In the modern design and construction environment, few concepts are more crucial to the successful delivery of major projects as collaboration.

Get things right in this area and you are on your way to a safer, more productive and efficient way of working. Get it wrong and you have greater potential for delays, errors and mistakes, lower productivity and a higher risk of litigation and disputes.

Yet by most accounts, project teams in Australia do not always work as collaboratively as could be the case. Why is this so?

Peter Barda, CEO of the Australian Construction Industry Forum, says one reason surrounds an industry culture in which too often subcontractors are not given adequate levels of respect on the part of builders and designers. Such a scenario sees them merely given directions and denied the opportunity to help determine the best way of working or feel any sense of project ownership.

More fundamentally, Barda says there is a basic flaw in traditional procurement models which are based around the concept of having a design which is then given to builders and subcontractors to price. Such a model, he says, prevents involvement of builders and trade contractors in the design.

That’s a problem, he says, as tradespeople have expertise regarding ‘buildability’ which would be invaluable during the design phase. Service tradespeople, for example, would bring ideas on how to best run penetrations, rises, ducts and air-conditioning; structural trades could contribute ideas on different formwork systems or how to improve cycle times for multi-storey buildings. The building contractor, meanwhile, can contribute thoughts about how many cranes will be needed, where site sheds will be located and how disruption will be minimised. All this means people will start to talk about how work will be sequenced, vertical transport will be managed and how each trade contractor can make life easier for the next person.

Aside from the practical benefits, this type of involvement gives subcontractors a sense of project ownership and creates an environment which is conducive to higher levels of respect and greater appreciation of the value brought to the table by each party.

“If we could simply bring forward the involvement of trade contractors and main contractors, you can start the collaboration at an early stage,” Barda said, adding that one way in which this could happen would be to engage contractors and subcontractors as paid consultants prior to designs being finalised and contracts for work being awarded.

“That is, for me, the single biggest impediment (toward better collaboration) and the single biggest benefit the industry could make in terms of driving better value for money.”

Rob Humphreys, vice president of product management at Viewpoint Construction Software, says barriers to collaboration include sensitivity surrounding the sharing of data, differing goals and objectives amongst different team members, issues with technology and the kind of connectivity needed in different parts of the country to make collaboration work seamlessly, and a general lack of trust amongst team members in a sector which has long fostered a culture of project participants working independently of each other.

Asked what successful collaboration looks like, Humphreys said there are a number of elements. These include a common purpose where time is taken to explore where interests might overlap or be in conflict, clearly defined roles, effective leadership, well-defined processes, clear communication and cooperative relationships. He said collaboration must be driven from the top down and must be seen as beneficial to all parties in an environment where all team members have access to the right technology.

Barda added the notion of collaboration represents common sense. He cited the example of a football team, where you would not have each position operating in a silo but would have the fullback, halfbacks and centres interacting together.

“We are not saying anything radical,” he said. “We are just saying we actually need to focus on making sure these people do work together well and that there is good chemistry and everyone turns up to play and everyone is focused on the same set of objectives. And part of the reason they are focused on those objectives is that they helped to set them.”

Humphreys said the importance of better collaboration cannot be understated.

“I think if you look at both the US and Australia and the UK as well, the goal of construction is to find ways of being more productive, reducing costs, beginning to try to work more like a manufacturing industry versus a one-off build industry,” he stated. “I think we’ve got to move to the economies we want to get around construction and I think BIM and collaboration can be a key driver around that as well as an appropriate application of technology.”