“If there has ever been a moment to step up efforts to invest and innovate, surely this is it?” – Mark Farmer
Following the tragic events at Grenfell Tower in June 2017, there was an intense sense of shock and even disbelief across the UK construction industry. Within a short timeframe, it was evident there had been a serious failing in safety processes on the building that rendered the usual advice for residents to stay in their flats fundamentally unsafe.
It was almost unthinkable that this should happen at a residential building that had been constructed in 1974 but refurbished as recently as 2016. However, the subsequent Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety by Dame Judith Hackitt has indicated that far from being a one-off, Grenfell has highlighted wider failings in construction safety processes–and shortcomings in the overarching culture of the industry.
Construction has been described as adversarial and opaque, with safety compromised by poor information-sharing and a lack of transparency. While that’s certainly not true at all firms, it’s evident that fundamental changes are needed in the industry.
Following the Hackitt Review, there will be a significant regulatory change for construction firms working on high rise residential buildings (HRRBs). But change shouldn’t only be about meeting these new rules. Critically, this is an opportunity for firms themselves to show leadership, by using technology to address previous failings and deliver culture change. So how can technology help to ensure that the events like the Grenfell Tower aren’t ever repeated–and change the future of the industry?
1. Transforming Safety Checks
Construction businesses will contribute to the evolution of safety checks on HRRBs. The fire at Grenfell Tower exposed serious issues with the previous system of checks, including an overreliance on self-compliance and issues with record-keeping. The extent of this problem is shown by the fact that even today, inspectors are struggling to identify which other high-rise buildings across the country contain the same materials as Grenfell.
The Hackitt Review has called for a new regulatory system, with checks conducted by a Joint Competent Authority at four Gateway Points during the building process. There will also be an overhaul of the record-keeping system.
Construction firms will be responsible for delivering four information products fundamental to guaranteeing the safety of a site:
- The digital record
- Fire and emergency file
- Full plans
- Construction control plan
These records should be digital by default, held in an open, non-proprietary format.
With these changes coming into place, construction firms have an opportunity to use digital tools to meet regulations and dramatically improve their overall record-keeping. It’s possible to track approvals and inspections electronically throughout the building process, with records of materials used that can be checked at any time later.
By using cloud-based construction software this data is accessible and shareable in an open format, making it available to all project stakeholders. For example, some users of construction software use the platform to record fire stopping records, and owners of building assets ensure their facilities maintenance teams have digital plans and documentation accessible offline for emergency preparedness and maintenance. Construction businesses can adopt a digital-first approach to safety checks, to create a more collaborative, robust and effective process.
2. A Culture of Collaboration
Another contributor to safety shortcoming in construction was found to be problems with collaboration. Building projects frequently involve multiple parties, including contractors, subcontractors and specialists. However, on many occasions, the industry’s culture can be confrontational, rather than collaborative.
A recent report, Digital Foundations, found that half of businesses say that conflict resolution is the biggest drain on their time. This adversarial culture has compromised building safety, with firms focusing on protecting themselves from risk rather than necessarily prioritising the overall safety of the project.
Information sharing between partners on-site is often hindered by a reliance on paper documentation, with changes taking days to be communicated to other parties. The overall result has been a lack of transparency between firms working on a project.
Another major recommendation of the Hackitt Review is that risk should be shared to tackle this adversarial attitude. By utilising construction productivity software, companies can support collaboration at every stage of construction, from ensuring that everyone is working off the same set of plans to assigning responsibility for issues management.
Technology can improve transparency and deliver one version of the truth for all parties. It can also facilitate better collaboration throughout the building process, delivering the more productive relationships between firms that will be critical to a building’s future.
3. A New Class of Digital Handovers
The life of a building extends far beyond the building process; in fact, 98% of a building’s costs are in its maintenance and upkeep, as opposed to its initial development. However, Grenfell Tower highlighted a significant issue: the owners of buildings are frequently left without accurate information on the buildings they have commissioned.
The plans handed over on completion of a project can sometimes fail to be an accurate representation of what’s actually there, as a result of the many changes made during the building process. Records may also fail to be comprehensive, with an average of 30% of data lost by the handover stage.
Importantly, information may be held in a proprietary format by construction firms, rather than the parties who will be responsible for the long-term operation of the asset. As the Grenfell Tower tragedy highlighted, in the event of an incident, poor access to the data can have catastrophic consequences.
There is a new impetus in the industry, as owners demand a better quality of handover and more control of the information on a building that they have ultimately funded. Using digital technology can not only make it easier for firms to record and deliver data in the field but it also creates a competitive advantage in the very quality of that handover.
Construction technology can enable firms to capture rich information in the field, for a comprehensive as-built record that’s easy for clients to use. By delivering a new class of digital handover, construction companies can meet client needs and distinguish themselves.
4. The Productivity Pay-Off
Post-Grenfell, there are calls for construction to move away from a focus on cost-cutting or value-engineering. Dame Judith Hackitt has called for a new era of quality in construction and an end to the “race to the bottom.”
New process improvements shouldn’t be delivered by cost-cutting elsewhere, but root and branch reform that delivers real productivity gains. Here again, technology can play a vital role.
Productivity in construction has stagnated for the last 20 years and this is linked to the sector’s relatively slow adoption of technology. Recent research highlighted significant challenges with inaccurate data, inefficient administrative processes and frequent mistakes on-site, contributing to costly rework. While some firms have implemented project management tools, these are primarily office-based. Considering that approximately 90% of the costs of most projects are incurred on-site, project management tools might only provide firms with limited value.
Using digital technology on the building site can enable firms to not only meet new safety requirements but improve productivity across the board. With cloud-based construction software, everyone has access to the latest information on the jobsite whenever it’s needed. This information is available both on- and off-line, ensuring that the solution works consistently in the field. The same data can then be delivered at the handover stage for the facilities management team.
Technology can also support the standardisation of processes on-site, to ensure that everyone is following best practices at all times. This can reduce time spent problem-solving and ultimately improve productivity.
Moving Construction Forward from Grenfell Tower
Following Grenfell, it’s clear that there needs to be a fundamental shift in construction culture, to secure the industry’s future in the years ahead. Recently, I was talking to one of our partners about how the industry is at a tipping point. They said there will be three types of companies in the industry, “Those who make things happen, those things happen to and those that said what happened.” Construction firms that don’t change won’t survive.
The good news is there is an appetite for change across the industry; everywhere from government to the public sector and private investors. This is an opportunity for construction firms to take the lead and use technology to create lasting, positive change. This transformation will be vital for the success of every firm and to ensure that construction’s future is brighter than its past.