Observing Building-Construction

There are many areas for process and system innovation: improved flexibility, co-operation, process control, value-based steering, and knowledge utilisation. The next sections elaborate these points.

Improving flexibility

One of the aims of the BC industry could be to change the current static nature of the process into a more dynamic structure that is much more tolerant for change, and does not require early agreement about all the details that cannot be over-seen beforehand [16]. The static nature of the current process can also be described as sequential and monotonous. The various phases are executed sequentially. In a dynamic process, phases interact and overlap much more and earlier decisions can be changed with full knowledge of the consequences.

Improving the flexibility of the BC industry will require many developments. Most are out of scope of this research. One important requirement is that dynamic processes require tight control over the information and knowledge logistics. Only if everybody involved has access to the right information and the right knowledge on the right time, can increased flexibility be implemented. Another requirement is that consequences of changes are made transparent and controlled, following mutually agreed rules.

Improving co-operation

An important weakness of the BC industry is the limited collaboration between the demand side and the supply side to get the demand sorted out correctly [17]. For example, a fixed Specification is made--only then does the Contractor get a look at it, often too late for suggestions to apply different construction products and methods.

But not only co-operation between demand and supply is weak, also co-operation between project partners is weak [15] [11]. Perhaps it is not the intention, but the ability to co-operate which is insufficient. It seems that everybody nowadays understands that unsatisfied clients are bad for the business, but what can you do? There is always the stress to make money, always too little time left.

Of course there are many reasons why the situation is as it appears to be now. Increasing BC's ability to co-operate is closely related to BC's ability to communicate and to the way process management is able to translate project goals into efforts, risks and money.

In the spirit of this research the solution is sought in the increase of ICT to help us out. True, the current crop of application software and computer networks is not able to communicate (see the next chapter, 3, for a thorough analysis), but maybe that can change.

Improving process control

To run BC projects as tight industrial processes with well integrated supply chains, i.e. getting things done on time, with the agreed quality or value and for the agreed price is a major challenge--even more if the process itself becomes more flexible. Such level of control, comparable with that of the automotive industry [18] [3], is only possible if computers take over much of the primary control role of the human actors. Again this seems a matter of increased information and knowledge sharing.

In a more dynamic building process, a new generation of building documents is needed to support the dynamic character of the processes--instead of dragging them down through inertia.

Dynamic processes are more knowledge-intensive, increasing the requirements for usability and accessibility of that knowledge. The operational building process is facilitated, but also restricted, by the available infrastructure. Infrastructure in this context is the possibility to store, share and use information and knowledge between partners in the building process.

Most progress has been made in the field of contracts. Design-build, design-build-operate, performance contracts, etcetera (see figure 2.2). In the wake of these contract types, changes in Specification practice could follow. This way, research attaches itself to a forward movement of building practice, but in turn fuels that same forward movement.

Figuur 2.2: Some contract types (Dutch) in the bcoWeb Ontology, part of chapter 7's implementation. The list is not exhaustive.
Image contracts

Improving value-based steering

Improving the value adding performance of the industry is vital for satisfied clients and a healthy [15] industry. The Client's influence can be increased by giving him influence on value received and cost incurred. The other way around, BC can add real value for the Client with its knowledge and innovative solutions if that knowledge and those solutions can returned to the Client as feedback. This is a dynamic process with value-based feedback.

Dynamic steering on value is fully explained in [19]. Apart from the social, legal and organisational aspects, dynamic steering on value has to be implemented in practice. ICT support might be instrumental, which will be further analysed below.

The need for ICT support follows from the dynamic character of the envisioned processes. Dynamic means that there is a continuing process of adjusting, re-assessing the value, further adjusting. ICT support can be used to calculate the value of proposed solutions and to calculate the change in value when changes are required. In such a system, resulting value forms the feedback mechanism for design or construction decisions. For a dynamic system to work well, the feedback mechanism needs to provide accurate and rapid response.

Relying on a mostly human-based feedback means a slow and error prone feedback loop. Implications of changes have to be understood and checked manually. Parts of the calculations can probably be done by computers, but communicating various implications amongst partners and calculating a final net value of the proposed change are all human processes again.

An alternative, that allows for a much more rapid feedback loop, is to use ICT as much as possible. For a large class of possible changes, calculations can probably even be done automatically, including sensitivity analysis. The results could be communicated electronically between various stakeholders. Such a degree of electronic cooperation is not common in BC nowadays, but it is technically feasible and applied in other sectors of industry. Automatic calculation of the effect of changes on value to the Client and electronic communication of the calculation results can critically shorten the feedback loop.

In a dynamic system, shortening and strengthening the feedback loop is instrumental in improving the efficiency of the whole system. This does not diminish the need for solving the social and juridical sides of the problem, but establishes ICT implementation as a sub-problem of like magnitude.

Improving knowledge utilisation

Increasing the value adding process of the BC industry means putting more emphasis on knowledge-intensive processes [17]. Many results of R&D efforts are never used in practise. Likewise, the knowledge learned in previous projects needs to be re-used in current and future projects. An important and direct result is the need for retaining (the knowledge of) knowledgeable and experienced employees.

Knowledge utilisation can also be improved by storing knowledge in an information system, re-usable for a new project. Historically, Classification systems have been used to both store and structure books and documentation in order to make them searchable when the need arose. This does not, however, provide a very powerful and detail-rich way to link the ordered knowledge to problems and objects in a new project.

What is needed to improve knowledge utilisation is a better way of storing a wide variety of knowledge and allowing it to be referenced flexibly from newer projects. Secondly, information and data collected in current projects needs to be available for subsequent analysis and for inspection by later projects.

Reinout van Rees 2006-12-13