Computer simulation and actors combine to create a lifelike training experience at a new centre in Coventry

It’s early Monday morning and you’re at your desk with a cup of coffee reviewing changes to some technical drawings, when there’s a loud knock on the site cabin door. A furious-looking man strides in carrying a broken block of what looks like insulation foam. ‘What the hell is this?’ he exclaims. ‘There are lumps of this stuff all over my garden!’ Oh dear, you think, it was windy last night and some panels must have blown off the roof. What should you tell him?

But there’s no time to respond as the phone is ringing. It’s the MD from the cladding contractor: ‘I need you to reprogramme the joinery works. My guys are fed up of inhaling dust from the joiners’ machinery.’ You start to panic about how to deal with that when you said you’d get these drawings back to the architect before 10.

Breaking into a sweat, you glance up at the wall of the cabin and see a camera. Suddenly your anxiety subsides – this isn’t your cabin, you don’t know these people, and you’re not on a construction site at all, but being monitored as part of a virtual reality training course.

If all this sounds surreal, unnerving and a lot like Big Brother, that’s because it’s supposed to. The Centre for Advanced Construction Technologies (ACT-UK) is a new type of training facility designed to develop construction managers’ skills by observing them as they are immersed in the everyday challenge of running a site. With actors, realistic site offices and a computer-generated construction site projected on a screen, trainees have to react to ‘real’ problems and situations. Supervisors observing the action score their performance and provide feedback to identify training needs.

The £8m centre, located in Coventry University’s Technology Park and due to open in September, brings the concept of the Netherlands’ Building Management Simulation Centre to the UK. The UK version is funded by a company linked to the BMSC and Advantage West Midlands, while practical support comes from five partners: Coventry University Enterprises, the Learning and Skills Council, the CIOB, Benfield Group and the BMSC.

But whether this hi-tech, immersive psychological style of training will work as well here as it does in Holland remains to be seen. In visits to the Netherlands centre, some UK managers took offence at being confronted with their weaknesses in such a public, visceral way.

‘I tried it and it was scary, the realism’s incredible,’ says Tony Ellender, training and development manager at Balfour Beatty, who helped develop the UK centre. ‘But the experience convinced me that it’s actually much better than classroom teaching. By putting trainees in an environment that’s close to the real thing, you get a more accurate picture of their behaviour on site. And that means the feedback on their performance and development needs is also more reliable.’

The UK centre is more than just a copy of its Dutch cousin, which opened in 2000. Brighton-based simulation specialist Make Media has developed a vastly improved computer simulation showing in great detail various stages of two UK construction projects, projected on a 16m panoramic screen which trainees can manoeuvre through using a joystick.

To create the simulations, ACT-UK took tens of thousands of photographs at the two sites.

A 13-storey reinforced concrete office block built in Birmingham was monitored between May 2007 and October 2008, where construction included piling for the basement, a reinforced concrete core and glass cladding. The restricted site meant logistics were a concern, particularly for storage and allocating time slots for the tower crane.

Meanwhile, a 57-plot housing development at Aldermans Green in Coventry was monitored from May 2007 to July 2008. This comprised timber framed, brick-faced housing and traditional newbuild flats in a residential suburb, making customer care an important aspect of the job.

Older managers with more experience are less willing to accept flaws in their ability

Michael Schrijver, ACT-UK

From these two sites, different scenarios can be created depending on the training required. In one scenario, for example, trainees must respond when unsafe scaffolding is discovered, a common issue on sites that must be dealt with quickly and effectively. And a technical decision-making scenario explores trainees’ day-to-day problem-solving skills, decision making and communication.

At the centre, a typical UK site cabin has been meticulously reproduced, from the internal fit out to documentation and schedules pinned on the walls. A working telephone allows trainees to contact various project staff, suppliers, or head office, and project-related files can be accessed via a computer.

Eight actors can between them play 42 different roles including safety inspectors, carpenters, company bosses or salespeople. Each role is related to one of 140 different specific scenarios developed to test aspects of the trainees’ performance. These range from the discovery of missing elements in safety protection, to being confronted by a foreman who’s fed up because concrete has been sprayed over the side of the building.

For the trainee, it’s a lot like being the star of a movie with supervisors taking the place of the director as they observe the action via cameras in the cabins and the virtual reality environment. The supervisor can direct events as they unfold, by asking an actor to play a new role, for example.

Performance is scored in four ways: by the supervisors, by the actors, an assessment of telephone recordings and computer data.

When the UK centre opens, courses will be tailored to clients’ needs, but the focus is on developing competencies in managerial decision making and interpersonal skills. ‘The intention is to make them for NVQs levels 3-5 and CSCS platinum cards,’ says Michael Schrijver, managing director of ACT-UK. ‘There will also be generic courses for graduates and diploma students who find it difficult to get on real sites due to health and safety issues.’

Coventry City College will be using the simulator as part of its construction management course and other universities are interested, while CIOB members are likely to benefit from time spent in the simulator by gaining CPD credits.

Balfour Beatty will be the first to use the simulator, running a 2.5-day pilot course for 12 employees. ‘Our guys are mostly supervisors, assistant site managers and site agents, who are moving into site management,’ says Tony Ellender. ‘For me the strength of this type of course is less about training and more about identifying training needs. By observing their behaviour we get a better picture of what skills they have, and which they lack.’

The commercial price of a course is £700-£1,000 per person, based on the client’s specific needs, with reduced prices for universities with larger groups. Despite the credit crunch, 800 training days have already been sold in the first year and Schrijver is optimistic that he can push this to 1,500-1,600 days, or two thirds of the total annual capacity.

But this is no passive learning experience and will not be to everyone’s taste, as Schrijver’s experience trialling the Dutch system with UK workers has shown. ‘We’ve run several pilot courses and a recurring issue has been that while the younger, less experienced employees are keen to engage with the programme and take on board feedback, older managers with more experience, reputation and more at stake are less willing to accept any flaws in their ability, particularly when these flaws are revealed in a group.’

In the UK centre, therefore, trainees will be given feedback individually, rather than in groups. ‘It’s probably just a cultural difference,’ explains Schrijver. ‘In Holland society is more geared towards working in a team, but the UK is more oriented towards the individual.’ But despite some reluctance he believes there is an overriding feeling that people want to explore their potential through this type of learning, or as he puts it: ‘Rather than writing a paper, we can show them how they can fly!’