A digital master builder?

The lack of digital technology on building sites is a stumbling block to collaboration. Could this rethink in communications revolutionise delivery and bring about a new breed of architects?

Could new methods of communication bring simpler knowledge transfer, project co-ordination and quality control to our buildings? Extension and refurbishment at City College Norwich. Ingleton Wood, 2015
Could new methods of communication bring simpler knowledge transfer, project co-ordination and quality control to our buildings? Extension and refurbishment at City College Norwich. Ingleton Wood, 2015 · Credit: Edward Godden

April 2016 saw Level 2 BIM adopted on all UK government-procured projects. Despite the passing of this deadline, the uptake of BIM as a holistic methodology is still patchy across the construction industry. Many design teams now share data digitally, but on construction sites it’s often a different story with operatives still reliant on photocopied drawings with red pen annotations.

This disconnection means there is often a lack of feedback from site to the design team. This can be significant in the gap between the expected and actual building performance – in and the trend for projects to run over budget and programme.

The solution is to modernise communication between designers and constructors through the application of digital technology. Improved communication would empower the workforce to progress at pace, with greater accuracy and quality. In addition, improved communication could even help to forge a new breed of industry professional, that of the digital master builder. It’s a concept I put forward at the recent CIBSE technical symposium, based on research we have been doing.

A digital master builder would be formed of individuals embedded in a project and hard-wired into the main project digital information system, through technological means, allowing them to access, interrogate and inform the project data in real-time.

At present we have a huge variation in BIM ability across contractors, with small and medium sized firms lagging behind and sub-contractors even further adrift. In fact, recent surveys suggest the extent of digital uptake by the typical constructor tends to be limited to programme costing software and 2D drawing files. Interviews with site managers show that most depend on face-to-face meetings, mobile phones and noticeboards to communicate with others on site.

Ingleton Wood has conducted dozens of workshops to engage industry professionals in its research.
Ingleton Wood has conducted dozens of workshops to engage industry professionals in its research. · Credit: Edward Godden

In addition to their role on site, mobile phones and emails are overwhelmingly used by constructors to communicate with the design team off site, referencing hard-copy design information while they do so. The same scenario is true for sub-contractors, with 92% using hard-copy drawings as their primary means to access design information on site.

Critically, many of these constructors expect current design information to be an inaccurate reflection of the actual site scenario. In fact, every contractor interviewed by Ingleton Wood said that they were likely to have questions for design consultants about the details provided in design information. Constructors also broadly agreeed that unanswered queries would affect their project programme because most rely primarily on site visits to communicate with design consultants.

The problem is that design consultants often don’t visit a site at the best time for the contractor. If the query cannot be resolved by phone or email because it relates to aesthetic issues – for example glare or material matching – then constructors have either to accept a delay or push on and accept the risk of quality problems or potentially abortive work.

However, design consultants are not necessarily to blame for any programme slippage arising from their non-attendance on site. They may have been to site the previous day, for example, or may consider their 3D design information to be an accurate reflection of the site. Rather, the importance constructors place on face to face site visits is more suggestive of their reliance on traditional communication methods.

This shows how the overall performance of a building, in terms of delivery, energy efficiency, occupant satisfaction and even delight is being limited by a lack of communication between designer and constructor.  And, while many of the tools and skills exist to rekindle a fully collaborative delivery process, the mind sets of both groups may lag behind.

A Digital Masterbuilder will provide a crucial link between designer and constructor.
A Digital Masterbuilder will provide a crucial link between designer and constructor. · Credit: Edward Godden

One solution is to recognise the constructor’s role in delivering comprehensive design solutions and the designer’s potential to keep contributing to the construction process. Communication with the design team helps constructors understand the nuances of a design and give designers a far more robust awareness of the site issues that often dilute or render ineffective their original vision. Enhancing this relationship would undoubtedly lead to the construction of better buildings.

BIM is intended and equipped to be the methodology to create this new, collaborative form of construction with the creation of professional digital master builders – the professionals who contribute to the design and construction of a building through digitised collaboration. Recognising this very opportunity, Paul Morrell, as chief construction adviser in 2011, suggested that BIM could herald the return of architects to the role of master builder.

BIM encourages far greater levels of information flow between key stakeholders in the construction process and fosters a communal ownership of the digital built environment. In its fullest sense, the architect’s drawings will not exist within total BIM but only as extractable building plans that incorporate varying degrees of architectural, structural and mechanical data. In this context the constructor on site can be a legitimate contributor to the design evolution of the building – feeding in specialist amendments, variations resulting from practical intolerances and as-built conditions throughout the construction process.

Nonetheless, the undeniable hindrance to the notion of a digital master builder is the uptake of digital technology on the building site. The problem is particularly pronounced for the forward thinking constructor, who is invariably part of a much larger web of interdependent supply chains, subcontractors and specialists, most of whom will need to engage in digital collaboration for it to offer tangible benefits.

For contractors, the issue is the correct data being available when it is needed. This could be resolved by establishing project hubs of designers and constructors on site, although finance and logistics mean this is not a viable solution for most projects.

What is needed is to embed those skilled individuals into the main project information system through technological means to allow them to access, interrogate and inform the current design data in real-time. This is where ACCEPT, a European-funded research and development project, becomes important.

ACCEPT is principally a collection of three software applications designed for use by construction workers, site managers and consultants. These interface with one another through the context-relevant hardware of smart glasses, tablet and desktop computers respectively, enabling constructors and designers to engage with real-time project information that would otherwise be unavailable.

  • ACCEPT will be used to pinpoint construction problems such as thermal bridging.
    ACCEPT will be used to pinpoint construction problems such as thermal bridging. · Credit: Edward Godden
  • Could technology be made easier to use on site? ACCEPT's tools include Epson Moverio smart glasses and an Android platform.
    Could technology be made easier to use on site? ACCEPT's tools include Epson Moverio smart glasses and an Android platform. · Credit: Edward Godden

It is anticipated that by equipping designers and constructors with the ACCEPT system, there will be extensive deployment of digital master builders who will directly improve construction quality and achieve significant improvements in overall building energy-efficiency. And, in time, solutions such as ACCEPT will be given the opportunity by digital master builders to challenge most things considered sacred within the industry, physical site meetings, paper files and even the red pen.


Edward Godden is European projects co-ordinator at Ingleton Wood. He was speaking at the recent technical symposium of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE)