‘No alternative’ to digital construction, expert says

This article is part of our special report Digitising the EU’s construction industry.

The digitisation of the EU’s construction industry is an oft-overlooked area of technological development, both politically and socially. EURACTIV.com spoke to Milena Feustel to shine a light on the sector and explore the direction the digital construction is going in across Europe.

Milena Feustel is co-chair of the digital construction focus group, EU BIM (Business Information Modelling).

Could you tell me a bit more about the history and the structure of the EU BIM group, and give our readers an insight into what BIM actually refers to?

The EU task Group was established at the beginning of 2016, by founding members UK, Norway, Germany, Sweden, France, Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Finland, Italy, Austria and Estonia. The project is supported by the European Commission.

We now have 24 members across the continent and our essential objective is to foster the use and deployment of digital technologies in the construction industry, with particular attention afforded to Building Information Modelling.

BIM doesn’t refer to a particular technology, but more of a working culture. It’s about capturing data and using it within the whole life cycle of a construction project. The aim is to use a myriad of datasets in the preparational phase of construction, as well as in the production, construction, facility management and operation stages of building. It’s about connecting all of these phases together in a collaborative effort. You could, in fact, call it ‘Building Information Management.’

So where does the inclusion of the phrase ‘modelling’ come into the mix?

We started with ‘modelling’ because we had been using 3d digital models to review and edit different datasets related to building processes. ‘Management’ is perhaps a more apt term because BIM is about the whole life cycle of the construction process.

What are the objectives of the group going forward?

All big project starts with public procurements, and we’d like to see the Commission pay due attention to the huge impact that the digitization of the construction industry will have on wider political goals.

More specific objectives concern formatting an Open BIM environment, relying on the input and collaboration of all stakeholders involved in the construction process as a means to maximize the benefits that data can have to the whole life cycle of a building project.

In this vein, we also need to start thinking about things like a common data environment. This is an important part of the process because it refers to the location in which we store data and who is able to access that data. We need a European norm for common data environments, in order to foster collaboration from all parties involved in a collaborative construction process.

Do you think that in the future construction of building across the EU, BIM will be a common working method?

There is no alternative to staying with the old methods, so BIM must be a common working method for the future. It will take time, but I remain optimistic that the EU will soon recognise the extensive benefits to digitizing the construction industry.

Could you describe the current state of digital construction in the EU?

According to statistics, construction is the least digitized sector in the EU.

We really want to change this. We’ve been working on promoting the role of the construction industry and digitization initiatives. We are aware that there is a lot to do to get some of the more established companies to change their methods of working and to start to digitize certain areas of their work, but we’re confident.

Speaking specifically about EU member states. Is there a large gap between more developed and less developed states, in the field of digital construction? 

Well, yes, there is a lack of harmony between EU member states. There are a few leaders, such as the  UK, Scandinavian countries, as well as Germany and France.  There are others that have just started and quite a quite a few who haven’t done anything yet because they are waiting to see the tangible benefits of using digital technologies in the construction sector.

What are the risks for these countries in particular, if they don’t start to increase their involvement in digital construction? 

Well, the risk is they will not participate in the future of the industry. There are different degrees in the availability of human resources when it comes to digitization. With this in mind, it can be quite challenging for architects, engineers and companies to take part in the revolution of this sector where there is simply not the infrastructure to support it.

And this is about the wider connectivity of industry, you can’t, for example, conduct Building Information Modelling if you don’t have a strong internet connection and accesses to sound data storage systems. We should be thinking about harmonizing the levels of digitization across the EU more generally, too.

How can member states be convinced to up their game in the digital construction sector?

How could people benefit from these developments on a day-to-day basis?

Well, people live in houses, they take the tram and they take the train. People could benefit from the whole system if it works efficiently.

Digital construction is not an abstract concept at all, it’s very tangible. We can use advanced technologies in construction to improve things like the air quality of a particular location or to ensure that traffic problems are lessened, or that the energy efficiency of buildings is maximised. These types of things can have a big impact on the health and wellbeing of people. Nations the world over will take note once they see the benefits.

One of the challenges that I foresee in the digitalization of the construction industry is the skills gap of workers. How can you ensure that workers can feel confident in the use and application of new technologies as part of their job?

This is a big challenge. There is a shortage of manpower in the first place. Alongside this, traditionally people in the industry aren’t used to working with advanced technologies. It’s important to focus on these social and work-related issues. It’s a matter of investment.

You said a bit earlier on that the UK was one of the founding members of BIM. Is there any indication as to whether they will continue to be part of the group after Brexit?

We’ve decided that the UK will stay members of the group because they have been there from the beginning that initiated the whole thing and been pioneers in the field.

Brexit is a political issue and our priorities are about innovation and development. The UK wants to stay at the forefront of digital construction and they are best placed to do so as a member of EU BIM.

How do you envisage the functioning of the construction industry of the future in Europe?

The frontiers between the physical and the digital worlds are becoming less and less visible. The more we get used to the benefits of connected technologies in the home and working environments, the more difficult it will be to conceive of a world in which smart technologies are not put to use.

With BIM you have such great opportunities to present ideas and to see how different the different designs match together. It’s not only about efficiency and health and social issues, but its also about achieving the best architectural solution and having aesthetically interesting solutions as well.

To sum up, the construction sector will remain a key factor in the EU’s digital development because we live in a world that is reliant on both physical and digital spaces. It’s about being connected, not just digitally, but spatially as well, ensuring that the efficiencies we are able to make architecturally are informed by a strong and efficient digital ecosystem.

Let’s always ask ourselves the questions: How can things be done better? How can we live better? How can we enjoy our everyday environments better? These are the considerations that will allow us to innovate and construct the buildings of tomorrow.

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