Greater adoption of digital technology in construction can help to improve the quality, safety and compliance of buildings, an industry leader says.

In an interview with Sourceable, Callan Mantell, Area Vice President at Oracle Construction and Engineering, said the importance of having information and data which is connected and available to decision makers and project team members should not be underestimated.

He applauds NSW Government moves to require design and construction documents relating to Class 2 buildings (apartments) to be lodged on the NSW Planning Portal (see below).

According to Mantell, the flow of data on construction projects can become siloed as information is held by multiple organisations who come together for a short period.

Where this occurs, two things can happen.

First, decision makers/project team members may not have all of the relevant information available to them when making decisions or carrying out tasks.

Second, project control and accountability becomes problematic as it can be difficult to ensure that aspects of the as-built form are consistent with approved designs.

This may result in potential safety issues and a loss of confidence in the built form. As an example, Mantell points to the difficulty in identifying buildings which have flammable cladding.

Instead, Mantell says information needs to be connected.

“Ultimately, if all we are doing is working in Office products, 2D and that sort of thing, you have got multiple silos of data – none of which are connected with each other or with the decisions and accountability around that,” Mantell said.

“Think of it as what are the standards, what has been specified in accordance with the standards and what has actually been delivered in the built form that results from that process?

“If there is no connection between those things – which is an inevitable outcome of manual, non-digitised, unconnected information – no-one will be able to tell until after the fact where potential issues may arise.

“That results in lower public confidence and ultimately can result in less safe workplaces or places of residence.

“Given the nature of projects with lots of organisations coming together quickly to deliver a thing on behalf of somebody – the information which goes behind this is inherently disconnected.

“Connecting it all up is where the value lies.”

Mantell’s comments come as governments around Australia are seeking to use digital tools to provide greater assurance around building quality and safety.

In New South Wales, builders who act as principal contractors for buildings which are classified as Class 2 buildings under the National Construction Code (multi-storey apartments) now need to lodge important design and construction documents on the NSW Planning Portal.

These include:

  • Designs for important building elements (structure, fire safety, waterproofing, building services etc.) – these must be lodged before construction can start
  • Declarations from registered designers that designs meet relevant building standards
  • Approved variations; and
  • A declaration from the principal contractor that the building has been constructed in line with the approved designs.

Information from this portal will link through to a newly created Strata Hub and will consolidate information about a building from its design through to construction and subsequent maintenance. This will include not only technical details but also information about which parties performed various tasks.

From there, the Office of the NSW Building Commissioner is working with KPMG to develop a Building Assurance Solution which will deliver a risk rating score for each building regarding the level of confidence that the building will meet NCC requirements. This will be used by consumers, insurers and regulators to identify individual buildings in which problems are most likely to occur.

(Note: the measures are being applied only to Class 2 buildings as buildings in this class have been disproportionately impacted by quality and compliance concerns.)

To enable all this, the industry will need to improve its digital maturity and preparedness.

A recent report prepared by Western Sydney University in conjunction with the NSW Building Commissioner found that most builders and around half of all designers remain at the basic stage of digitalisation.

Widespread ability to submit documents via BIM or digital twins was at least ten years away, the report found.

Meanwhile it found that most builders continue to rely on standardised MS Office software to manage tasks such as procurement, site activity records, safety, design document management, quality and compliance, staff and subcontractors.

Office of the Building Commissioner Digital Director Yin Man said requirements to lodge documents on the planning portal are the first step to creating a single source of truth for all Class 2 buildings throughout design, construction and occupation.

This, he says, will create ongoing transparency and visibility about the design and construction of individual buildings along with the various players who were involved along the way.

As things stand, Man says much technology investment focuses on specific solutions to individual challenges. Instead, he says a more strategic approach toward improving quality and reliability is needed.

Mantell applauds the requirement for documents to be lodged on the portal.

He says such a mandate will help to accelerate the digital maturity of industry by forcing contractors to examine their processes to ensure they have the systems and capabilities which are needed to submit the relevant information at the relevant time.

This will help to expand digital maturity levels not only for top tier players but also for smaller contractors and subcontractors.

Whilst he acknowledges that there will be a cost in doing this, Mantell says this will be more than offset by the benefits involved.

Aside from greater assurance about the final built product, these include greater efficiency for contractors themselves through better project and information control – something which is important in a period of tight margins.

Mantell also notes that digitally mature contractors were shown to have greater resilience and ability to adapt their operations during COVID.

Asked about the role of technology providers such as Oracle, Mantell says it is important to educate the industry and to challenge the sector to focus efforts on areas where they can achieve further gains.

This will help to empower organisations to derive maximum benefit from technology investment.

“I wouldn’t call it disruption, but this is an industry which is in its own paradigm that is quite a difficult paradigm to break down because of how contracts work and how work is met,” Mantell said.

“Gaining efficiency and being safer and more productive happens by enabling, educating, highlighting and challenging so that those organisations can choose to get better at the bits and pieces they need to get better at.

“We applaud what governments like NSW are doing. We think it is going to be valuable for the industry. I would be surprised if other states and New Zealand don’t start to follow suit.

“Ultimately, we don’t want to over-egg legislation, but this seems like an intelligent level of demand on industry that will drive positive outcomes.”

“It then becomes about us as vendors helping to enable that as much as we possibly can.”