2020 was a tumultuous year in construction – and the UK as a whole. But infrastructure is at the heart of the government’s plans to build back better, faster and greener, according to the recently released Construction Playbook.
However, the construction industry faces well-known challenges, from high levels of risk to low productivity and ongoing safety challenges. Through the Construction Playbook, the government has come together with industry to outline a strategy to drive reform in public sector projects and the sector as a whole.
The 14 key policies – summarised in the infographic below – aim to not only improve the delivery of infrastructure, but create an industry that’s more productive, innovative and sustainable. The reforms are wide reaching, from improving planning and mitigating risk to encouraging the use of off-site manufacturing.
There will need to be significant changes to the ways that both public sector owners and construction firms operate. But importantly, technology that’s already widely available can help both owners and construction businesses to deliver on the vision of the playbook, and create a stronger industry in the process.
Better planning for better results
Planning, including design and preconstruction, often determines the overall success of a construction project. But throughout the industry, mistakes are common; 86% of main contractors and 78% of subcontractors admit that errors are routinely made during tendering that impact the project down the line.
Many of the policies in the Construction Playbook promote closer, earlier collaboration between the public sector and the supply chain – from defining project outcomes to identifying the best delivery models. Digital technology can also play a key role in make planning more collaborative and data-driven.
Information-sharing platforms, that allow stakeholders to review and feedback on designs, can help multiple participants to contribute to plans. Moreover, tools like context modelling can help procurement teams and designers explore the optimal solution to infrastructure needs – balancing sustainability considerations whilst also preserving areas of natural beauty.
With generative design tools such as Spacemaker, teams can also consider different options for redesigning or developing the wider built environment in ways that meet societal needs.
During the preconstruction phase, data insights can be used to support accurate costing, appropriate delivery times and the selection of the right contractors for the job – ultimately enabling procurement teams to make the decisions that will set the infrastructure projects up for success.
Supporting the adoption of digital technology
Using digital technology, from design through to operations, can hold significant benefits for public sector projects. Information-sharing platforms such as the Autodesk Construction Cloud can help teams to eliminate errors during construction, provide greater transparency as work is completed and deliver as-built digital records for ongoing management.
However, today it can be difficult for construction firms to invest in technologies, particularly when margins are tight. Although technology will improve productivity rapidly, it can be hard to demonstrate sufficient return on investment on a single project to justify the initial outlay – and if tools aren’t specified by the client, it can be tempting to delay.
Slow adoption, however, is never a good strategy; it’s important that organisations continually assess the potential of digital tools to help them be more productive, better engage with other project parties and attract new talent.
Positively, several policies in the Construction Playbook aim to support businesses in the adoption of digital technology. Sharing central government’s commercial pipeline and offering longer term contracting would look to provide firms with greater certainty about what’s ahead, and the confidence to make investments. And as businesses adopt more digital tools, it will be even easier for the supply chain to share information with public sector clients – for greater trust and collaboration.
The policy for embedding digital technologies also calls on contracting authorities to adopt the UK BIM Framework. This is a positive step for safeguarding the quality of the information being shared – and ensuring that data can be managed using consistent standards by many different technologies and multiple stakeholders throughout assets’ lifespans.
Finally, technology can support another key objective of the Construction Playbook: protecting the safety and wellbeing of construction employees. Many digital tools are available to support on-site safety. Employees can use virtual reality to explore 3D BIM models, to become familiar with the site layout and hazards before arriving.
Digital safety checklists can be accessed on-site through tools like the Autodesk Construction Cloud to ensure that everyone has seen the appropriate guidance. Video and the Internet of Things can help to automate and verify the safety of employees remotely – and over time, machine learning can help to improve this process to create a safer industry.
Improving information-sharing and data-driven decision-making
A key advantage of increasing digital adoption throughout the construction industry is the opportunity for public sector owners to access and make greater use of data. The Construction Playbook underlines the importance of using past data in decision-making, whether it’s benchmarking what assets should cost or determining the most appropriate delivery models.
Data on existing assets can help to shape planning considerations for new assets, by calculating whole life costs and overall value. Public sector owners can start by making use of the quality legacy data that they do have, such as valid GIS data. For example, a university might have information on its existing real-estate, such as how much a building costs to operate and how often repairs are required, which can help to inform and guide future investments.
Moreover as owners increase the quality and coverage of their datasets, emerging capabilities such as machine learning or artificial intelligence may be able to inform on pending asset maintenance issues or even advise on recommended improvements.
Strong digital records are also core to ensuring the quality and safety of public sector assets. Maintaining a golden thread of information, from design through to operations, is set to become a legislative requirement following the Building a Safer Future report, so embedding this throughout public sector procurement is a positive step.
Going forward, the public sector should look to take greater ownership of its data, with the support of the industry. And as better digital records are built, forecasting becomes more accurate and confident – ultimately bringing an end to finger in the air assessments.
Driving the adoption of prefabrication & productisation
This year has underlined the transformative potential of innovative construction methodologies. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, prefabrication has helped to deliver hospitals rapidly and reliably. Moving forward, prefabrication can help to improve the productivity and safety of the industry, but currently procurement processes can hinder the adoption of these kinds of methods.
It can be difficult to directly compare costs for manufactured components with traditionally contracted services. Owners frequently request relatively bespoke assets – which aren’t cost efficient for either party. Overall, 26% of owners and 24% of contractors agree that procurement processes are a blocker to the wider adoption of innovative construction methods like off-site manufacturing.
Amy Marks, Head of Industrialized Construction & Evangelism at Autodesk, explains, “Traditional construction processes aren’t designed to enable the use of prefabrication, including in the public sector. We’ll need architects and designers to move away from stick designing to element-centric design, main contractors able to act as integrators and a greater number of subcontractors evolving to become manufacturers. But all that has to start with the request from owners – in this case, the government.”
The Construction Playbook includes a number of policies that will help to proliferate prefabrication in the public sector. Engaging with the market early will enable projects and programmes to incorporate the methodology in specifications.
The policy for harmonising demand across projects through increased levels of productisation also advocates the creation of standard components in public sector infrastructure, which could be anything from ceilings through to whole rooms. This could significantly increase both productivity and cost-efficiency across the public sector, helping investments to go further.
As Amy explains, “Prefabrication offers benefits for everyone in the construction ecosystem. It’s not about simply cutting costs, but gaining greater certainty over the schedule, budget and outcome of the build. As well as a site that’s cleaner, safer and more predictable, prefab gives owners the opportunity to commoditize individual elements of buildings, just like the equipment inside them. There are huge gains to be made throughout public sector infrastructure, and it’s really great to see the UK government advocating this approach.”
Making construction a less risky business
A long-standing challenge throughout the construction industry is the level of risk associated with project delivery – including in the public sector. Construction businesses often feel that they are asked to assume extremely high levels of risk for the progression of a project. Meanwhile, for the public sector the failure of construction businesses can have huge implications for the delivery of assets, as underlined by the challenges of the Carillion collapse in 2018.
A number of the policies outlined by the Construction Playbook aim to address the balance of risk on public sector projects, from assessing the financial standing of suppliers to ensuring that businesses aren’t expected to take on unfair levels of risk.
But digital technology, and particularly data analysis, can also help to mitigate the levels of risk for everyone involved. Construction networks like BuildingConnected can provide owners with the data and insight to fully qualify suppliers, from their financial solvency to their capabilities. This significantly changes the risk profile of projects. In the US, some insurance firms are even providing Autodesk’s BuildingConnected free of charge to their customers as they are confident the technology enhances the management of subcontractor risk.
Equally, using technology to capture many aspects of project performance can enable public sector owners to consider different payment models – based on quality and productivity, for example. This will in turn help to end the “race to the bottom” in public sector procurement, and ensure that the construction industry is financially sustainable in the long-term.
Achieving the Construction Playbook’s vision
The recommendations of the Construction Playbook are extremely positive. As an industry, we’ve already seen that standards can ingrain better practice across the sector, and now those practices are being embedded in public sector procurement.
But it’s true that we’ll need to change to achieve the vision of the playbook. For public sector owners, it will be vital to build up understanding and confidence when it comes to using technology. Digital tools are now available that are both powerful and easy to use. If procurement teams can make use of technology themselves and demand the same of their suppliers, this will support better planning and build greater data ownership in government.
For the supply chain, it will also be important to increase investment in technology, coupled with training of staff in its use with a focus to capture and record better quality data.. Digital tools will rapidly move from a nice to have to a necessity in public sector projects, so it’s vital to look ahead and prepare.
Ultimately, as both asset owners and construction firms, it’s important to see these recommendations as a benefit, not a burden. The government and industry have come together to address long-standing challenges – and ultimately, these changes will improve our infrastructure and our industry in the long-term, so that everyone wins.
Read more about why connected procurement lays the foundation for construction success in our new report.