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Building a constructive IT approach for sector performance

Building a constructive IT approach for sector performance

ConstructionInsightsSoftwareTop Stories

In today’s digital age, industries must consider more innovative business approaches in order to operate to their full potential. Sarfraz Ali, Senior Director of Market Development at Smartsheet, talks us through how IT is serving to benefit the construction industry.

With the ongoing furore regarding the lack of affordable housing in the UK, we must consider how technology is increasingly helping the construction industry to speed up new builds, reduce time-consuming project management tasks and assisting companies with meeting report requirements in line with government and regional stakeholders.

The UK has a well-established obsession with housing at all levels of society, yet the country’s rate of home ownership has fallen by nearly 10% since 2016 and the average price of a home rose more than 50% between 2015 and 2017.

There are many complex factors behind these dynamics. They each essentially come back to a lack of supply and one of the main factors behind this is the time it takes to actually build a house.

Based on data from The Independent, the time it takes a developer to complete a house has risen from 24 to 32 weeks over the last few years. The Local Government Association (LGA) paints an even bleaker picture, estimating that it now takes an average of 40 months from planning permission to completion – eight months longer than in 2014.

Again, there are many issues at play, but everyone can agree on the fact that building a house is an inherently complex process. The construction phase is only one part. There is also development strategy, pre-development and site assessment, planning and then managing the Request for Proposal (RFP) process, among other steps.

Information management can become a major hurdle also, especially given that most property developers have fewer than eight full-time staff members. Though they rely on an army of sub-contractors to facilitate the building process, the bottleneck of management and coordination is largely on the shoulders of these small direct staff members.

It’s no wonder that many firms, large and small, are attempting a process of digitisation to help streamline their complex workflows.

It’s important to note that Digital Transformation goes beyond the IT office. The flow of information has to include the project manager responsible for projects from beginning to end; from putting together the budget and negotiated cost estimates, to arranging work timetables, to finalising technical and contract details with subcontractors.

These workflows must also take into account adherence to health and safety regulations around fire, ventilation, toxic substances, access, sanitation and energy efficiency (plus the documentation to prove it), as well as archival storage, which can be as long as 25 years based on guidance from the UK National Archives.

One area of technology innovation is Building Information Modelling (BIM), an intelligent 3D model-based process that gives architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) professionals a set of tools to more efficiently plan, design, construct and manage buildings and infrastructure. The UK government has heavily promoted the use of BIM through its Construction 2025 strategy.

BIM has been adopted for large-scale public projects, but the technology is less prevalent with smaller developers. In a 2016 survey conducted by the NBS, 92% of respondents agreed that ‘adopting BIM requires changes in our workflow, practices and procedures’, which is often more difficult for smaller organisations with limited training and staffing budgets.

Another set of technologies, grouped under Collaborative Work Management (CWM), is increasingly showing up as a complement or alternative to BIM. While these systems have roots in the traditional spreadsheets and digital forms that have long been common in the industry, they add a layer of construction sector-specific knowledge into the process of collecting and acting on data based on configurable rules that automate repetitive actions. The technology is already used by Fortune 500 companies to manage everything from building airliners to organising the production of Hollywood films.

CWM systems have been used in the US for several years to eliminate process friction and unify various groups, from owners to architects to subcontractors, throughout the construction project lifecycle. They allow data around scheduling, bill of material, plans, regulatory requirements and more to be tracked, managed and shared within the same system. Access to this data can be assigned to any person or company involved in a workflow on a granular, task-specific basis.

CWM systems have proven popular, especially with larger organisations. One multi-billion-dollar construction firm has been able to halve the time it takes to conduct weekly project calls, reduce material and damage delays by nearly as much and improve turnaround times on RFIs and PCOs as a result of newly streamlined workflows.

A recent report from McKinsey and Company offers several ways developers can benefit from new technology and reinforces the urgency of taking proactive steps forward. One specific recommendation is to make digital participation a part of the bidding process for all project participants. Another is to enforce a strong and shareable data foundation, which they call a common data environment (CDE), making data available to all project participants in a single system and enabling a more efficient, integrated workflow.

For CIOs within the construction sector, the use of new technology must be tempered by a few limiting factors. Perhaps the most challenging issue is the deployment and management of IT infrastructure at remote sites along with the required connectivity that can prove a logistical and support nightmare. One approach that overcomes many of these issues is the use of cloud-based solutions that move applications into a centrally-managed and provisioned core. This has the dual advantages of allowing more BYOD usage and allowing organisations to better secure data that is often needed to meet regulatory constraints such as planning and building control.

Housing supply and construction speed are complicated issues but finding better ways of working, with the help of emerging technologies like BIM and CWM systems, can help developers and others streamline many of the factors that are within their control. For the pioneer, the rewards – from competitive differentiation to increased speed to future-proofing of operations – are potentially enormous.

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