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Digital Transformation

Transforming construction performance: Five trends in the adoption of digital tools

Can cost and performance data transform construction?

Kay Pitman, Thought Leadership Specialist
15 February 2022

Collaboration, contracts and culture

Ann Bentley is Global Board Director at Rider Levett Bucknall. As she explains, the use of BIM in construction is not a consistent picture. It can vary depending on the industry and the scale of the project. In particular, the higher dimensions of BIM demand much greater collaboration, a firmer contractual structure, and considerably more investment. Industries with large investment programmes, such as infrastructure, enjoy a high take-up of BIM level 3. In contrast, projects involving building renewals, improvements and maintenance are less likely to utilise BIM level 2, unless forced to.

Although inconsistent, the adoption of BIM is growing. Companies and individuals are becoming more familiar with its capabilities. Whereas BIM level 2 provides the ability to collaborate and exchange data, the higher dimensions of BIM (level 3 and beyond) afford greater complexity, interoperability, and the use of data beyond design.

Driving the adoption of advanced digital tools

Tools such as digital twins came about very quickly. Adoption in the built environment is not in a particularly advanced state. Mohamad Kassem, Professor of Digital Construction and Engineering at Northumbria University says: ‘When it comes to construction applications, the maturity of the digital twin is low. Application of the digital twin in the built environments mostly concerns monitoring and observing the physical environment through sensors. You might find applications that are more advanced in smart buildings, smart cities or in high value sectors like energy and security. To increase adoption, the benefits of use need to be either democratised or incentivised. Action is needed by many stakeholders: technology provides, industry providers, contractors and city managers.’

From unstructured to structured data: assess, adapt and advance

George Mokhtar is Director of Technology at Turner and Townsend. He states: ‘To transfer from unstructured to structured data, you first need to understand your own level of digital maturity. You need to understand where the issues lie, and what information needs to be presented in order to provide value to the business.’ Adaptation of your business architecture, information architecture and the use applications enables your business to advance.

One barrier to advancement is behaviour and team culture. A shift in mindset is required to capitalise on advanced digital tools. Contracting parties must understand that the information they provide is part of a broader landscape of information that other parties need to find and access. Alongside data standards and governance, embedding this change in culture is essential to ensure the new way of working becomes business as usual.

Developing a data ecosystem

There’s a lot of data out there, and it’s increasing all the time. ‘Asite has been on a long journey’, explains Nathan Doughty, its CEO. ‘In the early days we were focused on document management: managing the flow of documents through the project team and supply chain. Now we use intelligent technology to derive and pull meaning out of unstructured data. But its not just about the content of the model or design, or the commercial and cost information about the design, its also around how we communicate together: using a common ontology, common standards and common parameters. You need the systems, but you also need the people and processes. The rate of innovation within BIM authoring toolsets and engineering toolsets is high. This means that any standard trying to accommodate these toolsets is going to fall to the lowest common denominator. There’s a decades long cycle going on: over the long term, BIM authoring toolsets will eventually tackle all the major problems, and the standards will catch up. In the short to medium term, and on the positive side, we are seeing a rise of ecosystems. We think of ourselves as librarians operating in this environment: enabling a common data environment and making connections across the ecosystem of information.’

Digitalisation is one group of tools that can assist with building back better, but it is not the sole solution, explains Ann. ‘Unless you have the right behaviours, ecosystems and collaboration, digitalisation will only allow you to get to a bad solution more quickly.’

Building back better means utilising the economic power of the construction industry to add wider value to society.

Ann Bentley
Global Board Director at Rider Levett Bucknall

Can digitalisation help with building back better?

Ann states: ‘Building back better means utilising the economic power of the construction industry to add wider value to society. This can be social or environmental value, or any kind of value beyond the functional performance of the asset. Digitalisation is transforming our capability to run ‘What if?’ and scenario plans. Teams of engineers and architects would take weeks to work up two or three solutions in the past. Now, a team of people can be sat together virtually, using the same compatible systems. They can run hundreds of thousands of options in the space of a workshop. You can produce a digital model that tells you what the social impact is, the environmental impact, the cost, and how much steel you need. By tying some of these dimensions together, you can suddenly see a variety of interconnected impacts. For example: you might consider changing from steel to concrete, because it improves the timescale of your project. This kind of modelling can show you that the subsequent environmental profile or social outcomes from your project would be significantly diminished. Base modelling on these components can get you a ten times better scheme for no additional cost. Once people realise that these kinds of digital tools are relatively straightforward to use, adoption rates will rise considerably.’

George agrees: ‘Over the course of the HMRC Hubs programme, we have seen considerable improvements in our understanding of outcomes from the BIM process. Within that time, the conversation in central government and the built environment sector have changed. In the past we looked at productivity, but now the relationship between digitalisation and productivity have expanded to include sustainability. We’re able to look at a variety of factors, link these through to the key objectives of the client. We’ve now got an entire ecosystem of data that is helping us to make faster and better decisions. We can better understand the time, cost and quality implications of decisions, as well as the impact on ESG and sustainability outcomes.’

From documents to structured data: Can cost and performance data transform construction?

Unstructured documentation acts as a drag on productivity and efficiency. New ways of processing data, such as the higher dimensions of BIM, provide numerous advantages to a documentation-heavy construction industry. Improvements in cost benchmarking, completion time and ESG performance are some of the benefits digitalisation brings. For an industry that has been labelled as slow to commit to new technology, how widely is structured performance data being adopted and to what degree will it revolutionise construction?