Digital construction: Just what the doctor ordered

The UK’s healthcare estate is a real proving ground for digital construction techniques, writes Mark Gibson. The technology not only allows for speed and precision, benefiting contractors and end-users alike, it also fosters innovation

The Building Research Establishment (BRE) has recently urged all major political parties to endorse a new strategy for the built environment, which includes embracing AI.

There is good reason for this: Transformative digital construction methods could significantly improve the delivery of construction projects, not least regarding the UK’s healthcare estate.

These methods and tools are delivering projects efficiently and with precision – something which could be a game changer for healthcare buildings with highly specific requirements, and for an industry which can save significant time and resources when it is able to deliver right first time.

The construction sector has often been regarded as slow to change to new ways of working, so how can we make sure that the industry is making the most of these innovative construction methods that empower technical excellence?

Embedding digital tools in the everyday

Digital construction methods should be a part of everyday practice – second nature in the way we go to work. To reach this level of engagement, it is important that all stakeholders understand how digital tools can benefit them and their projects, rather than awareness being restricted to just a dedicated digital construction team.

One way of encouraging mass engagement with digital tools is by demonstrating how they make project work more efficient. For example, data becomes more accessible to wider team members when Power BI is integrated with site capture.

Ideally, messaging on the benefits of digital construction would be accompanied by training so that employees are confident in using digital tools as well as seeing their value. Providing tailored digital skills training to employees from all teams and levels of seniority sends a clear message that digital tools are for everyone.

Leading by example on-site

Integrated Health Projects (IHP), a joint venture between Sir Robert McAlpine and VINCI Building, has advocated for the use of advanced digital construction skills as part of the New Hospital Programme.

Projects delivered have benefited from both firms sharing preferred digital tools and methods so that a common best practice can be established. In this way joint ventures improve wider industry engagement with digital construction methods, which could result in increased accuracy and speed when delivering future projects beyond a particular joint venturer’s remit.

Furthermore, engaging with digital construction methods and tools on-site is an opportunity to develop and refine the next generation of digital tools so they become market ready. Various iterations of HP Site Print were trialled at Derby Kingsway Hospital, a psychiatric intensive care unit delivered by IHP, before it was made commercially available.

What can digital tools deliver on a project?

Digital construction methods assist the delivery of quality construction projects by increasing the accuracy of delivery at scale and at speed, bringing benefits to costs and materials.

At Derby Kingsway Hospital, floor plans could be drawn with an accuracy of three millimetres thanks to the HP Site Print robots. As this was a psychiatric intensive care unit with the stringent requirements of an acute unit project, this precision was crucial.

In addition, the robots also improved the speed of delivery by printing layout jobs onto concrete at 10 times the speed of traditional methods.

Augmented Reality technology can also help teams to deliver right first time. We trialled AR headsets at Derby Kingsway Hospital, which allowed team members to superimpose BIM models onto structures that had already been built or were under construction.

Additionally, BIM tools like Dalux BIM viewer can make both construction sequencing and visualising complex interface details far easier to comprehend by combining models, floor plans, and site capture.

Reporting on project progress has also benefited from the use of digital construction tools. On the BEACH building, part of the Royal Bournemouth Hospital estate delivered by IHP, progress was tracked with helmet-mounted 360 cameras.

Buildots’ AI programme then combined these images with BIM, 3D modelling, and schedule data to provide a comprehensive update on project progress. This saved significant resources – previously individual discipline and package managers could find themselves walking an eight kilometre site every week to provide the same updates.

Building operations and lifecycle

Digital construction methods can support a building throughout its entire lifecycle by continuing to provide data to improve the building’s processes and safety once it is in operation.

Project data can offer insights into a building’s operations and avenues for improvement, long after the last bricks have been laid. After the completion of the BEACH building, data will be handed over to the University Hospitals Dorset NHS Foundation Trust to support its future maintenance and operation.

The hospital had still been reliant on paper logs, but the quantity and quality of information provided by digital tools has enabled the modernisation of day-to-day operations, ultimately benefiting the end user, whether that be patients or staff.

Digital tools were also used to ensure safety on the new maternity facilities at the BEACH building. The doors lock automatically when triggered to protect babies, based on signals from the enhanced digital security system.

There are also regulatory benefits to digital construction methods. Up-to-date, accurate information needs to be provided as part of the Building Safety Act. Digital tools can help make this a seamless process, providing detailed information on the work that has been done, by whom, and at what time – all of which makes up the golden thread of information.

Communicating the benefits of digital construction within and beyond the industry

Past on-site teams, it is important that the benefits of construction methods are also communicated to the supply chain and building end-users.

Engaging the supply chain with digital construction tools and methods can help create a positive ripple effect across the wider industry. Contractors should request digital models of products to integrate into their visualisation software.

By doing this, suppliers without readily available digital models are more likely to update their practices, in turn normalising the use of digital construction methods in future projects.

For project stakeholders, one way of boosting confidence in the project is by using AI-generated visual records of reporting data to display project progress and the benefits digital construction has brought to the project delivery.

Clients often enjoy being able to input their perspective into a project, too. The visualisation software Twinmotion allowed end-users at Derby Kingsway Hospital to feed back on the project design.

This stakeholder input is particularly valuable on healthcare projects, which can be difficult to access after they have been completed. The insight helps ensure a quality build and that the team can deliver right first time.

A digital future for healthcare projects and the construction industry

Digital construction methods deliver time, cost, and quality benefits to construction projects – as such, education and engagement initiatives to promote the benefits of digital construction methods should be a sector-wide concern.

When large scale buy-in is achieved and digital construction techniques become commonplace across the industry, project teams – past those of us already enjoying the benefits of digital construction when delivering the UK’s healthcare estate – will reap the rewards of innovation.

Many of our industry’s historic challenges – productivity, quality, and safety, for example – can be improved by digital construction methods. In public sector projects, like our healthcare estate, the impact only becomes more significant.

The potential is there, and it is now time for us to unlock it.

Main image: Mark Gibson is the managing director – healthcare at Sir Robert McAlpine

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