For centuries, the building trade has been a hugely fragmented industry, with lots of different companies coming together for a particular building and then moving on to different projects.
Typically, a client will commission an architectural team or design team, then engineers will become involved, explains Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council. Building services consultants and structural engineers get the call next, before a separate building contractor finally arrives to undertake the actual work itself. "And that contractor won't directly employ many of the people working on site. He will subcontract out various parts of the work," Watts says.
Breaking out of "little bubbles"
Such fragmentation means that it takes a long time for best practice to filter through, he continues: "A particular project may see some innovation that is a better way of working that could benefit the whole industry, but that team disintegrates at the end of the project and that innovation is lost."
In addition, there is a lot of wastage in the system. Some owners, architects or designers insert certain criteria into the building specifications, such as environmental product declarations that require certain sustainability standards, explains Heather Gadonniex, head of the building and construction team at PE International, a consultancy that specializes in life cycle assessment. Yet procurement teams or contractors often ride roughshod over such requirements in their pursuit of short-term cost reduction.
"There is a common understanding that there needs to be greater collaboration and better integration between the various parties in the design and construction process," she says.
That is beginning to happen. The emergence of national Green Building Councils and building standards such as Breeam and Leed v4 are providing incentives to follow more integrated design processes. But such approaches remain fairly niche in the building sector.
"It's not just about particular products – it's about the entire design process," says Gadonniex. "If you want to build a net-zero building or just a beautiful and functional building, you have to have the contractors interacting with the mechanical contractors interacting with the designers and the architects. In the past, everyone worked in their own little bubbles and that separation made it a challenge to meet common goals."
New technology and ways of working are helping to break down barriers between the different players in the construction process. Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), which advocates the collective harnessing of all project participants' talents and insights, is one approach that many in the industry think can make the process more collaborative.
"IPD allows discussion at the start of the project to create stronger links between all the various stages. It's extremely important to break down the silos that exist in the industry," says Gadonniex. "A lot of the siloed nature of the industry goes with the fear of losing one's territory and not accepting the benefits of this type of collaboration, particularly when it comes to saving time and money."
A central aspect of IPD is Building Information Modelling (Bim), which Watts describes as "a real force for collaboration, because it can't really operate unless you have the entire team on board at the earliest possible stage – which encourages much earlier contractor involvement".
Bim is a single digitally enabled integrated model of a building's designs and specifications that allows all the various people involved in a project to see what has gone before and what needs to be done. "The biggest enemy of the construction industry was the arrival of email," says Watts. "Two parties would make amendments to the drawings but they wouldn't tell anyone else. With Bim everyone can see what has happened."
Bim makes projects much quicker, smoother and cheaper, he adds, which is why the government has said that all new public sector buildings must be developed using the technology from 2016.
However, Bim is only being used properly on the largest projects, says Barry Connolly, a director at real estate consultancy JLL. "There is still a big disconnect within the industry. Architects and designers generally collaborate well, but even if they develop a project in Bim, the contractor will often do nothing with it because their own supply chains have not invested in Bim."
There is a further disconnect between a building's developer and its end-occupier. If the tenant knew that a developer could save him 30% on energy costs by specifying certain equipment or materials, a different decision might be made, Connolly reasons: "But because the developer mostly does not know who the tenant will be, they can't justify the extra expense."
Change will come as best practice filters down from the largest players to the rest of the industry. But the pace is unlikely to be lightning quick, unfortunately. In the building industry, as Connolly ruefully concludes, "things don't change overnight".
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