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Digital construction

28 May 2022

AS THE construction industry prepares for the new legislation around fire safety, the sector faces a lengthy journey before it can meet acceptable standards and assure end users that buildings are safe. The good news is that steady progress is being made. Matt Ryan has the detail.

Almost five years after the Grenfell Tower disaster, the issue of fire safety within the UK’s built environment remains an ongoing challenge. News headlines reporting on significant dangers, particularly for those living in high-rise structures, have become almost weekly occurrences.

Only recently, Andy Roe (Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade) was reported as saying that a Grenfell Tower-type disaster could well happen again. Quoted in The Telegraph, Roe is said to have observed: “Fire safety in the construction industry is, I’m afraid, an afterthought.”

While comment of this nature may – at least in part – serve to dampen widespread hopes that the industry can improve, there are many organisations and groups working diligently to ensure that fire safety is at the very top of the agenda, not just within existing structures, but also for future buildings.

At the heart of current developments is the rise in ‘digital construction’, which is allowing developers, contractors and building owners alike to take control and usher in a new phase of fire safety and parallel compliance.

Need for regulation

It was Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety back in May 2018 that became a catalyst for change in terms of working practices within the construction sector. Dame Judith’s study found the sector was prone to cutting corners, with the realisation of a strict and independent regulator seen as the best way forward to enforce Best Practice working and guarantee the ongoing safety of building occupants.

As part of the Building Safety Bill, both a new Building Safety Regulator (based within the Health and Safety Executive) and a new Construction Products Regulator have been put forward. When fully in play, they will realise a landmark step forward when it comes to a more rigorous framework for higher-risk buildings.

For those who fail to meet the stipulations laid down by the new requirements or otherwise simply choose to ignore them, it’s promised that the repercussions will be severe, with serious financial and legal ramifications for proven breaches.

Dame Judith Hackitt has hammered home the message that this will be ‘regulation with teeth’. From a legal standpoint, contractors, designers and building owners will have to demonstrate that a building is safe. Buildings will require the regulator’s sign-off before projects can progress.

While initially this may seem a daunting prospect for many operating in the built environment, emerging technology is now beginning to provide the answers, streamlining processes and delivering the tools necessary for ensuring that every box is being ticked.

Watertight audit trails

With the Fire Safety Act 2021 due to come into effect this year or in 2023 (the Government has not yet set a specific timeline), it will be imperative that companies can provide watertight audit trails should an accident or event occur.

The sector’s reliance on a ‘race to the finish’ when it comes to project completion can often jeopardise the level of care and attention needed to ensure that all fire safety considerations have been properly managed. It’s no secret that, in this business, time is money, but without due care and attention, the risks posed to end users are deemed to be very real.

A lack of structure and procedure when accounting for completed tasks also adds ambiguity in the event of an accident, muddying the waters around which contractor or sub-contractor might be responsible. It’s a situation exacerbated by an often inconsistent and unclear paper trail. This is a far cry from Dame Judith’s vision of achieving the ‘golden thread’ (ie a digital timeline of each decision made and any actions taken throughout the construction journey).

Delivering a high level of reporting and compliance needn’t be the arduous task it once was. Digital platforms and apps now allow site staff to easily record and log the fact that work was carried out to the proper standards. To ensure its effectiveness and ease of use, these innovations can be used on existing hardware, such as a tablet or a smart phone, making it a simple process for practitioners to capture evidence of completed work while present on site.

For developers and building owners, the power of harnessing technology should never be understated. In the eventuality that proof of work needs to be provided, a digital and tamper-proof audit trail, complete with dates and time stamps, is readily available.

Another huge benefit of construction ‘tech’ is its ability to improve efficiency in reporting. This is an area that’s at constant risk of delay due to time constraints and outdated methods of working. Digital replicas of worksheets and key forms (including the current EWS-1 Forms) can be uploaded, allowing information to be entered quickly and with greater accuracy by qualified experts during time on site.

This is an effective answer to the laborious task of entering written information into word processing or spreadsheet programmes, which can often result in human error when attempting to transcribe handwritten notes. It also means that reports can be easily generated without duplicating work. Such an approach ensures that audit trails are reliable, while action timeliness can be detailed and produced.

Quality, safety, health and environment managers can even update inspection sheets from the office, rolling out new fields for site teams to complete seamlessly across multiple locations at once. When new guidance is published, it’s possible to start the journey towards compliance the very next day.

Embracing BIM

As more construction firms demand that projects be model-based to work within the Building Information Modelling (BIM) environment, having digital tools that allow instant, on-site access to 2D or 3D plans can also be a huge advantage in terms of fire safety.

Having direct access to reliable information on the planning, design and construction of a building is essential if site managers are to ensure regulations, standards and other stakeholder requirements are adhered to on a strict footing. Digital tools frequently offer ‘ticketing systems’ that locate precise areas where work needs to be managed within BIM models, while also having the ability to assign jobs to the members of a project team for immediate action.

With the continuation of remote working, cloud-based technology is also affording site managers the freedom to access important documents at the push of a button. When juggling multiple projects, digital tools can provide a constant and holistic overview of site projects by affording access to up-to-the-minute safety inspection information. With the right permissions in place, project managers are able to check that work has been carried out without being physically present. Not only can this improve the speed at which work is able to be completed, but it also carries obvious environmental benefits, with less time spent travelling from site-to-site.

The rise of digital construction has also coincided with a growing need to obtain ‘Big Data’. Business performance is now critical to mission success. Companies want to know what’s working and what isn’t, in which areas they can improve and precisely what they’re doing right. Harnessing ‘unstructured data’ is an area that’s perhaps less considered. While spreadsheets can easily be quantified, ‘unstructured data’ (ie information such as e-mails, text messages and images) is less easy to compile and analyse.

Nevertheless, capturing, reading and understanding information contained within these digital forms is crucial to improving fire safety standards. Digital tools that record instant messages, in-app images and video help to form a more complete picture when it comes to collating ‘Big Data’ and, more importantly, marks another step towards the ‘golden thread’, yielding a clear indication of what conversations and decisions took place during the completion of the build programme.

Communication is key
The effectiveness of any organisation relies on its ability to communicate and share information between teams. Increasingly, teams are becoming aware of the ability of technology to improve such communication on site. Instant messaging allows teams to collaborate with ease, keeping everyone informed and providing real-time updates.

Instant messaging also assists with the delegation of tasks, assigning responsibility to individuals or a specific company such that there’s no confusion when it comes to ‘who’s doing what’. This approach can also be of huge benefit to staff members, enhancing the way in which workers are able to understand their individual tasks. Images and videos remove ambiguity around whether a job has been completed properly and provide photographic proof for additional levels of quality assurance.

Businesses that have already taken the necessary action will be in a much stronger position to adapt to new regulations including the Fire Safety Act 2021. Change doesn’t happen overnight and, for those companies who are serious about implementing new and improved working methods, the sooner they start that process the better. Encouraging digital technologies now will allow time for workforces to select the right tools for them, incorporate them into their day-to-day routines and iron out any barriers to success.

Further uptake of digital technology promises to offer something money cannot buy: peace of mind. With the promise of legal consequences for those who fail to meet the new industry standards, knowing that work has been carried out correctly will deliver buildings that are truly safe to occupy.

Back in early September in The Guardian, Dame Judith Hackitt asserted: “There are still parts of the [construction] industry saying: ‘We cannot change what we do’. They are still using excuses. It is disconcerting for us and it is worrying.”

The evolution of digital technology means that built environment professionals can no longer offer any excuses as to why their work doesn’t match acceptable standards. If we’re to ensure that events like the fire at Grenfell Tower never happen again, then the construction industry needs to begin using every tool at its disposal.

Matt Ryan is UK Country Manager at PlanRadar (www.planradar.com)