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Centre for Digital Built Britain

 

Despite digital innovation bringing opportunity to improve productivity and predictability in construction, the sector has been slow to change. Transforming construction through digital is not simply a technical problem but a social, cultural, economic and political challenge. Without understanding the contributing factors that inhibit digital take up across the construction supply chain there can be no effective solution. Researchers at the Cambridge Centre for Housing & Planning Research have formed a network of industry partners to explore barriers and enablers of digital uptake – specifically BIM and digitally-enabled off-site manufacturing (OSM) – and generate evidence to identify how to facilitate  innovations that have the potential to transform construction.

Big picture

The UK has a historical under-supply of housing. Increasing building rates will be necessary to meet government aspiration for the housing market to deliver 1.5 million homes by 2022 and 300,000 homes per year on average by the mid-2020s. Current home-building rates only meet half of the 300,000 required annually and the supply shortage contributes to making housing less affordable, sustaining the rise of the relatively insecure private rented sector (PRS) and decline of home ownership, increasing waiting times for social housing and exacerbating homelessness – issues that will all be worsened by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

The Industrial Strategy (HM Government, 2018) emphasises the need for a shift towards more innovative approaches to help tackle the crisis by building faster and cheaper to deliver affordable, energy efficient homes. To this end, the Industrial Strategy (IS) identifies digital technologies, including Building Information Modelling (BIM) and modern methods of construction (MMCs) – specifically OSM – as key. However, despite the promotion of these technical solutions, uptake in the housing sector remains low.

The project

This project focuses on understanding and improving the social, cultural and behavioural factors inhibiting digital uptake in the construction sector which are holding back transformation across the construction supply chain. It also focuses on the new business models and contracts, such as outcome-based contracts, that will be needed, the supply chain challenges, the financial implications of investment in innovation, and the attitudes and interests of different stakeholders. The project has more than 40 industry partners across organisations associated to the housing construction sector, including CEOs, digital technology managers, architects, housing association representatives, manufacturers and sub-contractors. Researchers have collected data from interviews with industry partners to better understand the barriers and enablers of digital innovation. Evidence from successful and unsuccessful use cases in industry will be explored to measure outcomes and benefits and the value of digital innovation and provide an evidence-based case to the sector in order to support greater uptake of digital innovation.

Learnings from this project will be shared with industry and policy organisations; researchers have contributed to the Policy Series ‘An Industrial Strategy for Tomorrow’. An industry guidance document is soon to be published through CDBB and CIH presenting the identified enablers to the uptake of digital innovation to include: digital transformation strategy; leadership and management; training; collaboration and communication; supplier network development; and client relationship building.

Key insights

The project will identify: drivers, benefits, barriers, challenges and implications of using OSM and digital technologies in construction;  key factors in deploying digital technologies for project delivery; strategies for the implementation of digital transformation in organisations; new business and supply chain models; collaborative contracts integrating use of digital technologies and OSM; and wider stakeholders including planning, insurance, finance, clients and consumers.

Challenges

Challenges facing the construction industry include: low productivity; aversion to adopting new technologies; ageing workforce and low level of new and skilled entrants; deep and recurring recessions; fragmented nature of industry inhibiting collaboration, certainty and sharing of risk; lack of R&D and investment in innovation.

Financial constraints on digital uptake include: a lack of robust evidence to support whole life investment decisions and demonstrate that innovation can be commercially rewarding. In addition, current housebuilding models do not provide incentives to build faster or at scale. A paradigm shift is required to move towards collaborative procurement routes, highly coordinated design processes and early-stage design finalisation to support OSM. Low levels of coordination and complex, localised supply chains found in housing construction are barriers to BIM.

There are also organisational constraints on uptake – including resistance to change among individuals and leaders, lack of digital skills among the workforce and no strategic vision – as well as barriers emerging from the public’s negative view of housing built using OSM. 

Timeline

Interviews with industry partners have been completed and data analysed to inform an industry guidance document which will be available through CDBB and the Construction Innovation Hub in early 2021. A seminar for industry partners is planned for this year to share findings and invite feedback on next steps. Evidence-based case studies presenting industry examples of barriers and enablers to digital uptake are being prepared to share with industry.

Industry impact of research

There has been much focus on technology development in relation to enabling digital innovation in construction. However, a programme of organisational change across an entire sector requires better understanding of people and processes as well as technology to succeed. This research shines a light on the social context of digital uptake in housing construction and delivers evidence-based case studies, information and guidance to industry.

“Outside of the technology itself, which is often the simplest part of the whole change process, achieving transformation is more around people and the cultural change programme that comes along with it. This is quite pertinent to the transformation agenda and that’s what this research will address.”

Tom Loader, Head of Digital, Multiplex

Wider benefits

Innovative approaches to construction should provide benefits across the design, construction, management and maintenance of built assets. Enabling the uptake of BIM and OSM will support housebuildiers to build at scale and at speed to deliver more sustainable and future-proofed houses of higher quality and with fewer defects. Cost advantages will come from economies of scale and there will be improved health and safety. Digital innovation will provide a ‘golden thread’ of information needed for safe, transparent and effective management and maintenance of housing.

Collaborators

  • BIM4 Housing
  • Construction Leadership Council

Industry partners: Kier, Multiplex, Net Zero Buildings, Skanska, Swan Housing Association and Willmott Dixon

Meet the research team

“Although the majority of existing research into barriers to the adoption of digital innovation – such as BIM –  bring focus to the technology, the barriers are primarily rooted in the social behaviour of decision makers as well as the social settings of the construction industry, rather than technical challenges. Our insights contribute to the current understanding of the barriers to digital technology and could help stakeholders in the construction industry to find a solution to eliminate these challenges.”

Dr Reyhaneh Shojaei

“Our research is contributing knowledge that will lead to practical changes in people and organisations as we transform our construction industry.”

Dr Kwadwo Oti-Sarpong

Lead: Dr Gemma Burgess, Principal Research Associate and Acting Director of the Cambridge Centre for Housing & Planning Research, University of Cambridge

Team: Dr Reyhaneh Shojaei, Dr Kwadwo Oti-Sarpong, Research Associates at the Cambridge Centre for Housing & Planning.

Engage

Researchers would welcome industry partners to contribute to this research project. See more at www.cchpr.landecon.cam.ac.uk. Contact Dr Reyhaneh Shojaei at rss64@cam.ac.uk and Dr Kwadwo Oti-Sarpong at ko363@cam.ac.uk.

Visit the project page for this research here.

Need to know

  • More than a third of construction projects in the UK overrun on time (40 per cent) or budget (35 per cent)
  • Construction is second to last in the ranking of sectors that are least digitalised
  • While off-site methods are associated with a 50 per cent reduction in the project costs and 30 per cent increase in project lead time, just 7 per cent of UK construction is currently undertaken in this way.