A McKinsey study of industry sector progress toward digitisation reveals that construction is only beaten for bottom spot by agriculture. This probably says more about the relative ease of change in other sectors but it’s still a disappointing result for an industry that prides itself on technological sophistication and innovation. We’ve made massive steps in areas like BIM, prefabrication, 3D printing, VR and downstream building management systems like CBRE’s own Asset IQ and digital twin. So why is it that we seem to be lagging behind other sectors?

Can technology bridge the construction gap quote cardThe answer lies in the essentially fragmented process we use to create buildings. Projects start with design, then run through construction before being handed over into use, passing through the hands of three distinct groups in their journey from idea into reality: designers, contractors and end users. As an industry, our focus for some time has been on improving integration and this led to once novel ideas, being widely adopted. Bringing trade contractors into the design process at an early stage, using federated BIM models and getting commissioning and BMS design onto the agenda from the start have all helped. But the barriers to wider adoption of digital remain, not helped by the different ways in which these three groups work, and their understandable focus on their own business agendas. Ironically each has been responsible for big steps in innovation but this has been centred around how each group carries out its own work; design is now highly digital and increasingly using augmented reality technologies. Technology investment in construction has focussed on component and system manufacturing. For users, optimising building operation has been the focus of investment in tech, followed by digital systems able to create a more personalised user experience for occupiers.

While it’s true that each of these individual investments in technological innovation has an impact on others, there is yet to be an effective overarching strategy to address the structural disjunction in the construction process. BIM use becomes distinctly patchy further down the supply chain, trade contractors sometimes struggle to deliver what the architects want, and building management teams inherit sophisticated BMS designed by people they don’t know, for people they’ll never meet. As far back as 1998, Egan’s seminal ‘Rethinking Construction’ was calling for better process integration. If we can’t do it with all the access to technology we have now, then perhaps the blockage lies in the relationship between the parties.

Working with one of CBRE’s larger corporate clients we have been exploring Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), a radical approach that delivers full integration to the project process by creating common objectives and sharing risk and reward. Taken to its conclusion, IPD anticipate the architect, the client and the contractor being parties in a single contract, so all succeed or fail together. That’s a big step in our ‘risk managed’ and ‘liability heavy' environment but as a thought experiment it highlights the area that needs to be addressed in our current structures; having a common agenda.

Technology R&D is focused on process improvement in each discipline – design, construction and use. The absence of whole process R&D holds construction back from embracing the full benefit of the technological revolution. The astonishing potential of AR, machine learning and the internet of things is now bringing significant changes to construction, but the holy grail of seamless start to finish integration, from idea into operation in construction, remains elusive.

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