The future is digital
By Melanie Franner
Some say there is a momentous change underfoot within the Alberta construction industry. Others call it more of an evolution rather than a revolution. However you chose to label it, understand that a new norm is on the way. And it’s one that can’t be ignored – at least for long.
Here to stay
Digital project delivery (DPD) is not only a reality; it’s become a requirement of all Alberta Infrastructure’s (AI) major capital projects. This came into effect as of March 31, 2018, when AI released its official DPD requirements. And that’s not all. AI fully intends to introduce these DPD requirements on smaller projects over the next few years.
“We acknowledged right off the top that we could not do this alone,” says Rafael Lucero, manager of the Spatial Information Management Group, Alberta Infrastructure. “We set up working groups with various stakeholders to get everyone around the table to collaborate. We then came up with our initial draft DPD requirements and submitted them to the working groups. During the course of several workshops, we addressed every comment one by one.”
This lengthy process came on the heels of a steep learning curve on the Royal Alberta Museum project. The $375.5 million capital undertaking was the official pilot for AI’s use of Building Information Modelling (BIM).
“We didn’t know a lot about BIM at the time and as a result, our requirements weren’t clear,” says Lucero. “Although the project was successfully designed and constructed using BIM, we missed an opportunity to take full advantage of the technology’s potential. Shortly thereafter, we started an initiative on how we would handle future projects. That’s how DPD came into being.”
So what exactly is DPD?
Essentially, DPD ensures that the project owner gets all of the data necessary to operate the facility in an efficient and sustainable manner throughout the facility’s entire life cycle.
Lucero suggests that up to 80 per cent of the total cost of a facility lies in the maintenance and operation after construction.
“For us, DPD means that we make sure to get the required digital information throughout the life cycle of the project,” he explains. “It encompasses more than BIM and 3D modelling. It’s about usable and structured asset data.”
AI owns approximately 2,000 facilities within the province. DPD requirements are currently in use on seven capital projects on the go – to the tune of $2.5 billion.
The two big tools in AI’s DPD toolbox include BIM and COBie. The latter is an information exchange standard that is used for extracting the digital information from BIM into a spreadsheet format.
According to Lucero, AI has separated the two so that not every project going forward will require BIM – yet. But all will need that crucial COBie requirement.
“DPD brings a tremendous amount of advantages,” says Lucero. “One, it offers transparency throughout the whole life cycle of the project because it uses a single source of information. And two, it allows for more input from the different stakeholders at earlier stages of the project.”
And another enters the mix
AI isn’t the only DPD player in town. The University of Alberta has also entered the fray with DPD requirements.
“As owners, we see stewardship and sustainability as being near and dear to our hearts,” explains Pat Jansen, associate vice-president, planning and project delivery, facilities and operations, University of Alberta. “Like any other owner, we’re concerned with cost. Most people acknowledge that the capital cost is a small amount of the total project life cycle. Having a set of requirements means that we end up with a series of data sets that we can then apply in our own operations. We will have a real warehouse of useful information.”
According to Jansen, DPD as a term has been floating around the construction industry for the last couple of decades. The difference now, he says, is the refinement on how this information can be used to better advantage by all stakeholders.
“We are in the process of creating our own standard,” he says, adding that the university has recently published its first draft BIM standard. The university shared this draft with owners and the wider construction industry in December 2017, requesting feedback. It also held an in-person feedback session.
The university has subsequently issued its first RFP wherein BIM is a hard-lined requirement.
This marks a new era for the institution.
“This starts to signal our intent to move into a fully digital world,” says Andrew Sharman, vice-president, facilities and operations, University of Alberta. “This has already been done for many years in other countries and it is mandatory for publicly funded projects in the United Kingdom. Only by requiring this capability will we be able to move the needle forward and drive the entire construction sector to become fully effective. Without owners driving this requirement, there will be little incentive for change.”
This change will also create a more collaborative approach.
“Each entity in the construction industry surrounds itself with a cloak of ‘what’s best for us’ instead of ‘what’s best for the industry’,” states Jansen. “Instead of waiting for the industry to mature, we, as an owner, have initiated a broad discussion of what’s a good fit.”
Now or never
Although DPD and its aliases (e.g. Integrated Project Delivery) have been common terminology in the construction industry for quite some time, they have been given a gentle push by some of the industry’s major stakeholders in order to make them a reality.
“As more and more owners better define what their expectations are, we will work better in the marketplace,” says Jansen. “We think that the outcome is not predicated on what the owners want, but something much higher in that it will drive innovation by creating more value for everyone and, eventually, will raise the industry bar.”
That being said, the question of timing is inevitable. Both AI and the University of Alberta are proceeding with some caution.
“We think the timing for this is good because the market is not as busy right now,” says Jansen, adding that one could also argue that the market then is not as profitable. “We’re at the point where we have asked ourselves if there will ever be a right time for this.”
Sharman also speaks of the need to get things started sooner rather than later.
“As we focus a project on outcomes over the longer term, it is key that we address operation and maintenance, as these costs far outweigh initial construction within three to five years,” he says. “Moving to a digital project environment from day one of the project, design development, through to operation will be key to being able to reduce our ecological footprint and to reduce waste and re-work during construction. Transferring an accurate model from the design, engineering and construction teams to the owner will allow the efficient ongoing operation, maintenance, upgrading, and renovation to the asset over its entire life cycle. It will
provide an end-to-end integrated record.”
Leading by example
Ian Morgan, principal, Next Architecture, has been using digital technology (primarily BIM) since 1998, while he was in the United Kingdom. He and his partners are strong proponents of the digital world.
“We’ve been advocating its use for quite some time now,” he says. “As an architect, I feel like I have been playing in the sandbox all by myself for a number of years.”
To that end, Next Architecture has embraced digital technology in all its openness. The contractor used the 3D model developed by the firm to set out the foundations, primary and secondary steel, for the Capitol Theatre at Fort Edmonton Park project back in 2011. It also used the technology on the Edmonton Law Courts project.
“For the Law Courts renovation, we used digital technology to take a laser scan of the existing building to create a point cloud for the data, which was subsequently used to model the existing building,” explains Morgan, who adds that there were more than 16,000 model elements created. “After running clash detection, we were confident we had created and released to the bidders a 99.9 per cent coordinated, consistent, complete, and accurate model.”
Although Morgan has worked with some contractors that have adopted the technology, he says that there is still some way to go.
“We’ve seen a lot of general contractors investing in this technology and a number of subcontractors, specifically the steel industry or fabricators in particular,” he says. “It’s now up to the rest of the subcontractors to follow suit.”
Morgan sees no reason why the adoption process can’t start now.
“Using digital technology for fabrication work, like curtain wall assemblies, to replace on-site construction makes a lot of sense,” he says. “It creates a safer environment and a more efficient one. Studies have shown there is considerable latency in subtrade performance because they have to spend so much time finding things, measuring and re-adjusting equipment, climbing ladders, etc.”
Morgan notes that some leading-edge firms (like Next Architecture) are already integrating plugins to accentuate the digital experience, like the use of gaming technology to enable virtual-reality walk-throughs in 3D models.
“We’re at the tipping point in our industry,” he states. “Our industry is going to soon find itself in a labour-shortage situation. We need to find better ways of building more effectively.”
All together now
According to Dan Doherty, PCL, the timing for this digital evolution is good.
“It’s been talked about for well more than a decade now,” he says. “And it’s currently starting to come to fruition because owners are beginning to realize that there is value in getting data. Plus, the technology has been getting better over time. Most of the technical roadblocks are out of the way. We, as an industry, simply need to adapt better processes that can take advantage of the technology available.”
Doherty agrees that the onus for this movement is primarily on the owners.
“I would like to see this happening from the construction side because it is a lot more efficient way to deliver a project,” says Doherty. “Even if it is going to save significant dollars in the future, owners are going to have to be the ones to drive this forward because they are going to be paying for it early in the process. Of course, a lot depends on the delivery method and we can sort of push them in that direction, but when we say, for example, that we want to bring in the subcontractors earlier in the design process, some owners still view that as risk. So there is only so much we can do.”
Regardless, Doherty sees the introduction of these new requirements as a good thing for industry.
“There is no question that if the owner is going to retain the assets, then this is the more efficient way to do things,” he adds.
Still, Doherty does have a couple concerns.
“The University of Alberta is rolling out some of their deliverables on some of their projects and they are asking for an ‘as-built model’,” he says. “AI is asking only for a ‘record model’. The university’s model asks for a lot more data and detailed geometry to be built. Depending on project size, there are thousands of data entry coming from multiple stakeholders, throughout the entire value chain – all funneling into one database. That’s a lot of work outside the typical processes to manage.”
Another big concern of Doherty’s is the educational component. Industry associations, stakeholders, and consultants need to step up to the plate and start educating the industry on what’s being required. Some of this is already taken place, but more needs to be done.
“The biggest hurdle in all of this is change management,” says Doherty. “Everybody is used to delivering projects in the same way with the same processes. We need to change it into a much more collaborative process among the stakeholders so that we end up with one BIM and integrated database. Technology is at the point where this is easier than ever to do.”
Talk is cheap – or is it?
Justin James, owner and founder of REACH Consulting, views this digital evolution through more of a human window as opposed to a technological one.
“Technology is pushing us to re-humanize the construction industry,” he says, adding that the software is only as smart as the people operating it. “It’s making us talk more. Technology merely acts as a platform for us to increase our communication.”
According to James, the “mother of all problems” is that “we don’t talk enough”.
He has seen a shift underway to a more human environment since the ‘90s.
“Companies all across Canada became all about mission statements and codes of ethics,” he explains. “It is all a way to better communicate with staff. The construction industry, as a whole, is all miscommunication. It’s costing money to say that a duct is in the wrong place. Change orders should not be occurring at the rate they are.”
James suggests that up to 89 per cent of what people retain in their brains is through sight. This evolution in technology, he adds, merely allows us to better visualize everything in one place. He makes a case in point through the retelling of a recent experiment he ran at a job site.
“I put 3D visuals on the wall of a construction site,” he explains. “At first, everyone thought I was ridiculing them. But I left the drawings up and after a few weeks, I noticed that people started using the pictures to leave notes to themselves and others, things like this pipe is going to run into a problem here. After a month, I took the drawings down and there was an uproar of protest. I realized then that visual aids are everything.”
James founded REACH Consulting in 2013 to educate people in the construction industry on how to use technology to increase communication. (The company actually worked with AI to help write its DPD requirements.)
“I think the release of the DPD requirements sent a shudder through the industry,” says James. “I think it’s a wake-up call. I think AI has every right to ask what it’s asking for, which is to have decent information handed over at the end of the project. That’s not a bad ask in my opinion.”
REACH Consulting, adds James, is ready to work with associations, companies, and other stakeholders to “help soften the education process” of meeting DPD requirements.
“The biggest hurdle is change,” he says. “No one likes change. We’re talking about an industry shift to embrace technology and re-humanize the industry. There’s a myth out there that technology is complex. It’s not. Technology is just a tool to increase communication.”
The only big wrinkle?
“The construction industry isn’t in a money epidemic,” states James. “It’s in a time epidemic.”
A brave new world
Sharman is a firm believer in the digital world and he believes that the steps the university is currently taking will be of benefit to both students and industry.
“New graduates from design, engineering and technology and trade disciplines are trained in electronic media and no longer ‘draw’ with pencils,” he states. “We need to embrace this new technology and ensure we can optimize its implementation to drive improved outcomes across the infrastructure spectrum, especially given the ever-tightening fiscal environment.”
As for those not yet up to speed, Sharman admits that there may be challenges ahead. But not any that are insurmountable.
“This will challenge owners, contractors, engineers and architects, particularly those of us in the latter half of our careers, as we did not grow up in a digital environment,” he says. “We have to adapt and learn from those starting out in their careers, as this is the future and our younger employees are the future of our industry. We owe it both to them and the end users of what we deliver to ensure we have the best possible built environment, and to embrace new technologies and new ways of business to achieve that. Dinosaurs are actually extinct.”
Although one may question whether this is the actual start of an industry evolution, it is, nevertheless, a decisive moment. As to how quickly the future will unfold from here, only time will tell.
“I’ve been telling people that BIM will be ubiquitous in the next five years,” concludes Doherty. “And that was 10 years ago. However disappointed and wrong I was, what I do see is a momentum in industry. People can’t hide from it anymore. I think industry is really at a turning point right now.”