What I Learned This Week

This week, well actually over the last few weeks, I have learned that the UK construction industry is incredibly conservative, even more than I previously realised. I’ve also learned that the younger generation of professionals appears to be conditioned by received wisdom without necessarily examining the issues for themselves. Any challenge to the sacred cows of construction is seen as an affront and not an opportunity to learn and improve. I find this very worrying for the future of our industry.

Those that follow my blog or tweets will know that I am not afraid to express my opinions. In fact it is one of the main reasons that Building Design included me in their ranking of influential people a couple of years ago. But I am finding that activism for change is falling on increasingly deaf ears in construction. The mainstream construction industry seems to be losing the ability to think about the issues, particularly when these involve unwelcome truths or wicked problems.

It started a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself in dinner jacket and black tie in the debating chamber of the Cambridge Union, which is modelled on the House of Commons, as part of a team arguing against the suggestion that “BIM is the Answer”. I chose to challenge two BIM dictums: that it will lead to more innovation and that it will generate greater collaboration. Lets be clear, I believe that BIM will be immensely helpful to the industry, but not in those ways.

Firstly, innovation is disruptive. Innovations come along and change the paradigm. Therefore it is not possible to model any innovation within the existing paradigm. That is why BIM cannot possibly stimulate innovation. A building information model can only be built from the existing paradigm and therefore true innovation is excluded from the modelled environment by its very nature.

Secondly, any technology that requires people to spend more and more time behind computers is a natural barrier to creative collaboration. Collaboration requires quality face to face time. Innovative businesses such as Apple and Ideo structure their teams to provide as much face to face contact time as possible to spark ideas which lead to innovation.

Counter arguments from the audience simply reiterated the cliches that BIM provides a less costly environment for innovation than bricks and mortar and that working on a common model equals collaboration.

I think that this reveals the complete misunderstanding in construction of what innovation really means. At The Atkins Christmas Debate on Innovation and Education it was clear that innovation was being defined by engineers as incremental improvement, not disruptive change. It is true that BIM will help deliver incremental improvement for construction, but that is not enough to be called innovation.

Construction teams are divided in order to drive down what is perceived as unnecessary expense. This is a barrier to collaboration so we invent management structures (of which BIM is one) to overcome it. As the management structures become more onerous we need to deploy staff simply to fulfil their demands. BIM is already the preserve of specialists that may never even meet each other. That is not collaboration.

Then last week we had the online Saint Gobain debate on whether there is a useful definition of a sustainable building. The discussion was wide ranging and should have provoked some genuine reflection on what it means to be sustainable in the 21st Century. In the end, the audience voted that there is a useful definition of sustainable building, even though nobody had been able to identify what it was. Once again the debate audience appeared to reject the opportunity to re-examine the issues but cleaved to the status quo.

I was on the losing side in both cases, but that is not what has made me sore (well only a little). No, rather, it is the retrenchment in the face of argument that concerns me most. As with climate change, we have almost reached a point where BIM and sustainability have become ideologies. The supporters and opponents of these positions become retrenched in response to any contrary argument and real debate about the issues is suppressed.

There have been other instances recently that have reinforced my jaded views. I can’t reveal confidential information but suffice to say I was invited to offer my opinion on a scheme only to find that the designers were not willing to discuss the issues, only to assert that their solution was sustainable despite evidence to the contrary.

Labelling buildings or construction tools as something they are not (or may be only a little) as pre-emptive defence against antagonists seems to have become prevalent. Has our industry become so beaten down that we now see every opportunity as a threat?

BIM has enough going for it already without making inflated claims to its capability. Sustainability is so wide ranging as to enable us to improve performance in so many ways, yet we still label buildings on the smallest justification. The fact that we have these tools and capabilities shouldn’t prevent us from striving to do better. Lets call a thing a thing and not pretend that it is more or less than it actually is.

(Actually politicians seem to think that they have magical powers that allow them to change the nature of something by calling it something else. This can be the only reason why the new Part L, which is to be enacted in April 2014, is called Part L 2013.)

The construction industry has been an amazing place to work for the last 25 years. It could be even more amazing in the future, but we need to stop hiding our heads, address the difficult truths and get on with making a real difference. Or am I just getting old and grumpy?

6 thoughts on “What I Learned This Week

  1. What I Learned This Week – that even if local councils want to push sustainability, they can’t.

    This stemmed from a presentation from two officers of my local council about the new Local Plan and some of the new policies. I challenged them on what could be done to encourage brownfield sites, what could be done to create and why they felt that it was acceptable to only say that new buildings only have to meet Building Regs. Apparently it is national policy not to suggest that a home needs to reach a certain Code for Sustainable Home level or a certain BREEAM requirement. Part of the argument suggested that as there was no consensus on which was ‘best’ they wouldn’t use any. The council also seems hung strung on not scaring off developers from the area, it is as if they see these items as a threat not an opportunity. I left the meeting feeling quite annoyed at the lack of ambition being shown, partly it is local politics holding us back but I also get the sense that developers or individual clients just don’t care. Either they don’t see the benefits or we aren’t explaining it to them properly.

    Apologies, not 100% related to your post but I do feel that things can and should be done better.

    • Hi Mike, thanks for contributing, don’t worry about being off theme for this post, you’ve certainly got the theme of my blog off pat. I think that there is general misconception that sustainability must be expensive and therefore to ask for it will halt development in its tracks. As I have argued in numerous other posts, if sustainability is costing more then you are doing it wrong. Sustainability delivers benefits that should be even more attractive in a recession / recovery. Have you seen my arguments from the Saint Gobain Debate on the very points that you raise? Also look out for an article in the Ends Report in the spring where I argue that construction does not have the language to engage clients in any debate about true sustainability.

  2. Thanks Doug.

    Sorry for the late reply. Busy time with Xmas etc. I would agree that the main point is the shift from desktop computers to mobile computing in the first place. I am trying my best to disrupt this myself. Let’s see how we get on 🙂

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


    • Thanks Gari, I had a look at what you are doing with GenieBelt – impressive. Have you come across the ADePT design management system? Now proprietary software but much of the original thinking was published as academic studies. Might be the next step for you to incorporate subcontract design management as well as project management. Best of luck with you endeavours.

  3. Great post Doug.

    I think there is a misunderstanding of the word innovation since innovation isn’t invention. I believe you can innovate within an existing paradigm since it only takes a change of perspective. In a consumer world, tablets are redesigning the way we interact with computers, the information, internet and keyboards where already there, but the introduction of touch screens to carry out a task has changed that world. I hope inventions will come to the construction industry, but change in such an old market isn’t easy as you rightly point out, that’s probably why innovation seems to be so well accepted and invention is out of the scope.

    On another matter, I could not agree more that BIM and sustainability have become ideologies!

    Also, like you mention what is worrying is that all hope of innovation or improvement in the industry has been beaten out of everyone, and
    even more worrying is that this cynicism is quickly passed on to all the new recruits in the industry. A bit of healthy scepticism I can live with but the strength of cynicism in the industry drains innovative thinking and blocks any new change. Like you ask, can it be true that our industry has been beaten down do much that they see every opportunity as a threat?!?!


    • Welcome Gari and thanks for commenting

      Of course, there is a continuum from plagiarism through incremental development to true invention. I guess that it is up to all of us to draw the line where we believe that something stops being improvement and becomes innovation. I focus on disruptive innovation because the construction industry desperately needs some disruption right now. The comparison is not with different platforms for mobile computing but the shift from desktop monstrosities to mobile computing in the first place. Imagine if we could make the same paradigm shift in sustainable construction.

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