Construction professionals must keep up with the rapid technological, regulatory and social changes sweeping across the industry. We report on the crucial areas to add to your knowledge toolkit
Whether you’re a surveyor, an architect, an engineer or a construction manager, if you’ve been working a few years there is every chance that your profession has changed a huge amount since you first became qualified.
And this rate of change is set to accelerate. Hard-pressed clients are demanding much greater efficiency from their buildings, the green agenda is starting to dominate industry thinking and advanced technologies are transforming working practices.
With further sweeping changes inevitable, there has never been a better time to go back to college. Here are three of the most vital things to catch up on …
1. Building information modelling
If you haven’t encountered building information modelling (BIM) yet, you will very soon. Last month Paul Morrell - the government’s chief construction adviser - was put in charge of overhauling public sector procurement. A cornerstone of his agenda is the five-year roll-out of BIM. It is hoped that the introduction of this process will make for more collaborative and efficient working across all public projects.
BIM is a series of processes and protocols that are designed to make sure that everyone working on a project is using the same, up-to-date drawings and information. At its most effective, BIM goes beyond 3D CAD modelling and allows the team to manipulate models through time (4D) and incorporate cost data (5D).
The introduction of this system poses a significant skills challenge to the industry. Many of the software packages that enable BIM require training to operate. The process will also require construction professionals to have a grounding in collaborative BIM standards.
Training courses are surfacing to meet this need - not least the new BIM Academy in Northumbria. Its founder, David Greenwood, summarises the benefits of adopting BIM: “It will transform workflows in the industry, as well as give you actual, hands-on familiarity with cutting-edge software.”
Greenwood says the benefits of BIM are particularly tangible for people who work in facilities management. This is because, once the building is constructed, the facilities management provider can work from the same information and drawings that were used to build it.
Greenwood says: “Facilities managers should get to grips with BIM, because the benefits for them are enormous. BIM should ensure they are always working from models that are accurate.”
Indeed, the government recommended in its recently published construction strategy that contractors should be routinely given the facilities management role for a period after completing a building, to take full advantage of their familiarity with it - an approach that is already typical in PFI procurement models.
Adapting to BIM, however, may not be that straightforward. Robert Klaschka, founder and owner of Studio Klaschka, incorporated BIM into the small architectural practice almost five years ago.
He warns against complacency when it comes to adopting the system. “This may sound strange, but if you’re not used to thinking and drawing in 3D - and not all architects are, oddly enough - then you are going to have difficulties,” he says. “Drawing and thinking in 3D is absolutely critical for BIM.”
2. Sustainable construction
The green agenda is transforming the way projects are conceived and delivered, and construction professionals are going to need a mixture of soft and hard skills to adapt to clients’ demands.
Bruce Kennedy, architect director at BDP, discusses how sustainable thinking has pervaded the design process: “You need a real awareness of the impact of initial decisions. It used to be about bolting things on at the end, but it’s not like that any more.
“Some people still think they can just stick a wind turbine on the edge of a development and say that it’s sustainable, but that doesn’t hack it anymore.”
Kennedy has recently designed a project that takes advantage of a nearby lake as a natural source of cooling. He says that this is an example of one of the main things architects now need - an awareness of a project’s natural environment. “The biggest thing for me is being aware of the site topography and making the best of the opportunities from the environment,” he says.
Another big change for construction professionals is the need to understand the whole-life environmental cost of buildings. Terms such as “embodied carbon” were virtually unheard of 10 years ago, but are now part of the language of architects, engineers and surveyors.
David Mathieson, a director at consultant Turner & Townsend, says: “There’s been real growth in whole-life carbon costing, and that’s changing the way we specify and price. There’s now a much more holistic approach to balancing cost and benefit.”
As the government pushes for ever more sustainable buildings - particularly in housing, with the Code for Sustainable Homes and the government’s 2016 zero-carbon new homes commitment - professionals will need a better knowledge of insulation and how to maximise energy efficiency.
Most construction professionals will also need a firmer knowledge of the latest incarnations of Part L (conservation of fuel and power) and Part F (means of ventilation), which are designed to promote sustainable construction.
3. Constructing for the digital generation
The growth of digital technology is also having a major effect on construction, as the requirements of clients shift with the demands of a new generation of occupants. Mathieson says: “Clients’ needs are changing with technology, and it’s vital for firms to keep in step with this.”
The main areas of change for commercial developments are in the provision of data services and in facilitating new ways of working, which are achieved during specification.
For instance, the main theme of the recent British Council of Offices conference in Geneva was the ways in which the growth of mobile and social media technology are affecting office design.
At the event, Ken Shuttleworth, founder of Make, told delegates that there would need to be a shift of focus towards the design of interiors. “Buildings will need to become simpler on the outside, but with more functional interiors to suit a more mobile workforce,” he said. He also said interiors would need more open space, fewer desks, break-out areas and Wi-Fi connections.
Sean Affleck, also of Make, says technology is radically altering the way buildings are specified. He is awaiting the outcome of a planning application for a Chiswick office scheme, which doubles up as a digital billboard. The project - dubbed the “Octopus” - has an “LED shroud”, which will display advertising but also allow light into the offices inside.
“Buildings are unlikely to be just one thing in future,” he says. “Technology is allowing people to conceive many more interesting things and architects and others need to keep up to speed with that.”