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What’s The Best Way To Dig A Hole? Maybe Talk About Whether You Need To Dig A Hole In The First Place

21 Moorfields

What is the best way to dig a hole?

That is not a trick question. In fact, it’s one of the most fundamental questions in the construction and development world. The answer might lie in some incredible piece of technology. But to find the answer, the first step is to ask the question and talk about it.

In a damning report, McKinsey described productivity in construction as advancing at a “glacial pace”. And technology, like building information management systems and off-site construction, can play a big part in improving this.

But speakers at Bisnow’s upcoming Building for the Future event said that a change in mindset — particularly from developers — learning from other sectors and greater collaboration between developers and contractors are as important in driving the sector forward. These changes could lead to greater efficiency, cut costs and help drive improvements in sustainability.

“Just because you’ve always built something in one way, can you take a step back and look at whether that’s the best way of doing it,” Landsec Head of London Development Beth West said.

In her previous role at high speed rail line HS2, West was involved in the Infrastructure Client Group, a collaborative organisation set up between a number of the U.K.’s largest infrastructure clients. The group established Project 13, which aims to develop a business model that is more relationship-driven between clients and suppliers, rather than the traditional project-by-project approach. One issue discussed was indeed whether the cheapest way to dig a hole was actually to not dig the hole at all, but solve the problem a different way.

“Project 13 is a great example of new approaches and ways of doing things, and it is something we are looking to introduce with our contractors at Landsec. The infrastructure industry has found it easier to lead on cross-company collaboration than we find in the property sector,” she said.

The current structure of the supply chain in construction and development often mitigates against this kind of collaboration and holds back innovation.

“There needs to be more collaboration in the supply chain, and we need to get sub contractors engaging earlier in the process, rather than the current situation where the contractor is not paying the supply chain properly and is just trying to get the cheapest price,” Memery Crystal Partner and Head of Construction Joanne Kelly said. “That holds back innovation, because no one is able to take the risk of trying to be innovative. It needs to come from the client not simply looking for the best price, and risk needs to be better shared.”

On innovation in general West agreed. “You really need the client to drive the process, because if the client doesn’t want to do things in a certain way, it won’t happen.”

A major change in the relationship between developers and contractors is being brought about, like it or not, by the current political climate.

U+I's Swanley Development

In cities like London, the construction industry is heavily reliant on immigrant labour, and with immigration set to be significantly curtailed in the wake of Brexit, this is going to have to change. The same situation is potentially the case in the U.S., especially in towns near the Mexican border, if tighter immigration policy continues to be enforced.

“On some of our sites, up to 70% of the workforce is from the EU, and that highlights the need more than ever to introduce modern methods than can introduce factory assembly techniques so we can take labour off-site and into permanent locations with long-term workers,” U+I Director of Delivery Mark Richardson said. “It’s been too easy as an industry not to address the lack of skills on sites and just go to mainland Europe and hire more people. It will be difficult but this will force people to change.”

Richardson said U+I has been dealing with the already-dwindling pool of immigrant construction labour by increasing the number of local companies it works with. This fits U+I’s ethos of bringing benefits to local communities, but brings new challenges. Local companies tend to be smaller, so they likely do not have as robust a balance sheet as larger companies, which can mean the developer has to take on an extra element of risk. They also do not necessarily have access to the most modern systems and techniques, and often have to adopt new working methods for U+I's projects. But most small local firms are willing to rise to the challenge, Richardson has found.

“In our experience to date, local companies are just as committed, and what company doesn’t want to upskill itself,” Richardson said. “If you have the most modern skills and methods then you can almost name your price to clients, and who wouldn’t want that? It takes a certain amount of mutual trust and collaboration, but we are making it work.”

There are areas where a change in mindset, greater collaboration and new technology are all blurring to drive forward innovation. West said that for 21 Moorfields, the 564K SF office building that Landsec is building for Deutsche Bank in London, the company is using building information modeling to change the development process and make it more efficient.

“The thing about buildings is that they are big and complex and you can’t really experiment with them,” she said. “In other sectors you can make prototypes, work out the problems and change the design, but with buildings you can’t really do that. That is why we are using BIM, which allows us to involve everyone in the supply chain at an early stage of the process, and use gamification techniques to test things out. Rather than being done sequentially, things can be done concurrently and then the pieces just fit together like a Lego set, and that makes things far more efficient. But it needs all parties to be on board at an early stage.”

West recalls a meeting when at HS2 with starchitect Frank Gehry, who was talking about using BIM on one of his famously asymmetrical buildings. “If Frank Gehry can use it to build a building that looks like a wobbly boat, then you can use it for any building,” she said.

Factory assembly and modular construction has thus far been more prevalent in the world of residential, where its techniques lend themselves to the creation of buildings with many very similar units. But commercial developers are increasingly using it for the construction of panelling, which can include bricks laid against a concrete panel in the factory and then transported, rather than being laid on-site.

Hammerson's WestQuay Watermark

It is not yet a perfect system. The quality is higher, but factory production techniques are not yet widely enough adopted to keep the factories owned and run by firms like Laing O’Rourke or L&G running consistently, and when factories are idle they cost rather than save money.

Other innovations in materials technology are starting to become more widely adopted, and are helping to improve the sustainability of buildings.

“What people are doing with timber frames is getting very interesting,” Hammerson Head of Sustainability Louise Ellison said. “Before you could only go up to maybe four or five stories, but you can go much higher now as the technology improves, and some architects are starting to specialise in that.

“Then we are looking at flood risk, and how that can be mitigated through use of materials. We are working now with a lot of materials that are more permeable, that remain looking beautiful but adapt to the changing needs being brought about through climate change.”

Of course, in some cases innovation does mean fairly incredible, mind-bending technology, which could change the way humanity not only builds, but lives.

In his book "50 Things That Made The Modern Economy," economist Tim Harford cited the elevator as one of the most influential inventions ever, allowing as it did the creation of taller buildings.

Now skyscrapers could be about to get even bigger. One of the things that limits the size of tall buildings is the weight of the cord that holds up the elevator. The elevator cord for the new One World Trade Centre would weigh about 12 to 14 tonnes, and essentially one lift rope can extend to a maximum of 40 floors.

Richardson points to the ropeless lift being developed by German firm ThyssenKrupp as a potential game changer for construction. It uses maglev technology, essentially using magnets to push along the elevator car. Because it doesn’t have that heavy rope, buildings can be built much taller, and multiple cars can travel along a lift shaft, reducing waiting times. The lifts can even go sideways, and so hop from one lift shaft to the next, further improving efficiency.

“It is only a prototype, but if that is introduced it would be a big breakthough,” Richardson said.

But before these breakthroughs can happen regularly throughout the industry, developers and their contractors need to sit down and talk about digging holes.

To hear from the most innovative companies in the world of construction and development join Bisnow's Building for the Future event in London on 3 October.