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New research commissioned by the NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler has revealed that the high cost of digital technologies is a barrier for many builders, especially smaller operators. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is on the case. 

It’s no secret that the built environment – especially the construction industry – has been slow to digitalise, with many, if not most, builders still working off paper plans and documents.  

Speaking at The Fifth Estate’s Building Circularity symposium on 24 November, NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler, flagged that the high cost and lock-in constraints had finally captured the attention of the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission.

While the ACCC was unable to comment on specific complaints or potential investigations when contacted by The Fifth Estate, anti-competitive conduct in commercial construction markets is on the regulator’s radar, with a specialist unit conducting investigations into a range of anti-competitive dealings. 

Chandler said that the new survey conducted by Western Sydney University’s Centre for Smart Modern Construction (c4SMC) on his behalf will guide the ACCC to investigate the digital construction technology market for anti-competitive behaviour.

“I can assure you the level of digital maturity across designers and builders is very, very low,” NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler said at Building Circularity last month.

“We have many impediments to digitalisation and one of the big impediments in the survey is the cost of digital construction tech. Vendors from overseas are charging very high prices for the software and there’s a lot of push back from enterprises saying they can’t afford to buy into more digital capability.”

In addition was the cost of migrating from one vendor to another vendor’s products. “It’s hundreds and thousands of dollars, so once you’ve signed up to a particular product line you are pretty well locked in,” Chandler said.

“It’s both a cost issue and a portability issue.”

The survey of over 500 respondents, which is yet to be released, confirmed that the bulk of the industry is made up of small operators. 

It found that the 55 per cent of enterprises that design or build class 2 buildings in NSW employ between 0-4 people, 26 per cent employ 5-19, 15 per cent employ 15-99 and only 5 per cent over 200 people.

Of that cohort, a whopping 67 per cent reported the high cost of software as a barrier to digital take-up, and some 52 per cent of respondents identified paying an IT specialist to operate the software as a hurdle.

As many as 43 per cent reported issues relating to legal ownership and licensing as a barrier, and 56 per cent agreed that design fees are not adequate to support digital innovation.

The survey covered a range of digital tools used in design and construction, including building information modelling, 3D walk-through technology, landscape design tools, services design tools, structural design tools, architectural design tools and geotechnical design tools.

It also identified the top five software platforms in use across the industry (in order): AutoCAD, Revit, SketchUp, “other” and ArchiCAD. 

From the findings, Chandler would like to see vendor lock-in diminished so that businesses can freely switch from one provider to the next.

“My view is we should be pushing hard to ensure the vendors of construction tech build into their price the cost of migrating from one to the other just like telephone plans.”

According to Chandler, until the majority of SMEs build up their digital maturity, this will hold back productivity in the industry.

The digital divide

Cost is not the only barrier to digitalisation in the built environment. While the use of design software is common, digital capability drops off steeply in the delivery phase.

One reason for that, according to Brickworks Building Products general manager technical and innovation Cathy Inglis, is the disconnect between digital design files and the reality of manufacturing building components.

She says the concrete block and brick manufacturing company is often sent digital files that should specify precisely what is to be turned into precast panels but “there are often discrepancies, the structure and design don’t line up.”

The company often reworks digital files to include key details, such as the location of reinforcements and the grade of the concrete, and then sends the files back to the builders for approval.

“We are essentially redesigning parts of the building.” 

The problem with working off inadequate drawings is that there’s often not enough detail to do an accurate quote for the job, Inglis says.

“This is where it comes undone.”

Without the detail needed to provide an accurate quote, contractors will often vastly underestimate the amount of work at hand and submit a low bid.

The result? Corners cut to make up the difference, and compromises on quality. 

Inglis says her company hasn’t saved money by adopting digital technology early in this instance. In fact, it’s cost the company more.

“If everything came to us with complete digital drawings there would be a saving, but as it stands, there’s probably savings for the builder.” 

Some builders recognise the value of Brickwork’s product, however, and are prepared to pay a bit more to lower the risk profile and get a better-quality product. 

CplusC director Clinton Cole also says there’s a gap between what architects are designing and the reality of how a building might come together in real life.

He says this gap is widening as architecture students are increasingly taught to focus on the conceptual aspects of design using technology that offers limited benefit to buildability.

An unwillingness to modernise also plays a role

Cole says perhaps one of the biggest barriers to take up in Australia is culture. There’s an unwillingness to modernise and evolve from conventional architectural and construction practice and education to embrace technology that offers a common language between design and construction industries.

“There’s a reluctance to move from paper and design based software that silos skills, to software that forces learning and recursive knowledge through a common digital language”.

Design software also copping some heat

The cost of design software has also attracted criticism, with Autodesk’s BIM software Revit attracting the ire of 17 architecture practices, including high profile names such as Zaha Hadid Architects and Grimshaw. 

The 17 practices penned an open letter to the company protesting risking prices and lack of development, with many more from around the world having signed up since it first came to light in July.

The letter criticised confusing and fast-changing licensing structures and poor interoperability between different software platforms. The software giant has since responded with a promise to take the complaints on board and adapt accordingly. 

“You identified issues that we must take to heart, and which highlight where we’ve fallen short,” Autodesk senior vice president Amy Bunszel stated in a blogpost. 

“And while we don’t agree with everything in the letter, we are committed to listening.”

New players entering the market

New entrants to the design and construction tech market may help make digitalisation more affordable.

Australian startup Giraffe, for example, provides a web-based design tool that allows simple and quick design in both 2D and 3D that’s useful for planners and architects doing feasibility scale thinking and planning.

Giraffe co-founder Rob Asher says that the tool is much lower cost compared to other comparable products on the market, and that open standards are his company’s “big thing”.

“If you get sick of us and you can open it in any software, with no lock-in, minimal learning costs and low costs to adopt.”

As a general rule, he says, BIM products are “not massively over-priced but the fact that they are closed-format means that are not always the best outcome for end users.”

But for Asher, the value that many of the incumbents provide still massively outweighs the detriments. 

The benefits of BIM

Architect Clinton Cole says BIM can save huge amounts of time and money.

“From when we first implemented BIM I’ve gone from a 60-80 hour week to a 35-40 hour week in just a few years. Not only is my experience and knowledge embedded in the BIM library we have built, the proprietary information of supply items and standardised material sections and dimensions is also embedded”

The software serves as a shared database of carefully executed details in a project that the “next punter has access to without having to ask me or someone senior”.

He says there’s good reason the software is mandatory for government projects in places like Denmark and the UK.

By using BIM, Cole says risk is ultimately reduced for all involved as design intent is shifted to buildability focused digital solutions.

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