Digitalisation in the built environment

Paul McCormack, Innovation Manager for Belfast Metropolitan College, begins a major new series for NI Builder into how the industry can develop and leverage digital skills for energy efficient construction and improved competitiveness...

Digitalisation is a game-changing strategy that will empower the construction sector to thrive and deliver the expertise for sustainable energy skills. There is a direct correlation between digitalisation and energy efficiency and Belfast Met along with our construction industry partners want to ensure the built environment is best placed to achieve this digital efficient success.

Barry Neilson (CE of CITB NI) said, “It is vital that all parties within the built environment either start, or continue their journey into developing their digital skills and knowledge to ensure the digital competitiveness of the NI sector in an environment where energy efficiency and sustainability will become a significant factor in what we build and how we build it. CITB NI and Belfast Met have become, and will remain, close partners to help industry achieve their digital potential.”

As we all recognise, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated digitalisation in the workplace and the operational/implementation ‘gap’ within the construction sector is widening. Belfast Met, as part of our digital transformation work in this area (BIMcert project, BIM- Energy Performance Alliance (BIM-EPA), aim to address this gap to inform and enable a new ‘division’ of labour to stimulate demand for energy efficiency skills and impact on the sector.

The construction sector has always operated in a remote-work environment. Covid restrictions forced other sectors to work remotely also so there are lessons and opportunities for both. Our digital transformation skills – especially BIM – are specific remote working tools that allow the workforce to thrive.

Designed to provide the right digital infrastructure, stimulate the demand and deliver the energy efficiency skills needed for green construction, BIM uses technology to decentralise and redistribute worker tasks to the workplace, enabling and equipping workers with the skills to achieve energy efficient construction.

Today’s pandemic restrictions imposed on organisations where many are working remotely reflect the norm for the construction sector for many years. Workers in the construction sector have always had to possess an on-site capacity, remain operational and productive. This challenge is now reflected across many sectors and there is an opportunity to share experiences, opportunities and collaborate especially in skills, training and access.

The pandemic has shone a light on the challenges that the construction sector has faced for many years, how to meet the demands of an increasingly digitalised world and how to embrace the challenges and opportunities of a remote workforce.

Digital Leverage
• Nearly 90% of global business leaders recognise the critical importance of adopting intelligent automation.
• 70% of construction companies believe that those who do not adopt digital tools will go out of business. The challenge is to mobilise the skills exchange within the workforce in the built environment to address digital transition and empower the sector.

It’s time to challenge conventional thinking on the future of education in terms of digital transformation and organisational change and to transform content, delivery and recognition to meet industry needs. Some institutions ‘get’ social media, there’s a holistic approach to digital engagement that spans the entire organisation. For institutions and industry without intentional and authentic digital leadership, the learning experience is scattered and lacks direction.

Key hurdles for the construction sector to overcome include:
1. How can industry truly get digital and provide an organisational push for ongoing digital transformation?
2. How you can use social media to enhance the student experience and encourage industry digital champions?

Digitalisation can be disorientating. Standard contexts and work processes that we are all used to are changing – technologists call this ‘context collapse’. On the other hand, digitalisation is recognised, by those who are implementing it, as a powerful enabler to enhance the effect of their work and as an enrichment of their professional skills. Social interactions and our workplaces are changing and will change further. This is also the fact for upskilling interventions, due to digitalisation, learning will become easier to access, digest and utilise.

Environmental leverage
Buildings account for 17.7% of the global Green House Gas emissions globally
• Residential 10.9%
• Commercial 6.6%

This equates to 8.74billion tonnes of CO₂ equivalents (CO₂e). In order to tackle these challenges we must equip the workforce with the skills to enhance low carbon construction. Governments, particularly in the EU, are increasing their CO2 reduction and energy efficiency regulations and raising the bar. EU strategies and policies for decarbonisation of the construction sector and approaching NZEBs are being established. Digitalisation empowerment of the workforce goes hand-in-hand with energy skills and provides a great opportunity to reduce the environmental impact of construction projects. This approach makes the energy skills of the construction workforce more effective, easier to improve and provides confirmable effects in rational and smart use of materials and energy.

Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director, states, “Together with renewables, energy efficiency is one of the mainstays of global efforts to reach energy and climate goals. While our recent analysis shows encouraging momentum for renewables, I’m very concerned that improvements in global energy efficiency are now at their slowest rate in a decade.”

Skills leverage
Most of the issues related to a low demand for a skilled workforce are due to the lack of a widely recognised and accepted international scheme of ce

rtified qualifications for sustainable construction and sustainable energy skills. Other barriers include a lack of awareness and uptake by the industry of new methods and digitalisation and the lack of mandate or incentive by public authorities for the use of such skills.

Educating the workforce in digital skills will stimulate demand by developing and implementing a digital transformation skills roadmap for the Construction Sector. Both public and private owners need to be involved in the definition of the roadmap as they are the pullers of the innovation.
This education process will stimulate demand by enabling participants to share and amplify content online. This approach will allow participants to collaborate digitally and to become impulsive about their sustainable energy skills.

The formerly called “brick and mortar” industry has entered the digital age. The digital push is accelerating and, even if construction industry players are still confused and hesitant about the change and new technologies, the time has come for them to develop their digital skills in order to achieve and make their sustainable energy skills more effective.

Our society is in transition, leaving behind the old energy in-effective, material wasting and not always healthy built environment; moving towards an energy efficient, healthy and material sustainable built environment. At the same time, digital technology is transforming our lives at an accelerating pace.

Digital transformation isn’t new, but the construction sector as a whole has been hesitant to accept the digitalisation process. In order to stimulate demand for sustainable energy skills in the sector we must work across the entire construction supply chain getting it to embrace digital transformation together with sustainable energy skills.

Companies must empower their staff enabling them to design a digital transformation roadmap for their sector, stimulating demand for sustainable energy skills. The roadmap will result in a Digital Workforce and staff and will build a culture within the construction sector that is digital ready.

Belfast Metropolitan College
Belfast Metropolitan College is a major provider of skills and training support for the built environment. This is achieved in collaboration with a wide network of stakeholders and partners including the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), the public sector and industry.

The challenges
1. Transition to a ‘digital workforce’
2. Optimise the opportunities presenting themselves
3. Deploy a digital workforce at scale 4. Overcome ‘digital dissonance’

Digitalisation and the construction industry
Read the full series from Belfast Met in forthcoming NI Builder Magazine editions:
• BIM basics
• Digital transformations
• The need for upskilling within the industry
• The benefits of a digitally informed and empowered workforce
• Stimulating the demand for skills

For more information regarding courses,
call: +44 (0)28 90 265 265,
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