Post the COVID-16 pandemic, Irish construction stands at a crossroads. We cannot afford to stand still. We have to move to a new level of performance driven by both productivity and sustainability, writes PJ Rudden.

With an unprecedented public spending budget for contraction next year of €10 billion, we have an unparalleled challenge to elevate our industry productivity. We also will have a steady project pipeline in terms of an invigorated National Development Plan to prepare Ireland for a future population of six million people by 2040.

Safe, digital and green recovery

Irish society in all sectors of the economy is already moving fast to increasing levels of digitisation accelerated in part by the recent and ongoing COVID-19 crisis. In terms of construction, it needs to be a safe, digital and green recovery. Building Information Modelling (BIM) will act as the centrepiece of the industry’s digital transformation.

It powers new technologies and Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) like off-site prefabrication, automated equipment and mobile applications for team collaboration.

This unique combination of innovation and digital adoption will be the catalyst to realise a new configuration of modern housing and infrastructure. Successful BIM adoption requires a high level of collaboration. 

This adoption also requires a newly co-ordinated effort to attract new talent with digital and BIM skills, upskill existing workers, together with changing public and corporate cultures to support new processes. These new cultures and processes will impact on project governance, procurement and financing models.

Lean principles and aggressive automation

Construction productivity has suffered for decades globally from remarkably poor productivity relative to other sectors. Meanwhile in manufacturing, lean principles and aggressive automation have been transformative.

Therefore led by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which chairs the CSG, a report on economic analysis in the Irish construction sector was commissioned from KMPG/Future Analytics with a review by TU Dublin.

The results were stark and are the catalyst for seeking radical reform led by industry. Indeed the construction industry recognised our gap behind international productivity and commissioned its own 4.0 response in MMC, which will now be ramped up as part of this project.

While the causes of low productivity were identified as many, the seven key recommendations and priority actions centre on seven areas of innovation and digital adoption.

A new CSG subgroup on innovation and digital adoption was set up in September 2020 to implement these seven priority actions. Of the actions, the three principal deliverables are a new construction technology centre, a centre of excellence on build digital/BIM and an MMC facility.

The other four actions will satisfy the need for greater industry research needs and funding, training and creation of new skills and finally early digitisation of planning permission processes.

Seven priority actions 

1.) Establish construction research needs

A construction industry research needs analysis was done to assist in the delivery of a construction technology centre.

Such a centre currently does not exist for construction, though Enterprise Ireland has set up industry-led technology centres for food, manufacturing and many other industrial activities. Construction contractors are aware of a growing narrative around low levels of productivity while construction clients say on FDI-led (eg data centres) projects are already on a fast trajectory.

The initial research to address this was done by the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) in 2017 and under this innovation and adoption project, the CIF project team have been building on this to discern the R&D needs which can be served by a new construction technology centre.

CIF round-table conferences are already been informed by considerations around sustainability, lack of people skills, materials, innovation and the growing need for off-site construction. 

2.) Identify funding sources for future innovation 

Various funding opportunities are being investigated including Horizon Ireland 2020 and the Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund (DTIF).

Activity to date has concentrated on the DTIF fund administered by Enterprise Ireland on behalf of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. This is a substantial fund for collaborative enterprise-driven partnerships to develop, deploy and commercialise disruptive technologies to transform business.

In 2021, we will continue to pursue further suitable opportunities for innovation and digital adoption through DTIF, EU Horizon 2020 and other research opportunities. 

3.) Guide the development of MMC

Over the past two years in parallel with Action 1 (construction research forum) the CIF and partner companies have been researching and developing MMC on many of their recent projects.

Policy developments have included modularisation; offsite fabrication; offsite modularisation; design for manufacture and assembly; pre-fabrication and pre-assembly (DfMA) known collectively as PPOMF (pre-assembly, offsite manufacturing & fabrication).

All of these alternative processes can by supported by BIM and achieve greater precision, faster speed of execution, reduced waste, avoiding longer lead times, and facilitate faster erection, especially on city centre sites.

These innovative approaches will at the same time require a transformation to more collaborative on-site working, new procurement procedures, earlier design freezes and value engineering and will require more experienced project planning and design management protocols.

If implemented in a preplanned efficient manner, it will lead to faster, more accurate and less costly new buildings of the future. It will also mean higher overall productivity, less disputes on site, better quality control and reduced labour costs.

The principal drivers for these improved modern methods of construction will be reduced construction timelines, the need for increased co-ordination on complex builds, less on-site trade congestion and greater overall cost savings.

Further development needs to incorporate BIM, Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), remote inspection by robots, testing and auditing, data analytics and focus on circular economy principles. 

4.) Establish a construction technology centre 

Such a centre will create a strong, long-term industry-academic collaborative partnership that will develop, build and translate the knowledge and capabilities that are needed to drive and deliver Project Ireland 2040.

This has already been achieved by Enterprise Ireland together with industry leadership and academic partnerships in, say, the food, electronics, nanotechnology and manufacturing industries.

Enterprise Ireland will design and implement a centre with a critical mass of experts and thought leaders in its domain to provide a single point of contact for industry to access research skills across all relevant universities/institutes in Ireland.

The centre will facilitate and encourage collaboration between companies and increase the levels of industry investment in R&D, which is currently relatively low in Ireland compared with other EU member states. It will also leverage investment in existing academic research capabilities and build critical mass for the sector. 

5.) Establish a digital network under the Construction Skillnet 

The Construction Skillnet is funded by CIF member companies and the Training Networks Programme, an initiative of Skillnets funded from the National Training Fund through the Department of Education and Skills.

There were about 200,000 employed in the construction industry including those in construction, architecture, engineering services and utilities at the end of 2019, which is not sufficient to build Project Ireland 2040 in terms of numbers, skills or gender/diversity balance.

A very significant report ‘Building Future Skills – the Demand for Skills in Ireland’s Built Environment sector to 2030’ was published in September 2020 by the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs.

Interesting recommendations in this report on drivers of recruitment in the next 10 years are, overwhelmingly, the need to drive digitisation in general and BIM in particular.

Other significant drivers are increased regulation, energy management, sustainability requirements, climate change and off-site requirements. This implies a rapid need for digitisation and BIM to ensure better design, programme and cost control on projects together with carbon footprint of projects and to include whole-of-lifecycle assessments.

In addition, the expert group report has a recurring theme of the need for greater gender balance in construction, which should be easier to achieve with the introduction of higher tech skills for BIM, climate action and a full configuration of circular economy in terms of lower material and energy wastage. 

6.) Digitise the planning permission process

This e-planning action strives to bring the planning permission online. With this activity, there are numerous benefits for the Irish construction industry and the economy.

Due to less delays in processing and less invalid applications, construction can commence more quickly and be delivered without unforeseen delays due to planning issues.

The planning system itself is complex and requires integration of the currently developed system with three back-end planning systems (iPlan, APAS and Odyssey) and eight document management systems across 31 planning authorities.

The delivery of an online planning across all 31 local authorities will make a hugely positive impact on the management of the planning process.

The standardisation of the e-planning process, with planning applications being submitted to a single portal, will provide efficiencies to the private sector planning service providers reducing their costs in producing multiple copies of documentation and their time with the standardisation of the process through one portal.

The principal tasks are related to developing various elements of functionality (registration of applicants and agents, prescribed bodies, Part 4 application, Part 8 applications etc) in 2020 and to roll out that functionality to Local Authorities in 2021 starting with Tipperary County Council as the initial pilot and when tested satisfactorily, the progressive roll-out to other counties. 

7.) Establish and fund/build digital centre of excellence for BIM and digital adoption

The National BIM Roadmap 2017 addressed the first step in relation to the digital construction issue in a comprehensive manner and recommended the establishment of a National BIM Centre of Excellence. The problem nationally in terms of digital adoption is a combination of a lack of skills, knowledge and standardised tools on both the client and supply side.

While the project should be beneficial for all parts of the construction sector, particular support is particularly needed initially to SMEs and clients (public and private sectors).

Themes to be addressed include the four pillars of the National BIM Roadmap, which were Digital Leadership and Culture Change; Digital Standards; Digital Education & Training; and Digital Procurement.

Author: PJ Rudden is founder of Aengus Consulting and chairman of CSG Innovation and Digital Adoption Group at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform