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Bridging the Gap Between Construction and Operation

Construction has been slow to embrace digital transformation. To put the problem in context a recent report by McKinsey suggests that, in the UK, only agriculture has lagged further behind. Despite all the progress we have seen on building information modelling (BIM), and the cooperation that that engenders between architects, engineers, and construction workers, fragmentation is still such a feature of the industry.

Perhaps this speaks to the unique challenges that are faced in construction. After all buildings are typically designed by one group and built by another, and this division of interests goes against the whole-lifecycle approach that we advocate. In order to fully optimise building performance, a whole lifecycle approach must be taken. And in order to take a whole-lifecycle approach, there must be some way to bridge this gap between design and construction.

It would be true to say that technology can help bridge the gap. To stay with the example of BIM, a model that brings together all the separate groups involved in construction and operation will certainly have a positive effect. Working around a single virtual model of the building structure allows for a clearer idea of the overall technology strategy; and aligning the efforts of designers, engineers, and builders also means shared risk, reward, and knowledge. It hopefully simplifies the complex process by giving all of them a common reference point and a common, cross-referenced source of information to streamline their efforts further.

So far, progress has been the result of technology adoption like BIM, and procedural change like getting engineers involved at the design stage. But a lot of progress has been unilateral; designers, engineers and construction workers tend to support technology adoption in line with their own business interests. As we have seen, designers now often make use of building information modelling, and there have been attendant benefits for building performance. But the investment in new technology is often occasioned by some aspect of commercial competition between designers, or between engineers, and not as the result of any joint effort at building optimisation.

Partly for this reason, technology adoption has taken longer and been less effective. As the McKinsey report says:

 

The industry has not yet embraced new digital technologies that need up-front investment, even if the long-term benefits are significant… R&D spending in construction runs well behind that of other industries: less than 1 percent of revenues, versus 3.5 to 4.5 percent for the auto and aerospace sectors.

In the auto and aerospace industries there is more effective incentive for cooperation between groups, and as a result the end user benefits more from joint research and development. As Neil Grey of CBRE puts it: “The absence of whole process R&D holds construction back from embracing the full benefit of the technological revolution.” Perhaps then, as Grey suggests, the next advance will come not in the technology but in ourselves, and in the organisation of group self-interest to serve the end user.

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