The new age of construction: technology as an enabler

Sam Stacey, Challenge Director, Transforming Construction at UKRI provides an overview and key outcomes from CIRIA’s recent conference held on 10 March 2021. 

Introduction 

On 10 March 20210 I was honoured to chair the CIRIA conference The new age of construction: technology as an enabler. 

The day boasted a stellar cast of speakers from industrial and academic organisations: the Cambridge Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB), Royal HaskoningDHV,  WSP, Mott MacDonald, James Fisher Testing Services, Waterman Group, SLR Consulting, the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction, Zero Waste Scotland, Costain, the Met Office, Highways England,  Autodesk and BAM Nuttall. 

We heard about the vision for the new age of construction, and the technology that will enable us to deliver it.  In the panel sessions we discussed the barriers that are holding back progress and what can be done to overcome them. The speakers mentioned the imperatives for change such as sustainability and building safety, plus the enablers such as the Construction Playbook and Value Toolkit, many of which are emerging from my own Transforming Construction programme.

Towards the end of the day we ran three concurrent workshops exploring the role of technology to improve productivity, processes and sustainability with discussion leaders Phillip Proctor, Marek Suchocki and Ivor Barbrook. All of this served to reinforce my belief that the journey we are on will result in a construction industry that is better than the world can currently imagine. An industry that will offer secure and satisfying jobs, and attract plenty of enthusiastic new recruits.

1. Insights

Around five years ago the McKinsey Global Institute assessed construction as the second least digitized industry (after farming). Our first speaker, Neil Thompson of CDBB explained that he saw this as due to the unusual complexities of digitizing our area. Neil showed however that the technology has recently achieved the required level of maturity, meaning that we can now expect rapid change. That assertion was certainly borne out by the explanations and case studies offered by the speakers throughout the day. We heard some great descriptions of the latest technology for data collection and the projects where it has been applied.

The internet of things, connecting up various types of sensor, is being applied to the monitoring of existing assets. This and other sources of data, including the building information models, laser scans, drones, satellite information, climate knowledge and visible and near-infrared (VNIR) imaging, are all providing a vast resource to drive better decision making for the built environment. Curation of this data was cited as a key facilitator, being addressed in part by the National Data Strategy, Digital Twins and the Gemini Principles (from the Latin for twin).

Perhaps the most rapid advances are in data analytics. Artificial intelligence is enabling us to query construction data sets and produce predictive deterioration models. We saw this in the case studies for Waterloo Bridge (which I was pleased to hear referred to as the Ladies’ Bridge due to its female war-era constructors), the iconic Hammersmith Bridge, the proposals for Mexico Airport, and many others. Data is enabling us to treat the built environment as an interconnected system, and use that to inform design and operation.

We heard about how data is making construction work more efficient and satisfying at all stages. Use of virtual or augmented reality is being used in design and on site, including ‘4D’ virtual rehearsals of building assembly. Remote monitoring is increasingly at a level of maturity where site inspection can be done from the home or office – something boosted by the advent of Covid.  Tom Butcher of the Met Office told us about the use of precise weather data to inform site operations management of infrastructure.

While there is near universal acknowledgement that the technologies presented offer great benefits for humans and planet alike, there are also factors impeding progress. Much of the discussion therefore focussed on the barriers to adoption and how they can be overcome. One of these is that there seems to be a winners-and-losers view of technology, where the benefit is not being shared by all.  This is either because some are more capable of implementing new solutions, or because some have to add more effort but gain no obvious returns. Changes need to be equitable, and investments balanced.  A way of achieving this is through enterprise-based procurement where risk and reward is formally shared across project participants. The Institution of Civil Engineers’ Project 13 is the premier model for this.

There is also often a perception that application of new technology increases risk. In most of the examples presented, the risk is actually lower compared to traditional techniques. This is because of the ability to be more accurate, better informed, and increasingly prepared for future events. Funding cycles, which are often less than five years, were cited as a barrier to realising whole life cost benefits. Here, the predictive capability of the new technology should drive a longer term view, including feeding into client policy.

It was encouraging to see the awareness of so many of the factors that will facilitate change, both carrot and stick. There are the sticks of safety (as in Grenfell Tower and the Morandi Bridge), and climate change, but also the carrots provided by the pipeline of government procurement and the Transforming Construction programme, in particular, the government’s Construction Playbook, and the Construction Innovation Hub’s  Value Toolkit. It is clear that engineers are massively mobilised around the net zero challenge, with Costain’s Lara Young being one example from the conference.

2. Conclusions
What came across implicitly and explicitly from the speakers was just how strong the UK is in construction technology.  With the use of factory production, labour costs can be at least halved, and quality improved. UK companies are well placed to address the vast global demand to address ageing infrastructure, and help avoid disasters such as the Morandi bridge collapse.  The industry is in a period of rapid change driven by technology, and we need to move fast to capture the opportunities. 

The presentations showed the potential to generate more whole life value from our buildings and to address climate change. Given the export potential, and the need to retrofit energy performance upgrades, this should create more high paying jobs in the UK. At the same time overall labour costs will be reduced due to the leap in productivity, and there will be less waste of energy and materials. Data will allow us to remove over-design and safely extend life of many assets, while exploiting others as material banks. Virtual site visits and factory production reduce travel and support levelling-up of the UK economy.

The day ended on an optimistic note, with our final speakers expressing a high level of confidence in progress. Phillip Proctor reported that Highways England is already anticipating a saving of thirty to fifty percent on their maintenance and renewals cost from the new techniques by 2040. Marek Suchocki of Autodesk said that the world looks to the UK, and that the UK should give itself a pat on the back for its leadership in construction technology. Ivor Barbrook from BAM Nuttall noted that we’re beyond the early adopters and even the doubters are now coming on board.

We are approaching a tipping point beyond which traditional approaches to construction will be overwhelmingly accepted as obsolete and there will be no reason not to adopt modern data-driven solutions. Next time McKinsey run their analysis I hope to see construction shot up the digital charts.