Future Proof

When those with construction experience and expertise meet those with digital know-how, amazing things can happen says David Adams

 

The digital revolution is often compared to the industrial revolution because of its gradual, uneven process of change. Digital technologies have already transformed other industry sectors at pace, but the built environment sector markedly lags behind. The speed at which digital technologies become part of mainstream practice within these industries will be determined to a great extent by the work of the universities and colleges training the next generation of building engineers. The success of their training, then the enthusiasm and aptitude for using technologies such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), drones, virtual and augmented reality, next generation imaging, 3D printing, AI or robotics in the workplace will play a crucial role in determining the speed of adoption. However, are they being given the opportunity to put technology to use in the workplace and are the universities preparing them for what that really means?

Aled Williams, Director of Research, Innovation and Partnerships at the University College of Estate Management (UCEM), thinks one of the most important lessons students should learn about these technologies is that they can help different disciplines within the construction industry, and related industries, to collaborate more effectively. For an industry historically used to working in silos, this is a significant change.

“Students should be aware of new technologies and how they might impact on their work in future, but it’s also about being able to apply these technologies in practice, in a multi-disciplinary way,” he says. “Collaboration is key; being able to collaborate not just digitally, but also in terms of realising efficiencies, so we can use new technology to be transformative. It’s about using that technology to utilise interdisciplinary understanding and working. The industry is moving towards a whole-life approach to projects, in order to extract maximum value from the adoption of new technologies.” The import is clear: unless students are able to comprehend the multi-disciplinary, whole-life approach then they could end up operating in a digital silo themselves.

Must do better

BIM is the digital technology that has attracted the most attention and resources. But Geoffrey Makstutis, Lead in Construction, Art and Design and Creative Media Production at Pearson UK, thinks academic treatment of BIM needs to improve. He complains that the technology is too often treated as a powerful computer-aided design (CAD) software, rather than a collaborative, data analysis tool that can change the way industries approach construction and engineering projects. “It’s a much more fundamental shift in the whole construction process, using data to influence the entire construction and operation cycle. Use of data to drive, optimise and bring efficiency to design, construction and operations is where BIM has the greatest significance. It’s not yet really being taught
in that way.”

Dr Ramesh Marasini, Associate Head of School and Programme Lead in Engineering and the Built Environment at Buckinghamshire New University, also believes BIM has overshadowed some other digital technologies in academia because it has become a buzzword in the industry. He’d like to see a more comprehensive framework for digital skills and competencies within academia that relate in a practical way to the industry. A good example of this is the Higher Diploma in Engineering in Building Information Modelling taught at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT). Dr Mark Kelly, Lecturer in the department of Building and Structural Engineering notes that this flexible course is designed for individuals who are already in the workplace, so can help new and much more experienced personnel to develop a high level of competency in use of the technology and a clear understanding of the BIM process. It was developed in partnership with RPS Group to ensure it meets industry needs. “It’s constantly evolving in response to what industry wants,” says Kelly. “The Institute aims to use BIM as a way of helping students in construction management, architecture, civil engineering, quantity surveying and construction economics to work more collaboratively.”

The Institute is also developing a BIM Future Toolkit: a professional development capacity framework for students, staff and industry stakeholders working with BIM. The long-term aim is to develop a coherent BIM educational framework that would support all industry stakeholders in their transition towards a digitally-enabled collaborative working environment. Kelly says this is important because BIM is not yet deeply embedded in the curriculum, anywhere.

“Use of data to drive, optimise and bring efficiency to design, construction and operations is where BIM has the greatest significance”

When those with construction experience and expertise meet those with digital know-how, amazing things can happen says David Adams

The digital revolution is often compared to the industrial revolution because of its gradual, uneven process of change. Digital technologies have already transformed other industry sectors at pace, but the built environment sector markedly lags behind. The speed at which digital technologies become part of mainstream practice within these industries will be determined to a great extent by the work of the universities and colleges training the next generation of building engineers. The success of their training, then the enthusiasm and aptitude for using technologies such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), drones, virtual and augmented reality, next generation imaging, 3D printing, AI or robotics in the workplace will play a crucial role in determining the speed of adoption. However, are they being given the opportunity to put technology to use in the workplace and are the universities preparing them for what that really means?

Aled Williams, Director of Research, Innovation and Partnerships at the University College of Estate Management (UCEM), thinks one of the most important lessons students should learn about these technologies is that they can help different disciplines within the construction industry, and related industries, to collaborate more effectively. For an industry historically used to working in silos, this is a significant change.

“Students should be aware of new technologies and how they might impact on their work in future, but it’s also about being able to apply these technologies in practice, in a multi-disciplinary way,” he says. “Collaboration is key; being able to collaborate not just digitally, but also in terms of realising efficiencies, so we can use new technology to be transformative. It’s about using that technology to utilise interdisciplinary understanding and working. The industry is moving towards a whole-life approach to projects, in order to extract maximum value from the adoption of new technologies.” The import is clear: unless students are able to comprehend the multi-disciplinary, whole-life approach then they could end up operating in a digital silo themselves.

Must do better

BIM is the digital technology that has attracted the most attention and resources. But Geoffrey Makstutis, Lead in Construction, Art and Design and Creative Media Production at Pearson UK, thinks academic treatment of BIM needs to improve. He complains that the technology is too often treated as a powerful computer-aided design (CAD) software, rather than a collaborative, data analysis tool that can change the way industries approach construction and engineering projects. “It’s a much more fundamental shift in the whole construction process, using data to influence the entire construction and operation cycle. Use of data to drive, optimise and bring efficiency to design, construction and operations is where BIM has the greatest significance. It’s not yet really being taught
in that way.”

Dr Ramesh Marasini, Associate Head of School and Programme Lead in Engineering and the Built Environment at Buckinghamshire New University, also believes BIM has overshadowed some other digital technologies in academia because it has become a buzzword in the industry. He’d like to see a more comprehensive framework for digital skills and competencies within academia that relate in a practical way to the industry. A good example of this is the Higher Diploma in Engineering in Building Information Modelling taught at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT). Dr Mark Kelly, Lecturer in the department of Building and Structural Engineering notes that this flexible course is designed for individuals who are already in the workplace, so can help new and much more experienced personnel to develop a high level of competency in use of the technology and a clear understanding of the BIM process. It was developed in partnership with RPS Group to ensure it meets industry needs. “It’s constantly evolving in response to what industry wants,” says Kelly. “The Institute aims to use BIM as a way of helping students in construction management, architecture, civil engineering, quantity surveying and construction economics to work more collaboratively.”

The Institute is also developing a BIM Future Toolkit: a professional development capacity framework for students, staff and industry stakeholders working with BIM. The long-term aim is to develop a coherent BIM educational framework that would support all industry stakeholders in their transition towards a digitally-enabled collaborative working environment. Kelly says this is important because BIM is not yet deeply embedded in the curriculum, anywhere.

Other technologies

It is fair to say that none can match the profile BIM has within built environment-related departments in academia, but other digital technologies are being used to some extent by students. For example, the University of Wolverhampton is among those offering commercial drone flying courses, certified by the Civil Aviation Authority, providing practical support to companies that might wish to use drones to inspect construction sites or existing built assets using drones. Uses of virtual reality and augmented reality are also becoming more widespread in universities and colleges as the cost of the equipment falls. Dr Emmajane Mantle, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Computing, Engineering and Science at the University of South Wales, describes the quantity surveying and project management students she teaches using virtual reality headsets alongside BIM software to create buildings in a virtual environment. “They get to walk around the site so they can get a feel for the size of the area and what’s around; they can walk around their building and they can analyse their models and those of other students,” she explains.

Makstutis suspects use of some technologies, such as large-scale 3D printing, will remain limited for the time being, largely because of the expense involved. He acknowledges that although larger academic institutions are better placed to acquire these
cutting-edge technologies and bring their use into the curriculum, other institutions may struggle.

Some potential opportunities do exist via apprenticeships, he notes, for students to gain experience of new technologies in the workplace, rather than the classroom.

It’s a frustration to most in education – they see the opportunities, but the rate of adoption and the creation of an integrated curriculum for teaching the use of technology is slow. As Marasini notes, building engineers need to be taught more digital skills, but the teaching and learning is still based on traditional approaches. “We should be developing more courses.”

Industry alignment

Buckinghamshire New University is currently developing a BSc in building and construction engineering, which will be based on core teaching elements driven by digital technologies. The university is consulting CABE on its development to ensure it is aligned with the needs of industry. John Barfoot, Learning, Education and Academic Director at CABE, emphasises the importance of this. “Universities and employers must work together more closely so that universities can address the problems industry faces every day,” he says.

“We need to look at how digital technologies can solve everyday construction problems.”

Dr Paul Hampton, Associate Head of the School of Architecture and the Built Environment at the University of Wolverhampton agrees, he notes that those with IT or scientific backgrounds will look at things in a different way, “The new skills are more analytical and this is exactly what the built environment needs.”  Dr Talib Butt, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Engineering and Environment at Northumbria University, highlights the role CABE and other professional bodies can play in linking the content of academic and vocational courses to the needs of industry. “Professional bodies like CABE are bridging the gap between industry and academia.” However, he points out that there needs to be more collaboration to organise productive work placements for students. “When it comes to placing students in industry, be it undergraduates or post-graduates, I think there is room for professional bodies like CABE to come forward and say to the university, ‘Here are opportunities in such and such a company that is using BIM etc’,” he says. Marasini agrees: “There is a lot of emphasis on work experience, but I haven’t seen a lot of opportunities where students will be exposed to digital skills.”

Image crisis

“Use of digital technologies is changing the image of a building engineer from being an on-site, boots and hard- hat job,” says CABE’s John Barfoot. “We are attracting young people who are digital natives and are excited about what’s on the computer screen.” There is no denying that construction has been declining for a long time in terms of young people seeing it as an opportunity, or even as exciting.

As Makstutis points out: “It’s seen as being dirty, difficult and not inclusive.”

He suggests that one way to address those challenges is to talk about where the industry is going in the future – linked to how these technologies are being used. “We’re talking about jobs that are not just about understanding construction technology but are about understanding the role of data in an organisation. You’re going to see an increasing need for people who understand how to generate BIM data, but you also see a need for people who understand how to extract information from data in order to use it in different ways. These new roles can start to bring different kinds of people into the industry. If you’re working with data you don’t have to assume that you’re going to be on site with a bunch of middle-aged white men in high-vis tabards. The industry needs people with highly specialised, office-based skills and this is likely to be a much more diverse group.”

Research studies show that that a diverse workforce is a more profitable one: people tend to stay longer and the organisation better reflects the society in which it operates so it makes more accurate decisions to serve that society, which brings more business. Makstutis points out that attracting a diverse group of people to fill those skills gaps will never happen until the industry takes a different approach to recruitment, interviewing and the job roles themselves.

Worryingly, Mantle points out that using new technology alone will not attract more women to the industry, for example, and hasn’t yet seen much sign of a major shift in the gender mix of her students. “Use of computer software and VR is opening doors to people with different interests, but I think as an industry we’ve still got the image of ‘I’ve got to get my hands dirty’ – which isn’t the case.”

Opportunity knocks

Even if universities and colleges are training students to use these technologies, many who graduate find themselves working for firms that have yet to start using them. However, this may create opportunities for new graduates, says Hampton. “A lot of graduates, because they are the only individual in an organisation with the skillset in BIM, are actually becoming department leads for BIM in those organisations,” he explains.

Barfoot sees similar trends. “In smaller practices it’s students who will be able to embed [new technology] and encourage the older engineers to look at the benefits of digital,” he says. “Often, graduates are seen as being full of knowledge but having no practicality, but in the digital age they can encourage the use of these tools. The value of having a graduate able to use that technology in practice – that’s where real money starts being saved.”

Mantle agrees. She recalls her own early career, where she took knowledge of 3D CAD into the first architectural practice where she worked; and wonders if this process might be even more powerful in future, as students from Generation Y and Generation Z, true digital natives, enter workplaces.

Existing and highly experienced workers shouldn’t feel marginalised because they aren’t digital natives, however. Williams says the industry needs to create a culture based on lifelong learning and continuous improvement throughout a career that may last for 40 years, requiring upskilling or reskilling. Makstutis is hoping education and training providers will be able to develop more computer-based training materials to help reskill the existing workforce. He believes professional bodies have an important role to play here too, promoting CPD by requiring people to keep topping up their expertise to retain professional accreditations.

Technology brings individual benefits too, as Barfoot points out. A shift to make more use of digital technologies could help those who are no longer able to do physically demanding jobs. “This could be very useful for people who have got to a point where they don’t want to go up and down ladders, or they’re unable to make site visits,” he says. “Older, less mobile, or maybe disabled people, can do more work that’s technology-based. Because there is always that need for the expert eye on the data that’s gathered.”

So what’s the delay?

“Everyone understands we need to use the digital technologies, but the uptake has been slow,” says Marasini. “Few companies are using BIM – 95% of SMEs are not using it. The integrated effort is
not there. We’re using some of these technologies but in isolation.”

Hampton agrees that industry needs to use academia to drive some of these things forward, but academia needs to listen to industry too. “[Using the technology] has to stack up financially for companies or they won’t engage.” He believes one other stakeholder may also need to declare an active interest to help drive firms to start using these technologies – the client. Their willingness to support the adoption
of new technology would be a significant driver.

As Butt notes, this will all take time because “Nobody prefers change”, but the change is necessary. “The bottom line is that we need these technologies and we need the people who can operate these technologies,” says Makstutis, “We need to leverage the efficiencies, the optimisations these technologies can offer in order to maintain the output of the construction sector. These questions are not just at the fringes of the industry. This is at the heart of where the industry needs to move to.”

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