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A 3D simulated day in the life of a site manager

When Daniel Kemp visited the construction simulation centre at Coventry University Technology Park he experienced a more hands-on training experience than he’d expected.

I look through the plans on my desk. I try to decipher them, completing the tasks I’ve been set.

There’s a knock on the door. It’s a salesman. “Hello!” he says. “John told me I could pop by whenever I’m in the area.”

I’m standing in for John, the usual site manager, who’s phoned in sick today. I try to tell the man that I don’t want to buy his lights, that I don’t have any buying responsibility.

“He’s angry because he works nights and a generator is keeping him awake during the day. I now have two people to deal with at once”

But he keeps pushing. He’s a time-waster. And my ability to deal with him quickly and return to the real task at hand on the building site is what’s being tested.

He keeps talking. I keep politely replying that I don’t want his lights. And then, just when I think I’m about to get rid of him, an angry local resident bursts in, shouting and swearing.

He’s angry because he works nights and a generator is keeping him awake during the day. I now have two people to deal with at once.

But I’m not a site manager. I begin to sweat.

Simulating construction

This is one of the scenarios I face in the Simulation Centre at Coventry University Technology Park. The centre is run by Acua Solutions, a group company of Coventry University.

The centre was opened in 2008 with the backing of the construction industry and is the only one of its kind in the UK. There are only two others in the rest of the world.

Inside the simulation centre there are site cabins stacked one on top of the other. Each of these cabins is an individual site manager’s office, meaning that groups of up to 12 trainees can enter the simulation at any one time, all acting as managers.

“In walks a site labourer, holding an empty carton of milk. ‘It’s happened again, hasn’t it?’ he says”

Downstairs, there’s a 16 ft-wide screen. This displays an extremely detailed and realistic rendering of a construction site in 3D.

Trainees can navigate around the site using a joystick in front of the screen, passing through walls and windows as they look for snags and problems. The control method makes it feel like a computer game to an outsider, but it all has a real-world purpose.

As I watch someone navigate the site, I notice people wandering in and out of the cabins. These are actors, who go in and talk to trainees to present them with problems they might face out on a real site, testing how they would react.

The control room is the heart of the centre, where all the trainees’ moves are monitored.

The operators are able to focus on any one cabin when they choose. They make unannounced calls to the trainees pretending to be subcontractors or suppliers, as well as fielding calls when they encounter a problem.

In at the deep end

After a look around, it’s my turn. Janet Campbell heads up Acua Solutions’ construction and property operations. She tells me to don my high-vis jacket and hard hat and await further instructions.

Like all the trainees, I’m given a sheet of paper with a list of tasks on it. This is to be completed throughout the session and is entirely separate from the unexpected scenarios that might be thrown up.

For my entry-level course, I have to identify which plots on the site are bungalows, and which houses have parking outside, among other more complicated things.

Stolen milk

After a couple of minutes, there is a knock on the door. In walks a site labourer, holding an empty carton of milk. “It’s happened again, hasn’t it?” he says. Apparently his milk keeps getting stolen from the site fridge.

This is a test of how I deal with staff concerns. I assure him the milk will be replaced, we’ll make it clear stealing isn’t allowed and that we’ll try to sort out some other arrangements for his milk in future.

“That’s the difference between this and other ‘talk and chalk’ training – it’s a deeper and quicker immersion”

Jeannine Mortlock, Acua Solutions

Within a couple of minutes of him leaving, the salesman enters, followed closely by the angry local resident.

The resident shouts at me, venting his frustrations. I explain that we have to keep the generator on to power the site, but that I’m very sorry and will take his concerns on board.

The man eventually leaves, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve really placated him and I realise how difficult it is for site managers to keep everybody happy.

After all the actors leave, I then get a phone call telling me a crucial delivery is going to be six weeks late due to a materials shortage.

“That’s not really acceptable – I’ll need those materials to keep the programme on schedule,” I explain. “Well, sorry about that. They won’t be delivered on time,” says the person from the tiling company.

Now I’m stumped. How do I resolve a problem like this? I don’t know what to do next.

Valuable feedback

Thankfully, I don’t have to think for too long. My session ends when Ms Campbell enters the cabin.

In the next part of the session the actors feed back to the trainees, telling them how they felt in each situation and what was done well or badly.

I’m told I actually did pretty well. I could have been a bit friendlier initially and could have tried to offer people a seat every time, but allowing the angry local to vent instead of trying to argue back was the right thing to do.

“We’ve already had 112 site managers and assistant site managers go through the simulation”

Jane Gadsby, Bloor Homes

The client on the day of my visit is national housebuilder Bloor Homes, whose HR manager Jane Gadsby tells me the training is “radically different” to what the company did before.

“The feedback from our staff has been superb,” she says. “It’s very intensive but very valuable.”

Cost and availability

The question of cost is an important one, with the price running to thousands of pounds per day.

A local business owner tells me it is difficult for smaller businesses to use the facility, partly because of the cost, but also because it is often block-booked by large organisations.

Acua Solutions managing director Jeannine Mortlock acknowledges that the cost is significant, but explains why she thinks the training is unique.

“You really live your learning here,” she says. “That’s the difference between this and other ‘talk and chalk’ training – it’s a deeper and quicker immersion.”

Ms Mortlock also explains that they are looking to deal with the other criticism by holding SME days where multiple smaller companies will be able to book slots for individual staff, rather than having to pay for the entire facility at once.

It’s an enlightening day for me; in a short period of time, I come away with some idea of what a site manager has to deal with on a daily basis – a wide range of very distinct and unexpected problems, alongside the usual day-to-day issues of running a live construction site.

It’s not an easy job.

“We’ve already had 112 site managers and assistant site managers go through the simulation,” Ms Gadsby says. “And we’re planning to come back again in future.”

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