7 June 2021
The Edge, Fed Square
12 Oct 2021
ICC, Sydney

6 things to know about digital building

As a world leader in the adoption of digital building technologies, there's a lot the Australian building and construction industry can learn from their UK counterparts. Here are 6 tips shared from NBS Australia, Be Summit headline sponsor, direct from their own event held in the UK last week, on the political, legal and technological drivers required for industry change and adoption as well as the impact of the pandemic on the digital future.

1. Stop making excuses, start making changes

All of us have had to adapt to new ways of working following the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve seen that if a significant driver like the pandemic comes along, all industries can change.

Keynote speaker, Dame Judith Hackitt, chair of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, delivered a firm message which centred on the need for change.

She discussed the Draft Building Safety Bill and upcoming regulatory changes to the construction industry. She said that although the changes from the draft bill won’t be implemented until 2023, it is a moral obligation to start behaving as if those regulations are already in place.

“The case for doing so not only has a strong moral argument but also makes business sense by ensuring that buildings are built to the right standards now and avoiding costly rectification and remediation work.”

“We are all part of complex systems in our lives and our work, and we must remove the silos of self-interest. So let’s stop making excuses and start making changes. You know you can. I know you can. And you know you should.”

According to Dame Hackitt, this change has to start with leadership in the boardroom.

“Leadership need to understand the moral and economic drivers – it shouldn’t be about penalties… No longer will it be possible for developers, designers and building owners be able to say we followed the rules or the rules didn’t tell us we couldn’t do it.”

Mark Farmer, the CEO and Founding Director of Cast, echoed those sentiments in his presentation, ‘Modernise or Die.’

He said: “We’re going to see some uncomfortable moments for those that can’t deliver quality and I urge everyone to think long term, act as a leader, and collaborate in moving construction forward.”

2. Digital is changing everything

New digital, collaborative ways of working have been evolving for a number of years now. COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation that was already happening at much slower rates and has resulted in a new reliance on cloud-based technology and remote ways of working. It’s said a Microsoft executive noted – digital transformation that would typically have taken two years had taken just two months. The pandemic is simply accelerating the things that were already happening.

In the built environment, one example of ongoing digital transformation is the use of BIM. Dr Anne Kemp OBE, Fellow and Technical Director at Atkins and chair of the UK BIM Alliance, reinforced the urgent need for widespread adoption of BIM:

“BIM is absolutely part of a bigger picture, and it shouldn’t be there for its own sake…. [it] isn’t just about construction – it needs to be from the perspective of the end-user and the client – all the users of the data we produce.”

Lee Jones, Head of Manufacturer Solutions at NBS, pointed out that unless data is used in the right way, it won’t provide its full benefits. “Data is the new oil,” he said. “However, unless that data is refined, like oil – it’s not worth much.”

Mark Farmer echoed the need for digital “If you can use technology to automate than there are benefits – digitisation is the key. Not just modular and offsite automation. This will move us forward.”

3. The Next Normal

Keynote speaker UK Construction Minister, Nadhim Zahawi MP, said that the construction industry is at the heart of the pandemic’s recovery plan, but we are in a position where we face a choice about its future.

“We have a choice to make, return to how things were done before and risk our wealth, our well-being and carbon commitments as we shy away from the challenge or to use this moment as an opportunity to ramp up our ambitions, make a break from the old approaches, and generate new ideas and enthusiasm.”

David Rockhill, Associate Partner at McKinsey and Company, shared research findings that revealed two-thirds of construction leaders believe that the effects of the pandemic will accelerate the transformation of the industry. 50% of those surveyed leaders have increased investment aiding that transformation, for their businesses to adapt to ‘the next normal’.

He said, “This disruption can be daunting, the reality is that the challenges we face can only be met by construction changing the way things are done.”

The point about urgently needing change was made most pointedly by Dame Judith Hackitt, who said: “the dinosaurs and laggards will drop away.”

4. Collaboration is Key

Collaboration was a key theme throughout the Summit, and many of our speakers named it as a priority when it comes to changing the culture of the industry and helping it to thrive in the future.

In Dame Hackitt’s speech, she outlined the importance that digital plays in enabling the sharing of information through the supply chain. “People will want to work with people who want to collaborate” she said.

Paul Morrell, the former Chief Construction Advisor to the UK Government, echoed Dame Hackitt’s sentiments in his own presentation ‘Construction Transformation – Are We Nearly There Yet?’. Based on his experience, he looked back to the beginnings of UK BIM strategy and identified what had and hadn’t changed in the years since. His forthright perspective inspired many of the attendees and generated a lot of discussions. He believes that for the construction industry to progress, it needs to undergo an internal shift in culture and become less adversarial: “The industry needs to take ownership and recognise that the change needs to come from within – and collaborate!”

He also highlighted that many of the issues within the industry are around poor communication of information, and spoke about fragmentation within the construction industry and that while there is a lot of vested interest in construction, nobody owns the whole process and manufacturers aren’t ‘at the table’.

Anne Kemp also highlighted the need for greater collaboration: “It’s clear we need to have resilience, flexibility and to work together.” While Mark Farmer stressed the importance of the industry being less adversarial if it is to progress: “I urge everyone to think long term, act as a leader, and to collaborate in moving construction forward” he said.

5. It needs to be sustainable

Nadhim Zahawi MP outlined the Government’s plan to “build back greener, to build back faster and to build back better than ever before.”

Phil Bernstein, Associate Dean and Professor Adjunct at the Yale School of Architecture, also looked at how we can build more sustainably and suggested that the solution would have to come from across the supply chain. His presentation encouraged the audience to consider the broader impacts of their project decisions from global environmental effects on the welfare of people in the production of raw materials found in construction products. “The building industry has a fundamental responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of the people that are working on our jobs and the people that use our projects”.

He also went on to say…

“There are some big challenges out there that cannot be solved unless we have a cross-supply chain perspective on them. For example, climate change. Climate change is being driven by carbon, and carbon is an element that is embedded in many of the decisions that we make across the supply chain.”

Jade Lewis, Chief Executive at Sustainable Energy Association, explained the critical role that local authorities need to play in the fight against climate change with 71% of councils declaring a climate emergency and 29 million existing homes in the UK accounting for 14% of total emissions.

Jade detailed some of the initiatives that are being rolled out, including the recently launched Green Homes Grant which enables homeowners to apply for a voucher for energy-efficient improvements to their home. The Sustainable Energy Association is also calling for a Building Passport, a live document that shows a building’s energy efficiency status and measures to improve it.

6. Modern methods of construction

Another strong theme throughout the conference was modern methods of construction (MMC) and the benefits they can bring to tackle the skill shortage across the industry. Mark Farmer discussed the issue of productivity in the UK: “The labour intensity of the industry is now an Achilles heel. It’s difficult to have enough people on site because of COVID, meaning total output is down, and it will continue to reduce if we have these current restrictions.”

Tim Carey, National Product Director from Willmott Dixon, described the wider problem of encouraging skilled people into the sector; “For every one person who joins the construction industry, five people leave.”

Tim shared some of the benefits that MMC can bring, including; precision manufacturing products with appropriate test certifications, reduction in skilled labour, improved H&S and greater COVID resilience, increased efficiencies and lower carbon intensiveness than traditional construction.

In summary

In all the event brought to the forefront a need to change, to improve safety, sustainability, efficiency and productivity. Much like the golden thread of information will improve building safety and sustainability, wider digital transformation will improve efficiency and construction productivity, but real change will only happen with a cultural shift and renewed effort.

This article has been shared with the approval of NBS Australia, Be summit headline sponsor. NBS platforms aid digital transformation and enable collaboration. Find out more about their cloud-based specification platform NBS Chorus and their manufacturer product platform NBS Source today.