Digital Construction Week 2017

By Dan Cash

27 October 2017

I recently attended Digital Construction Week, hosted at London’s Excel Centre. This year’s event drew its largest ever attendance. That’s not surprising given the construction industry’s drive to adopt digital technology, and improve productivity which currently languishes well below the national average across all sectors.

This year the main conference focused on the high level strategy for digital technology adoption. Mark Bew of Digital Built Britain focused on the effect that Government adoption of Building Information Modelling (BIM) level 2 has had in driving uptake in the industry, and he then moved on to exploring next steps in the use of digital technology in construction. Bew sees greater opportunities for BIM to be used more extensively in the operational lifetime of a building. Operational expenditure on buildings currently stands at £122bn annually, whereas capital expenditure is £90bn, so the capacity for better connecting with building operation and post-occupancy management is real.

To me, the strategy seems aspirational but very ‘top down’. At the moment standards are being written to link BIM, for all stages of a project, to smart city design. But consider companies like Uber and Deliveroo. They are examples of enabling technologies for a smart city, and they’ve made these leaps by mobilising personal smartphones. In most industries, the change digital technology brings starts at the bottom, and spreads across a network. An approach to digital technology in construction which is too directive is only likely to get so far – although it might keep things moving until disruption happens.

And the disrupters were around at DCW. One such organisation - Flux, supported by Google Cloud - is simplifying the process of moving data between the different software packages the industry uses, and allows bespoke apps that draw on that data to be built. One of the key challenges of the BIM discussion I mentioned is the need for the industry to standardise its data, a typically directive approach. Flux will help bypass that need and in so doing will no doubt allow Google to learn a huge amount about how the construction industry works, which will allow it to generate new ideas.

Amongst the more established software companies and contractors there was a scattering of smaller start-ups trying to bring new thinking to the market. Correvate is a spinout from UCL, developing processing software for buildings which have been laser scanned in three dimensions which allows the recognition of building elements such as pipes. This could be very powerful in our work as environmental engineers, particularly with the refurbishment of heritage buildings, where communicating where to interface with existing building elements is critical.

Max Fordham was also represented in the ‘Visualisation’ stream at the conference, where Natalia Wojtowicz and Pedro Novo presented their work on virtual reality. They have developed a system to provide interactive experiences to a client, before the design is complete, for options relating to the acoustic and daylight performance in a building. They see this type of ‘pre-occupancy’ analysis as becoming an important part of the briefing process, where a client can ‘feel’ the decisions they make rather than basing them on charts in a report. This celebrates Max Fordham’s desire to work even more closely with clients, to help them better understand a design proposal – and we’re exploring the use of digital methods to support that goal.

Turning digital visions into physical reality seems to be the real sticking point for the pace of change in the industry. One statistic from the conference that sticks in my mind is that road closures cost the UK £31bn annually (compare that with the construction capex value of £90bn mentioned above!). Michael Cook, the Director of Transformation for Kier Group, presented options for eliminating street works in cities where ‘key hole’ works can be carried out by robotics. I guess the industry is in a race with the self-driving car to unlock this particular opportunity. It will be interesting to see whether ‘key hole’ maintenance on buildings might change our approach to design in the future and improve the performance on buildings.

At Max Fordham we’re keeping abreast of these fast-paced developments in the construction industry. We’re looking forward to attending similar knowledge-sharing events in the future that will continue to inform our understanding of how we can make best use of digitisation and automation in our work.


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