Housebuilding targets are unlikely to be met without digital innovation. A panel of leaders from clients, housebuilders and trade bodies gathered to identify the barriers to technology – and how to break them down.
“We are not behind the curve – we are not in the curve at all.”
This summed up Lovell regional operations director Mike Maxwell’s blunt assessment of the industry’s adoption of digital technologies.
“When you look at food manufacturing or retailing you realise how far we have to go. When I look at our latest crop of high-tech graduates, and their belief in the art of the possible, it’s completely different to our managing structure. There is a culture change that needs to be developed.”
His insights were among the many provided at a roundtable debate organised in collaboration with GenieBelt examining what stage residential construction is at on its digital journey.
It was a sentiment shared across a panel of experts brought together to ask how digital construction can help reach the government’s target of 300,000 homes a year and address problems such as the chronic skills shortage.
To BIM or not to BIM
According to House Builders Federation technical director Craig Ferrans, digital technologies such as building information modelling suffer from an image problem. “As soon as you say ‘BIM’, people’s eyes sort of roll over and they instantly switch off,” he suggested.
Having held the role of divisional design director at Miller Homes for 15 years prior to joining the HBF, Mr Ferrans had faced the challenges of developing digital methods in the workplace first hand.
“There is a fear in investment,” he said. “I started on the drawing board and moving to AutoCAD was a steep learning curve. When moving from a 2D geometric software package to BIM, it was like learning all over again. [At Miller] we managed to save quite a bit of money just on brochure production by using BIM.”
The HBF was working with Barratt, Cala, Miller and Redrow to drive digital adoption while pushing for further development, Mr Ferrans added. In collaboration with the Construction Products Association and external companies like BIMstore, the federation had also put together a digital construction manual to show the supply chain what level of detail and geometry is needed.
CN Geniebelt Roundtable 3
“You don’t need every fin to be modelled in every radiator for a developer to use that bit of kit,” Mr Ferrans said. “[It’s not about] reinventing the wheel, as there is a lot of information already out there. It’s really a matter of co-ordinating it and sharing it across the industry.”
Engie director of residential development James Crow suggested BIM is beginning to show promise for housebuilders. “The pace of change is phenomenal, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of what BIM can do,” he said.
“They have begun using VR combined with BIM. Looking at homes from a maintenance perspective, you can see through the walls to where the pipes are. At the moment the glasses are about £2,000 so you can’t dish them out to everybody, but it won’t be long before it’s affordable and we can send engineers out on site to do checks.”
James Pargeter, projects director at build-to-rent developer Greystar Europe Holdings, agreed: “It is the speed at which you can do things. You can try six different renders on the outside of a building and 12 different finishes in an afternoon.”
Mr Crow argued that the cost of implementing lifecycle BIM solutions, while still a barrier at present, will fall in line with most emerging technologies.
Thinking long term
For housebuilders that are not willing to wait for a price drop, a guaranteed market is another factor that can drive innovation. Private rented sector homes are beginning to deliver lifecycle options for housebuilders that justify extra investment in their construction.
As one of the largest operators of rented housing in the US and now a major developer in Croydon, Greystar saw the benefits of digital solutions for long-term asset management, Mr Pargeter emphasised. “If a home is going to be a managed asset for decades, you need it to be reliable and durable, but still appealing. And we need to be customer-focused and [responsive] to those needs and trends.”
On the UK front, Lovell’s Mr Maxwell pointed out how student accommodation developer Unite Students carved out a long-term secure income that justified bringing in new technologies such as offsite manufacturing. “What you need is surety of your market,” he said. “If you take Unite’s student dwellings, a factory could feed that market and put it in a prime position.”
A visible pipeline of work is the crucial factor, he explained. “If you are doing a one-off project here and there, it is much harder to justify that kind of investment.”
Cost was recognised as only one barrier to digital adoption. For digital technologies to truly become ubiquitous on housebuilding sites, the panel agreed the industry had to adopt techniques up and down the supply chain and take on risk.
Golden Houses Developments director Monika Slowikowska acknowledged that the sector needed to open up and think about risk management if it was truly going to innovate.
“We are trained to be safe […] building such an unsafe and risky item such as a house, we act more like banks and we do not innovate,” she argued. “We don’t think about the customer; almost every other industry in the world is customer-driven. We seem to be building in isolation and we may soon be surprised to find that clients turn around and say, ‘I don’t want that’.”
Ms Slowikowska’s fears were widely shared, with several panellists highlighting that the industry was struggling to shake off its siloed reputation.
Look beyond IP
Sharing innovation represented an equally frustrating challenge.
Wayne Hill is construction services director, development and sales at housing association L&Q. He told the panel about a visit to one of the regional centres of Catapult, an initiative set up by Innovate UK to bring business together with academia and provide facilities and expertise for innovation.
Mr Hill saw how the manufacturing sector had adopted a different attitude to intellectual property rights, relying instead on driving innovation to keep a competitive advantage. “In their sector there is no IP; by the time you’ve built it the sector has moved on anyway. They are a much more well-oiled machine,” he said.
CN Geniebelt Roundtable 4
“Manufacturers don’t worry about IP anymore; they plough on with innovation. [It’s said] they get two to three years of commercial advantage at best, before competitors pick it up. We try to convince those we work with to relax their guard a bit on IP and that it would accelerate things, but they worry about it [too much].”
GenieBelt chief executive Ulrik Branner explained that, as a software company, it decided not to place an emphasis on defending IP: “We have put maybe eight or nine years into developing our platform so far, but we don’t have any IP – it’s a waste of time. For us we wouldn’t be able to keep up fast enough with different courts around the world to defend it.”
Can the housebuilding and construction industries be convinced to relax – to share innovation and data with rivals?
The technology sector provides a precedent for how construction firms can bridge the gap and create trust. L&Q’s Mr Hill pointed out that it took tech firms decades to learn that having compatible software would be advantageous. “They realised they gained market share by having compatible software. It took them years to learn that, but once they did it took off,” he said.
Ms Slowikowska believed the approach had the ability to kick-start growth in the sector if adopted properly. “It’s all about open-source information, collaboration and doing it together, and that level of trust which is most present in other industries has created that exponential growth that we don’t have,” she said.
“We are trained to be protective; we work with lawyers all the time to protect our own interests. We are creating a situation where we play the blame card. That doesn’t [inspire] us to have courage to come together to share. We are so fear-driven as an industry that it impedes our growth.”
The manufacturing sector has long been envied for the speed and efficiency of its operations. Mr Hill argued that construction should take on board the efficiencies of scale that come with mass production.
“We are in our infancy in terms of the sophistication of how our supply chain works,” he said. “We are very siloed – someone solves a problem but then forgets to tell people round them; they never get to the end and say, ‘Who wants to see my solution?’”
Other areas of construction such as public procurement have seen collaboration at the forefront of stated policy. One of the aims of the government’s Level 2 BIM mandate, introduced in April 2016, was to ensure the industry adopted more collaborative ways of working on centrally procured projects. However, housebuilding tends to sit outside those areas – at least at present.
CN Geniebelt Roundtable 5
Robertson Group preconstruction director Mike King suggested the BIM mandate for central government work had helped generate innovation. “Other countries such as the US are looking on enviously that we have promoted a standardisation [with BIM] and may find that there is only so far they can go [with their non-mandated digital adoption]. We have probably done the more painful side of our digital journey, but hopefully the benefits will be greater.”
He added that the Scottish Government had helped push the digital agenda with funding and grants. “We were fortunate to get access to innovation funds. It’s helping businesses like ours [develop] digital capability, and make strategic decisions on how it would help our business. The worry I have though is that I am not seeing colleges or the CITB help bring the training through for the next wave of growth.”
National Federation of Builders head of policy Paul Bogle argued that, rather than wait for government legislation to provide the required impetus, contractual conditions offered a tool for defining the project and helping parties engage and embrace digital enablement.
“Everything starts with a contract,” he said. “It sets the tone of the relationship, the risk in the supply chain, and determines how much money you will make and how much exposure you have taken on.”
Mr King highlighted that the construction sector had multiple generations of employees working side by side, all of whom had learned their trade in different eras and boasted different skills.
CN Geniebelt Roundtable 2
If digital adoption was to be widely adopted, he argued, then it must be understood by those across the generational spectrum, which meant boards needed to be sold on the benefits. “You have to get digital products into a language people understand. People will fundamentally recognise something that will add value, but the message [to them] has to be right.”
Innovation can only take companies so far on its own, GenieBelt UK managing director Jason Ruddle cautioned. If any plan to revolutionise construction with digital innovation was to succeed, then communication would be crucial, he added. “We all have mobile phones, but if you look at the common apps that changed our lives, they are simple communication tools which have taken a global approach.
“Digital tools can be as complex as we like, but unless you grasp the basics of talking, communicating and sharing data, we’ll be discussing the same points in 10 years’ time.”