The NBS Construction Leaders Summit suggested that new impetus is needed to drive digital adoption forward, with clients identified as key agents to push industry change.
Recently (14 October 2020), I supported the second day of the NBS Construction Leadership Summit (post).* This online event was organised by the Newcastle, UK-based provider of specification information and related services, and gathered over 2,000 registrations. Prior commitments prevented me joining Day One (addressed by UK government minister, Nadhim Zahawi, building safety advocate Dame Judith Hackitt and Constructing Excellence co-chair Mark Farmer, among others). However, by all accounts, Day Two was equally interesting (all presentations were recorded and are now available via the NBS CLS2020 webpage)
In the Day Two opening #CLS2020 plenary session, attendees heard from speakers including Paul Morrell, the UK Government’s first chief construction adviser, and from architect, academic and former Autodesk vice-president Phil Bernstein. Morrell and Bernstein both spoke at a London conference in September 2010 where Morrell said the UK intended to set a mandate for use of BIM (AEC Magazine), and Morrell did much to drive initial UK adoption towards the mandate’s April 2016 deadline, work continued by his successor as chief construction advisor Peter Hansford. As such it was interesting to hear both Morrell and Bernstein’s observations on the industry’s digital journey over the past decade.
The BIM and digital journey
Morrell was perhaps hampered by a technical glitch that meant he could deliver his usual rapid-fire ‘stream of consciousness’ slide deck (many of which, though, are unchanged from the presentations he was giving 7-8 years ago). While the COVID-19 pandemic had altered some aspects of day-to-day working, Morrell said many of the fundamental blockers remain: ‘silo’-based working, for example. In pushing digital working, he had wanted to make it impossible not to be more digital, while admitting “Data is a jolt for everybody“. This makes it particularly challenging when the client/owner-operator needs to reuse that data: “If it’s not digital, it’s lost“. He talked about the need for bold and audacious goals (citing Kennedy and rockets to the moon), but when it comes to construction change: “Above all it’s about leadership – who is going to make this happen?”
Morrell’s conference comments about the UK’s BIM progress were subsequently reported by Building magazine (BIM uptake stalling, former construction tsar warns). He said:
“We do need government to stay engaged, … using its buying power and facilitating conversations …. It’s faced up well to COVID. Let’s see it face up to this much bigger longer-term challenge.”
Bernstein, right, described the industry’s journey from paper-based drawing to CAD to BIM (“digitally provocative, behaviourally interesting”) to a fourth mode, which he called “Integrated Digital Delivery“. The current reality of BIM, in his view, was characterised by “representational dispersion” with each stage of information only loosely connected, resulting in “lots of little BIMs“. He then talked briefly about digital twins – always contentious given the transatlantic differences that exist between US views and those in the UK influenced by the CDBB’s 2018 Gemini Principles (August 2019 EE post) – before musing on how architects might contribute to a more socially just society. “The pandemic has raised a lot of questions about health, safety and welfare for architects,” he said, while one lesson from the Grenfell fire disaster (echoing Morrell’s view about ‘lost’ data) was that “the line from design through to operation and use is not well understood“.
In the ensuring panel discussion, Morrell and Bernstein argued passionately about the need for construction clients and other industry leaders to be more demanding when it came to digital working. Morrell said the industry really needs to change the way it sells. “If clients want whole-life value, does construction actually sell a whole-life service?” “I used to think the problem was technological, but I increasingly think it’s cultural,” Bernstein said, adding “A lot of the desire for disruption has to come from the folks demanding the work.”
How do we make that change? Morrell repeated his views about leadership “We need to create an unstoppable demand for new ways of working…. What is the journey?” Bernstein said: “We need to shame people into doing the right thing.”
- For AECTechTV (post), I recorded a piece about the #CLS2020 event, including an interview with NBS’s Richard Waterhouse about his highlights of the two days:
The conference then divided into two streams; I followed the specifier/designer stream, which focused heavily on modern methods of construction (MMC) and housing, starting with a good overview from Willmott Dixon’s Tim Carey. He showed that UK Government interest in modernising the industry is nothing new – long before the Latham Report, Egan, or Mark Farmer’s “Modernise or Die”, the government established “The standardisation and new methods of construction committee” … in 1919!
Scarcity of labour, changing regulations and incentives, and industrialisation have created the perfect storm for construction, Carey said. Modular schemes in Croydon and Wembley have demonstrated the art of the possible; “It is also vital to quantitatively measure the outcomes of MMC adoption – but this is rarely done”. MMC can deliver better health and safety performance, fewer interfaces (through effective design for manufacture and assembly, DfMA), faster on-site assembly, and lower carbon intensity – but there are downsides too, Carey warned, citing immature supply chains in a industry still largely reliant upon traditional construction methodologies.
Carey was followed by Jade Lewis of the Sustainable Energy Association who was blunt about the policy pressures facing the UK residential sector. On top of climate change and NetZero targets, post-Grenfell compliance issues, the Future Homes Standard, and fuel poverty, “the UK has some of the worst housing stock in Europe.” She talked about the Transforming Construction programme and the shift towards ‘Smart Construction’, but also highlighted the public costs of poor housing: “Homes have a critical impact on our health and wellbeing, and cost the NHS £2.5bn per year.“
Gill Kelleher from the Construction Innovation Hub spoke about ‘Delivering quality in a digital design world’, highlighting the core themes of the hub’s work Value, Manufacturing, Assurance and Digital. Underlining points made earlier by Tim Carey, she said “Platform Construction systems can reduce cost, delivery time and lifetime carbon emissions.” She talked about the development of a “Digital Framework” underpinned by the next phase of BIM standards, and said an “Assurance Framework will provide confidence that products, materials and sub-assemblies meet performance and safety criteria.”
14 October 2020, incidentally, was also World Standards Day, and this session included an overview of the NBS platforms from Stephen Hamil (innovation director and head of BIM at NBS), underlining the connections between standards, classifications and specifications, so that designers and specifiers can work effectively with both standard requirements and manufacturers’ product information. He showed how the NBS Chorus system (September 2020 post) can be used to manage submittal reports, capture knowledge, and stay current on standards.
The Extranet Evolution view
This was a construction ‘summit’ that lived up to its name, providing some provocative presentations from industry movers and shakers. The ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were a recurring theme, and there was a strong sense of two primary effects. First, it has driven a step change in adoption of digital technologies to mitigate restrictions on travel, on office-based working, and on working in close proximity on construction sites. Second, it has provided a new focus for collaboration and for digital adoption to help industry overcome the ongoing economic impacts of the pandemic.
The latest Construction Products Association economic forecast suggest UK construction output will fall 14% in 2020; its forecast of a 13% rise in 2021 is heavily dependent upon how the UK deals with a potential second national lockdown and a ‘No Deal’ Brexit: “Either would lead to a second dip in the UK economy and construction output.could be affected by new lockdowns over the winter and by Brexit issues.”
With such uncertainty about the short-to-medium term, perhaps the focus should be on the bigger, long-term picture. NBS chief strategy officer Richard Waterhouse, right, told AECTechTV that the focus on building safety wasn’t just relevant to the UK – it is relevant to the whole world, citing both Grenfell and a more recent fire in South Korea. This is not a short-lived design or construction issue; having assurance that all aspects of the built environment around us has been safely built, operated and maintained should be a fundamental right to every citizen.
This will require not just a whole-life view of individual assets, but also a holistic, whole-life view of multiple connected assets. The national digital twin may be decades away, but BIM and wider digital transformation are vital foundations to its achievement. Perhaps a new digital mandate is needed to change the industry currently known as construction so that it is more conscious of its obligations to create and maintain a safer and more sustainable built environment in perpetuity.
[* Disclosure: As a paid consultant, I supported NBS efforts to promote and to share content from the NBS Construction Leadership Summit, working alongside Su Butcher – read her blog about the event – and others.]