Mindset shift in a stagnant industry

welement project in Oslo, Norway

Climate change, government legislations, slow permit & approval process, shortage of skilled labour and energy constraints are just some of the problems affecting the future of construction. At the same time increasing demand from migration, urbanisation, demographic and consumer preference changes are putting enormous pressure on the real estate industry to build faster and provide affordable housing. The productivity of construction has shown no improvements whereas manufacturing has almost doubled over the same period. Is the industry really failing to accept that it is time for change or is it already happening before our eyes?

Oranges and apples

Whereas manufacturing has for a long time used sophisticated ERPs and monitoring systems, construction has always found excuses why it is impossible. One of the main problems in construction is that project managers and developers are often simplifying the cost comparison of various building methods to euros per square meter and don’t take the cost of time, safety and quality into consideration. True, every building is in some ways unique but more often than not the processes are 95% the same. The industry has for a long time failed to understand that by not collecting the invaluable data during the course of the project life cycle it is difficult (if not impossible) to plan accurately and link the cause and effect scenarios and indirect costs at the analysis and feedback phase (if there is such a thing at all).

Basically it has been difficult to continuously improve or invest in R&D because without reliable data there hasn’t been a starting point baseline to measure the improvement from.

It has begun

Construction has been stagnant and lacking innovation for too long, but in the recent years there has been a noticeable change. Naturally the industries giants have their part to play, but the interesting and innovative applications always spring up at the grassroots level. Increasingly more young civil engineers are not accepting the status quo and most likely in the next 5–10 years a bottom up revolt will shape the future of construction more than we can imagine. In the broader sense the industry is going through a quiet revolution by being disrupted by digitalisation, modern methods of construction and new value chains. But most exciting is the nascent shift in mindset.

From prototype to system

Sweden’s big construction giants (Skanska, NCC, Peab) have developed actual building systems for housing which is a great step from the “prototype industry”. Whether the systems are perfect or not is irrelevant, what matters is that the houses are actually being planned and designed with the intention of finding a solution that has standardised interfaces but allows enough flexibility to match the market demand. Most importantly that the solution is built and can be analysed, improved and replicated. This system will not be applicable to architectural landmarks (F.Gehry, Z.Hadid etc.) but instead to affordable housing.

That does not mean that all the houses have to look the same, it just means that this type of architecture has to find aesthetic solutions within certain constraints and be in line with concepts such as Design for Assembly, Design for Manufacturing, Design for Logistics etc.

It might not be the next Guggenheim, but the approach will be key to solving affordable housing to tackle urbanisation.

Three-letter acronym

The whole concept of BIM has been somewhat overhyped and a little misused in construction and it has given a false implication that it is going to solve most of the inefficiencies and waste on site. Mostly all the attention has gone to the Modelling part and nobody is talking about the most important word — Information, more specifically the quality of the information. Luckily we can see that it is not anymore about just BIM but the whole digitalisation of construction. There are more and more applications popping up that are designed already with the mobile first principle in mind so that it would work on the site. Digital tools for site engineers to help teams collaborate and collect information. At Rand & Tuulberg we have tested PlanGrid and GenieBelt on a couple of smaller projects and they actually seem to work. R&T is also implementing the use of Bauhub, an innovative drawing and document handling system which will help navigate through the design changes during the construction period. Recently we had a demo meeting with Leansite, a project management and team collaboration tool. These are just some of the innovations that try to solve some of the issues and of course there are a myriad other problems that the industry needs to tackle. The mere fact that we can talk about these examples from all over the globe shows that something serious is cooking and it is not just a theory anymore.

Offsite

How can we build houses more sustainably and do it faster and smarter without increasing the price?

It can not happen by just doing the same on-site jobs quicker, something fundamental needs to change. Naturally it will be a collective effort and all the interconnected links of the construction value chain have to take on the challenge. At Welement we are working on the whole user experience of prefabricated units.

To us it is not just about the quality of the timber elements but helping our partners find the appropriate level of prefabrication and dealing with the whole process of offsite construction.

At the same time we see that for us to succeed we need the design industry to develop BIM to its full potential and work out the quality issues. We also need our clients — developers, contractors and engineers to start questioning the status quo and look at the existing problems from a different angle. We will try to continuously improve the mindset — our own, our partners and our clients