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Will lockdown’s work patterns help construction harness the full benefit of technology?

Words:
Dan Cash

Construction’s procurement traditions limit the value it gains from BIM and other digital technologies, but more remote working offers a chance to change that

One of the big changes I’ve found in lockdown is clients and collaborators growing comfortable with online meetings. It has been hugely liberating to discuss projects without the need to spend up to a whole day travelling for a one hour meeting. While there will always be times when a building must be visited, I hope most of my meetings will continue to take place online. 

With online meetings, the space becomes a more positive neutral ground, with attendees having all their necessary resources to hand. This allows us to capitalise on the new digital literacy to shift the focus of collaboration to within the virtual environment of a BIM model itself – in much the same way paper would be in a physical meeting.

But concerns around remote working are well-founded. A survey by Harvard Business School found that since moving out of offices and into homes, the working day had increased by an average of 48 minutes. Zoom fatigue is a familiar lexicon as people jump from one meeting to the next without time to process, rest and digest. The CEO of Citigroup has declared Fridays ‘Zoom free’, while an RIBA survey last November showed 45% of respondents reporting an increase in working hours and 48% reporting a negative impact on mental health. 

The future of work will undoubtedly comprise a mixture of ‘old normal’ and ‘new normal’. While many of us are tired of living online, the industry can take advantage of this new digital literacy to improve outcomes. Productivity in construction still lags well behind the national average. Six months before the first lockdown, an article by McKinsey & Company indicated that the industry still trails in digital uptake, and many companies’ digitisation initiatives had failed to deliver value.

The same article highlights the need for digital projects to focus on collaboration, and this resonates for me. In the past, as an engineering consultant I have seen BIM used as a 3D tool to be passed between different organisations. Often the information exchange included screen grabs of the model marked up by hand. At tender stage, this BIM model was often exported to a set of 2D PDFs, issued to a contractor, who would then produce their own BIM model, because contractually it is difficult for the original BIM model to be adopted for use in construction. 

BIM will only improve project outcomes if collaboration is entirely within the BIM environment itself. Models need more detail and to truly resolve co-ordination so that no further design is required during construction phase, reducing the associated risks to a project programme. However, I fear it is our procurement traditions that are limiting our ability to maximise the value of digital technology. A contractual overhaul is needed so information in the BIM model can be passed from one phase of a project to the next, and ultimately become an asset for the client to manage the property at handover. 

While the digital tools available to us haven’t changed during the pandemic, perhaps our capacity and appetite to use them has. 


Dan Cash is a building services engineer and director of consulting at Atamate

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