor and poorly managed information).
While there are still improvements to be made, as an industry we are starting to recognise that built assets should be thought of in terms of their functionality.
It’s clear that digital tools are constantly being developed to better enable us to model an asset in design and construction. We have the ability to visualise models in ever-increasing fidelity, as well as the means to better check these models against compliance criteria. The capacity to support collaboration through the sharing of information—for example the management and administration of contracts—is also improving with the help of technology.
Yet for a number of reasons I’m not convinced that the bigger picture is being seen by the companies who are actually building the digital solutions we increasingly use.
There is still work to be done in ensuring that the developers of the technology fully understand not how people work now—because we all know that there are improvements to be made in efficiency and collaboration—but instead understand how people want to work, or the potential for new ways of working. It’s in this latter regard that we’re not yet seeing major developments.
I believe this is because the technological developments are primarily functionality-focused rather than data-focused—they aren’t based around how collaborative teams, large and small, simple and complex, work with data and information. And this is where we need to get to.
The data that is held in 3D design and construction models supports many different activities, and until that data can be navigated in a structured and consistent way, it’s very difficult for the relevant related activities to integrate with this technology that’s being developed around design.
The developers of technology need to understand the underlying causes of the symptoms of inefficiency, and work to identify the ways technology could bring about improvements and this is where a bottom-up approach, rather than a top-down approach is valuable—where small meaningful pockets of change give rise to wider take-up.
However, both the bottom-up and top-down approaches have their roles to play, not least because design and construction teams are typically temporary and people often work on multiple projects across multiple teams at any one time. You have to take action but you need to start to see results to encourage you to continue.
Risk is a major factor in design and construction and we’ve tended to deal with this through analogue processes coupled with contract mechanisms, but deep down we know this is not the right approach. If it was, we would have the predictability and performance that we need, and we’d have got exponentially better at both - this very detailed and manual-intensive way of working will only take us so far. If we really want to make drastic improvements as an industry, there has to be drastic change.
This idea of collaboration is not just a nice ideal; properly balanced teams do work better than those which are siloed, and there is extensive analysis to support this. We shouldn’t become too protective and married to our titles; of being labelled a quantity surveyor vs. an architect or an engineer, instead the considerations should be around what competencies we have, and what strengths we can bring to a design and construction team environment.
In the next article, I’ll share my thoughts on the major shifts in the construction industry that will take place—around the increasing importance of data and how it’s understood, on new approaches to collaboration, and the lessons we can take from parallel industries. I’ll look at the potential barriers to progress, and what we must do to tackle them.
Sarah Davidson is an academic working at the University of Nottingham, following a hands-on career in construction and consultancy. She is also a member of the UK BIM Alliance Executive Team and works with various industry bodies and organisations looking at digital transformation activities.