Industry experts gathered to discuss the importance of software in construction and how best to use it, at a recent roundtable hosted by Building and software company Bluebeam
With the world ever more digital, the selection and appropriate use of software is a core part of every business strategy.
For the construction industry, such growth in digital technologies is perhaps even more pronounced due to the slower than average adoption so far and the sector’s typically extended supply chain.
Building magazine, in collaboration with software company Bluebeam, gathered a panel of experts from across the industry to explore how best to get value from construction software as part of a roundtable discussion.
The panellists, chaired by Building’s special projects editor Jordan Marshall, discussed how to select the right software for an organisation’s aims, what construction companies can do to maximise productivity and quality, and how the use of the right software can support wider company aims.
Marshall kicked off the session by asking the assembled experts to explain how firms in the construction sector could, regardless of size, can make sure they were making the correct choices when it comes to software.
How do you make the right choices?
“The software has got to do what the software needs to do,” said James Chambers, director – global industry development, Nemetschek. “What’s the impetus behind getting something on board?” He added: “Is it to digitise an analogue process? Is it to gain efficiency? Is it to compete? What are you looking to do? That methodology and thinking should and can be applied to anything from collaborative software to AI and digital twins.”
Chambers continued, saying that the small to medium business (SMB) market in construction is “probably the best positioned to implement software because of its need to have a quick return on investment (ROI).” However, he added, having a clear focus on what the software needs to achieve would help to drive value, bring a team together and deliver a better value for the project and the client.
“Definitely the purpose point for us has been key,” agreed Olivia Burton, senior development manager at London Land Group. “I think that determining purpose and perhaps the understanding of why actually something matters is quite a big thing to get across when both selecting a software and also implementing its use.” On the latter point she added that there is a cultural element that needs to be addressed.
What’s the impetus behind getting something on board? Is it to digitise an analogue process? Is it to gain efficiency? Is it to compete? What are you looking to do?
James Chambers, Nemetschek
“People need to feel that it’s OK to learn something new,” she said. “Sometimes it’s how you break down that barrier, that yes, it’s going to take a bit of time, and there’s not anything terrible that is going to happen if you get it wrong the first time. As long as there’s a purpose behind it, I think people are generally quite willing to take it on.”
On this point, Rico Wojtulewicz, head of housing and planning policy at the National Federation of Builders, said that sometimes the simplest technological gains are the easiest when it comes to improving productivity.
“A lot of organisations started and will continue to use WhatsApp, because everybody uses WhatsApp and it’s a good way just to pass information,” he said.
“On top of that, it kind of gets people used to digital as a starting point while continuing as a productivity tool.” Wojtulewicz said this showed how sometimes taking a small first step was the key to wider digital transformation.
Improving productivity and quality
When it comes to maximising productivity gains from software, Ashwin Halaria, associate director at Symmetrys, said it is imperative that platforms “do what they say on the tin”.
“If you’re software for a task and then you find it doesn’t do that, that is definitely going to be a productivity issue as it’s not addressing the issue you were having in the first place,” he said.
“We had a problem when we bought a database system and it couldn’t connect in the way we wanted it to to another software that we specifically bought it for. And even though it had so many different use cases for that database software, it actually deviated us and made the implementation of the other parts of the software so much more difficult.”
"Once you have the appropriate tools implemented, it allows for better solutions not only within your business but on the projects you are delivering."
Harry Bocking, Webb Yates Engineers
John Handscomb, partner at Akerlof, said his firm considers that its responsibility is to review technology all the time, and equally look at how it affects its business model.
He said: “For instance, we’ve just invested in technology for point cloud surveys, which for the right buildings are gives us an eight times shift in productivity on site. So we’ve changed our model, we’ve changed how we operate, and actually it is a shift that has sent productivity through the roof.”
Handscomb said this shows that keeping on top of IT developments is massively important but that not changing for the sake of it is of equal significance.
“There is a balance, because that return on investment has to be there, and if you’re constantly changing your software, how is your team ever going to keep up with it?"
Maximising return on investment
Deciding exactly what ROI looks like for your firm is key, according to Tomas Hollingsworth, head of technology at BW.
He said: “I think when you go to a software provider, they [might] immediately go, ‘Right, it’s 5,000 man-hours, you’re saving times that by the salary, and we’re saving you £1.5m pounds a year’. And I’d say, ‘No, that’s not my ROI. That’s not what I want to achieve with this piece of software. If I want to give a work-life balance to people, I want to improve the defect-free score.’”
Hollingsworth added while making money is obviously very important in a business, it is not always the main priority – which can reshape the ROI case.
According to Dan Smith, digital lead and associate at Noviun, engagement with the workforce through the roll-out and adoption of software is integral for firms if they want to make the most out of their investment in software.
“Having monthly meetings with people about how they’re using software, if there are any difficulties, and if someone is doing something differently to someone else that could benefit that person can really help. Just having an open dialogue with everyone on best practices, quirks in software, any shortcuts we can take advantage of – all those sorts of things – brings a good ROI for us with the software that we’re using.”
"We’ve just invested in technology for point cloud surveys, which for the right buildings gives us an eight times shift in productivity on site."
John Handscomb, Akerlof
For his part, Chambers said there needs to be some realism about when ROI can be expected. He said that while some software, for example platforms that digitise a manual task, can deliver it quickly, platforms with more complicated goals might take longer – but could ultimately provide greater ROI.
He added that the importance of ongoing feedback between construction firms and software providers is crucial to helping firms see a return on their investment. “By keeping an open dialogue, there is a much greater chance for success. That feedback loop is critical, and it shouldn’t be just a transactional relationship; it should be an ongoing relationship.”
On this point David Rekker, senior manager for customer success at Bluebeam, agreed, saying: “When the person asking is willing to engage and have a discussion about why they are suggesting something, and what they are trying to accomplish, quite often we find out that we actually have already built something that does what you need to do, just not the way that you specifically suggested it.
“And that’s where I feel like a lot of magic happens, because people are like: ‘I wanted the widget to do this thing, but I can accomplish it in a different way – and maybe even a more elegant way.’”
Tackling the big issues
As the session drew to a close Marshall asked the panel how appropriate use of construction software can help firms to address wider sectoral issues such as net zero and building safety.
Harry Bocking, senior structural engineer at Webb Yates Engineers, made the point that once firms have the right tools in place it helps with optioneering for clients.
“Allowing clients to see the ramifications of choices from, let’s say, an embodied carbon perspective, at an early stage can really help with making clear choices. Once you have the appropriate tools implemented, it allows for better solutions not only within your business but on the projects you are delivering.”
On this point, Rekker and Handscomb both agreed, saying that the early engagement which firms can achieve with their clients through software platforms – particularly if they are highly visual – positions firms and projects for success.
Round the table
Chair: Jordan Marshall, special projects editor, Building
Harry Bocking, senior structural engineer, Webb Yates Engineers
Olivia Burton, senior development manager, London Land Group
James Chambers, director – global industry development, Nemetschek
Ashwin Halaria, associate director, Symmetrys
John Handscomb, partner, Akerlof
Tomas Hollingsworth, head of technology, BW
David Rekker, senior manager, customer success, Bluebeam
Dan Smith, digital lead, associate, Noviun
Rico Wojtulewicz, head of housing and planning policy, National Federation of Builders