Contact Us

Hotter Than Ever, Construction Tech Still Has Plenty Of Flaws, Experts Say

A construction site in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood.

Building information modeling, or BIM, and other construction technologies have only grown in importance to developers, architects and contractors amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But the construction industry's adoption of new construction tech isn't without its speed bumps, panelists said during Bisnow's BIM and future of construction and development webinar.

The construction industry has traditionally lagged others in productivity in a trend experts attribute to its labor-intensive nature and relatively slow adoption of new technology. Although its year-over-year productivity gains only clock in at 1%, according to McKinsey & Co., the construction industry has begun to turn a corner, experts say.

A lot of progress is left to be made when it comes to BIM, according to panelists like Lendlease Vice President Alexis McGuffin, who specializes in virtual design and construction. BIM, which takes different forms, offers a 3D representation of the construction process for architects, engineers and builders. 

“To start, I think everyone needs to think how you would use a model is the way that you use drawings, so drawings will go away," McGuffin said.

Brian Dyches, growth director for BIM advisory company CorbisStudio, said he has found some of the technology's potential has been limited by inconsistent openness to it from project teams. BIM's potential, which Dyches said can lead to 8% to 10% savings on construction time, is also limited by a lack of competition among software providers. 

One flare-up came in an open letter to Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost in July. The letter laid out complaints from the construction software company's architecture, engineering and construction customers about Revit, its widely used BIM software. 

The letter, which counts firms like BVN Architecture, Glenn Howells Architects and others as original signatories, calls out the increasing cost of Revit and allegedly stagnating software development. It elicited a response from Autodesk that defended some of the price increases and product development. 

Clockwise from top left: CorbisStudio Growth Director Brian Dyches, Urban Catalyst founder Erik Hayden, Bisnow Business Manager Stephanie Smith and Lendlease Vice President Alexis McGuffin.

“I think coordination and getting all the consultants on the same page is still one of the biggest challenges facing our industry," Dyches said. "Some of us are BIM experts and understand what a BIM model brings and the advantages of a good BIM model, and then there are others who are still struggling with Revit because Revit is not an easy software program in which to engage and become an expert."

Autodesk's dominant market position fueled the letter: The San Rafael, California-based company's two flagship products, Revit and AutoCAD, make up about 70% of the BIM software market, according to NBS

"It's kind of like the big gorilla in town, right? Who else are we going to do it with?" Dyches said. “I will tell you, just publicly: I am so happy, I am so jumping-up-and-down happy that that letter went out because Autodesk needed to hear it."

Outside of BIM, panelists discussed a growing market for new types of construction technologies driven by challenges created by the pandemic. McGuffin cited virtual reality mock-ups, for instance, as a useful way to overcome travel restrictions and social distancing these days.

“VR mock-ups are not new, but especially now, when site access can be limited or visiting a showroom is restricted, we can load a simulation of an operating room or a new condo unit onto a wireless headset and ship it to a client, an investor or potential buyer to get them comfortable with the design," she said.

Even so, McGuffin said Lendlease has had to be discerning about which startups it collaborates with or invests in, saying it and other companies have had the "need to look past the marketing material, which can be very flashy nowadays, and ask the hard questions."

“The problem we’re finding is that many of these really smart tech groups don’t quite understand how to build, so we have to help them and help them shape the technology," she said. "There’s also a lot of impressive marketing out there, but when you lift the hood, you find that the tech isn’t really there yet. It’s just a lot of human labor going on at this time."

Erik Hayden, founder of San Jose developer Urban Catalyst, said his company's use of BIM is enabling it to embrace other innovative and promising construction technologies.

He said he gave modular construction a hard look a couple of times last decade, finding both times that he didn't think it would work for his projects. But Urban Catalyst's recent adoption of BIM and modular's growth have enabled it to finally pull the trigger. The Marriott TownePlace Suites it is developing in San Jose will be modular, and Urban Catalyst is still deciding whether it will use cross-laminated timber, another innovative construction method, for its project at 470 West San Carlos St., Hayden said. 

"Construction hasn't changed a whole lot in 100 years, and a lot of the tech companies have said, 'How are we going to disrupt this market?'" he said. "There have been companies that have come in and said they were going to do modular on a large scale, and they’ve got round after round of VC funding. But we still haven’t seen revolutionary changes in our industry. I’m really hoping that in the near term, we’re able to see something like that occur."