An introduction to our latest construction roundtable
While the construction industry is hauling itself into the 21st century and digital transformation is described as a priority for just under three-quarters of the sector’s companies, the actual take up of digital practices has been slow.
A reliance by the sector on traditional and established ways of delivering projects, the presence of older, experienced workers who are not as up to speed on technological matters and a reluctance to devote time and money to train workers in digital operations are all factors.
But as a recent construction roundtable session featuring individuals from across the industry hosted virtually by Building magazine and sponsored by Bluebeam revealed, there are ways of bringing people onboard with digital practices, particularly those in small- to medium-sized businesses, which will ultimately prove hugely beneficial to the sector, its clients and the rest of society.
Jordan Marshall, panel chair and Building’s special projects editor, asked the group for their views on construction software benefits and issues, including how software can boost productivity, quality and help achieve net zero, how software can be best rolled out across a company and what sort of return on investment companies can expect to see from their software procurement programmes.
Attitudes about construction software among SMEs
John Handscomb, a partner with consultancy Akerlof, said he was “convinced that software has a lot of the answers around greater and more complicated regulation.” Standards that needed to be met, an ever-growing palette of materials and design options and the need to consider the carbon question, along with the issue of costs, were all areas where digitally minded companies could leverage the full benefits of construction software.
Avoiding repetition was a key factor in exploring what construction software can offer for both Harry Bocking, senior structural engineer at Webb Yates Engineers, and Tomas Hollingsworth, head of technology at fit-out specialist BW. “If we know we can rely on the software and we’re doing repetitive calculations we can rely on it first time out and then we can concentrate on other tasks,” said Bocking, while Hollingsworth favoured getting his people to “give the client the best customer service and not sitting in front of a computer screen all day doing repetitive tasks.”
Understanding the different technology skill sets of a company’s workforce was important when deciding on which software package to go with, said Olivia Burton, senior development manager at developer London Land Group. “Not everyone has the same level of computer skills, and they’ll need access to data and in a readily available format,” Burton said. “Also, how you store and share information can be an issue. We use Bluebeam, which enables us to amend documents very quickly. The key is to bring control to who is doing that amending.”
The ability to “create sketches, repeat and manipulate them, as well as carry out markups” is what drew Ashwin Halaria, associate director at structural and civil engineering firm Symmetrys, to Bluebeam’s construction software. “We use those tools to create very presentable drawings very quickly, and they’ve proved to be a very powerful addition to the company,” he added.
When you’re a builder you’re looking for every edge possible, noted the National Federation of Builders’ head of housing and planning policy, Rico Wojtulewicz. “We’re seeing some land software that can help you identify where smaller sites are located within communities that perhaps had lain undiscovered unless there’s someone like me cycling around taking photos.”
James Chambers, global industry development director at Nemetschek, said it was important to demystify the idea of software as some massive investment that’s only for large companies. In fact, getting to grips with construction software benefits companies of all sizes. “The SME market is ideally suited to use software because it needs to have an ROI—more of that later—and it needs to give and drive value. It also needs to bring a team together and deliver a better value for the project and the client.”
Choosing the right construction software
While the benefits of construction software packages seem conclusive, Jordan Marshall asked how a company decides on which system to deploy across their business.
“We’ve developed user groups and user leaders in every department,” said Hollingsworth, “and we try out a piece of software with them. We’ve sped up the adoption or rejection process massively by doing these small tryouts.”
Understanding what one is trying to achieve with a software package is crucial, said Handscomb. “Far too often you see people choose software and then look for the problem they want to solve. People should be reviewing their business and seeing what will help solve any issues.”
Recalling an old TV ad campaign for a varnish product, Halaria said making sure software will do what its developers claim it will do is essential. “We once bought a data-based system and it couldn’t connect to another software system we had in the way we wanted it to. It had a lot of what we wanted but made implementation of the other parts of the software much more difficult.”
Dan Smith, digital lead associate at Noviun Architects, said usability and reliability were two big factors in his firm’s procurement strategy. “You need to be able to trust the system you’re buying. If a system isn’t behaving as you expected it to when you bought it, you lose all trust in it.”
Chambers said he’d advise anyone looking to buy construction software to do their due diligence. “Put things in place that are going to make your purchase successful. And maintain a relationship with your software provider, because frankly, they want to maintain one with you.”
“They want to hear how you’re doing, if the product is serving you properly, if they can improve things. That feedback loop is critical. I’d rather have feedback from 100 SMEs that from three large corporations, because I’d be getting more product insight.”
Chambers’ Bluebeam colleague David Rekker agreed that such insight could prove invaluable. “We’ve seen there are no shortage of suggestions or ideas, and our tech support team relishes the prospect of engaging with the people making the suggestions. They ask, ‘Why did you want that?’ And, ‘What are you trying to achieve?’ The real gold is when we’re able to actually have a conversation with willing people.”
How to roll out construction software
So you’ve decided on the software package you want. What are the important steps to roll it out effectively?
“We had a few people in the practice who liked a particular software system, but we couldn’t roll it out to everyone straightaway in one go,” said Smith. “So we did it through smaller groups. That way, people could see over time how it would benefit the business.”
A software committee that meets quarterly is the approach taken by Symmetrys, said Halaria. “We’re always reviewing systems and seeing if there are better packages out there that can push the engineering a bit further.”
Everyone has their favourite systems, and when they move to a new position may want their colleagues to adopt that particular package, said Burton. “If you’re constantly changing software systems, you’re having to train people over and over. It’s important to find something that works for everyone, get everybody on board with it, grow with the software and stick with it.”
Hollingsworth believed it was vital to see software providers as partners rather than mere suppliers, a point with which the NFB’s Wojtulewicz agreed, adding: “If there’s the right dialogue going on a software developer can help with a solution to a problem they haven’t come across before. You have to blend as many voices as possible to understand what the needs are.”
Rekker, Bluebeam’s senior manager, customer success, suggested it was important for firms to identify people who can champion the trialling and testing of a software product. “When they find something that works, spread the word—evangelise. Having someone who has tested a system and found out where the quick wins are and can encourage the wider organisation to adopt. That’s great.”
So, since software is an investment, Marshall asked—considering the many benefits of construction software our panel mentioned—what kind of returns people expected.
ROI – the big question
At BW, staff sit down to discuss what kind of return they wanted to see, said Hollingsworth. “Software providers talk about man hours saved, but that’s not our ROI view. I want to offer people a better work-life balance, I want to improve the defect-free score. Yes, making money is important, but there are other things.”
Akerlof’s Handscomb agreed: “I think the way to get the fastest ROI is to target areas of your business where you’ve got the most to gain. Now that could be commercial, it could be social compliance. But whatever it is, identifying what it is and targeting it is massively important.”
When it comes to ROI, it means different things to different people, said Chambers. “Is it to save money, make time-based improvements, more connectivity, reduce waste or risk? What do customers consider a ‘win’ when you get the software in place?
“It doesn’t have to a big revolutionary thing. It can be a happier employee who did their job more efficiently. Overly ambitious goals that a company sets out for ROI can be just that, but they blame the software.”
Using construction software correctly is vital to creating any kind of return, said Noviun’s Smith. Having an open dialogue within the company about what is working, what isn’t, discussing best practices, any quirks within the system, any shortcuts we can take. If we can take advantage of those elements, then that brings about a good return for us.”
Burton said solving problems with how people used a particular type of software would prove useful. “That sort of journey, where you’re frustrated with a system and almost at the point of throwing it out of the window but then you see the benefits at different stages of a project … that can be so beneficial. And that’s a return on investment right there.”
Bluebeam’s Rekker added: “There is definitely more to using software than saving time, important though that can be. Are people enjoying the work they do? Is the software helping with that? How can we as software providers help them deliver their expertise to their clients instead of getting bogged down with things?”
Construction software and sustainability
Meanwhile, in a world where environmental concerns are increasing and the construction sector needs to respond, how do companies harness software to strive toward greener and more sustainable developments?
WYE’s Bocking says the trend to use better materials and practices means earlier engagement with a client and using software and websites that can help them make the decisions they need to deliver a better scheme. “The ability to put lay people—when it comes to the technology—in control and help make positive decisions toward achieving net zero is massive.”
It’s important to be able identify tools that allow for the input of data and monitor site activity, said Burton, “so that you can ensure operationally you’re doing as many good things as you did throughout the design process.”
Collaborative working to create the best tools for a given situation can benefit all parties, Halaria said. “We’re developing a tool to identify steel that can be reused. Working collaboratively with the industry we can get a chance to make this a reality.”
With the industry being more heavily regulated, software systems and digital ways of working will only become more important, said the NFB’s Wojtulewicz. “Being able to be flexible is really important, and if one can pivot and offer customers something slightly different that can be really useful. If you can do that, and if you can fulfil your delivery promise, that’s a win.”