When I started my training in architecture, the first thing that got me enthusiastic was the brick. That might seem a bit odd, but it’s odder than that. In a moment of epiphany, I realised why a brick is.
A brick has developed over centuries to be an ideal size for a bricklayer to handle. It is hand shaped. Realising this when I was in my late teens put a whole new slant on my view of the world. Suddenly I saw men’s hands everywhere, making the built environment around us.
This memory came back to me when I was at the BIM Prospects conference, where I chaired the sessions for construction product manufacturers. Afterwards I was sitting in a session all about technology and the future, and I found myself listening to Chris Freeman of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield. He was talking about the Augmented Worker.
The concept of the Augmented Worker is to take augmented reality (AR) and to use it to enable people to do their work more effectively and more efficiently. AR (rather than VR which is an immersive environment – like stepping into another world) brings information into our own visual field, overlaying it onto what we can already see. If you’ve ever seen someone hold a tablet over a building and see an extension to the building appear on the tablet, that’s AR.
The first Augmented Worker Chris was showing us was a theoretical plumber. He was wearing a headset which gave him a view of the services hidden behind a wall. As well as being shown the services, the plumber could bring up the plans of the services, his work tasks for the day, the information he needed to do his job and access to a remote expert. By superimposing these onto his view of the task in hand, he would be able to do his job better. Chris and his consortium have applied for Innovate UK funding to take this work forward.
So, what does this have to do with the brick?
Over the last twenty years the construction industry has been going through an identity crisis. It knows it needs to work better, faster, cheaper and more sustainably, but it isn’t sure how it can do this. We’re also facing a huge skills shortage. To deal with these challenges we’ve been trying quite a few things out, with only limited success.
In the noughties we began experimenting with ways of making the construction process more efficient by eliminating wet trades, for example, and by making the components we use bigger and manufactured offsite. This led to thin-joint construction, modular buildings, SIPs.
In some situations, these technologies work very well; but in others they can be a problem. For example, a housing association I knew set up a company to make offsite manufactured housing in a joint venture with a manufacturing company. The process of construction was a lot faster than stick build timber houses, but the units were large and required large articulated lorries to deliver them. Meanwhile the sites were small, just a few houses, and located on the edges of villages in rural England at the end of narrow streets. The great efficiencies of the system relied on repetition, but the planning and building regulation authorities often asked for late changes, and in this way the profitability of the scheme dwindled and the company folded. A system that would later be found to work well in urban environments with good access and no changes, failed spectacularly, and the association went back to building by hand.
Why do these mistakes happen? One thing the project had forgotten was the role of the worker and his expertise to the process. Construction employs over two million people in the UK and a significant number of those work with their hands. Cutting them out of the system because it is cheaper may yet be a false economy. Not only will we have too many taxi drivers, but we will be killing the golden goose. These people have years of expertise and understanding, and we need to bring them along, not cut them out.
Earlier this year I was approached by the UK BIM Alliance (UKBIMA) to assist them in communications. UKBIMA has a huge task in front of it. It has been tasked by government to help the construction industry adopt Level 2 BIM ‘Business as Usual’ by 2020. In other words, it must effectively disseminate the concepts and practice of Level 2 BIM across the country, in a way that is accepted and valued for its business value, by millions of construction workers and thousands of SMEs, not just the big construction firms. To do this UKBIMA must communicate, which means it must listen.
To date BIM has also had a difficult journey. It is probably the most misunderstood term in our industry, and as with much of our industry practice, many have exploited these misunderstandings for their own gain, damaging the perception of what could be the thing that finally helps us work properly – the successful adoption of collaborative ways of working, supported by digital technology.
I believe that if the construction industry is to adopt new ways of working, it must think of, and listen to, the worker, not just the shareholder. It must take what we have already with all its complexity and nuances, and understand it, if it is to work out how we’re going to get where we want to go.
One of the tasks UKBIMA has recently taken on is to run a series of small workshops to help its team understand the industry. The workshops are talking to people from all levels of our industry, from all disciplines, and in particular, to the sceptics. The same familiar faces have had their opportunity, we need to talk to the sceptics to get an idea of where we are, so we can work out how to get to where we’re going.
I’m looking forward to the listening exercise, and helping plan the journey, one worker at a time.
Image: Lee Pickup (Creative Commons)
This article first appeared in Building4Change