Digital delivery: transforming the design process

In response to increasing economic, social and environmental pressures, private and public sector developers are challenging the design and construction industry to deliver faster, greener and more efficient infrastructure solutions. Digital expert Dale Sinclair explores how a new digital approach can help the industry meet this challenge, and tackle its own long-standing productivity issues.

The UK Government has big ambitions for the country’s infrastructure, with a national infrastructure programme target to deliver £650 billion worth of projects by 2025. The pipeline comprises millions of affordable homes built in multi-use communities, more efficient, sustainable transport networks and solutions, and energy infrastructure to secure low-carbon success.

Across both public and private sector developments, this vision calls for better-performing, greener buildings and infrastructure delivered faster and more cost-effectively. And, the Construction Sector Deal commits the industry to: reduce the cost of construction and the whole life costs of assets by 33 per cent; half the time taken from inception to completion of new build; and decrease greenhouse gas emissions in the built environment by 50 per cent, supporting the Industrial Strategy’s Clean Growth Grand Challenge.

Failure to launch

Yet, despite this urgency and national focus, the UK’s infrastructure ambitions continue to outpace supply — the lag exacerbated by long-standing issues in the UK design and construction industry. This includes a persistently low productivity growth rate, averaging just 0.4 per cent per year, the ongoing prioritisation of costs over climate-change risks in some areas, and continued delays to the delivery of major infrastructure projects. Reflecting this, only 1 per cent of housebuilders think that the target of 300,000 homes a year can be achieved by 2022.

That’s, perhaps, no surprise given that the vast majority of building projects still follow the generations-old linear process of briefing, design, construction and, finally, occupation — with maintenance considerations frequently an afterthought. Typically, project teams start afresh with every project, drawing on a new client brief and site context, alongside local regulatory drivers, to shape their plan, and find it difficult with the analogue tools available to learn and apply lessons from previous successes and failures in a systematic way.

The complexities and constraints of the UK’s national and local planning systems also increase project pressures as councils look to developers to help them build the major infrastructure that communities need to thrive, urgently and cost-effectively. To do this, developers need to ensure a robust business plan and delivery model from the outset. Yet too many projects still run late and over budget.

To change the outcome we must change the process

For some, the answer is to standardise within the traditional design process, replicating deliverables, gateways and scopes of service across multiple projects, to save time and resources.

But the industry needs to be bolder, to go further. Digital innovation gives teams the chance to access and benefit from the latest innovations in advanced manufacturing, design and construction, and facilitate the industry’s shift to a circular economy approach and creating net-zero adaptive buildings more rapidly.

Informed by our work with clients and digital expertise, AECOM has developed a new digital ecosystem to help teams realise that potential now. The platform — which brings together the latest digital tools for use across disciplines, including design for manufacture and assembly solutions — is built around a central digital library that enables knowledge capture, supports interdisciplinary workflows and applies lessons learnt to deliver smarter, greener buildings faster.

Here are three ways in which an integrated digital delivery approach like this can transform processes and improve outcomes across the entire project lifecycle and wider industry.

1/ Informing decision-making from start to finish

A building is only ever as good as the quality of the spaces within it and the success of its vision to form a coherent, adaptable whole. Yet the reality is that in the earliest stages of a project, those involved don’t generally have the spatial information they need to fully understand the impact of the decisions they’re making on their building. Using the project detail and sector knowledge stored in digital libraries, teams can generate 3D models to visualise their design in practice and give them that insight.

It means that, well before construction, they can assess the planned use of space, products, materials, light and colour and how the operation of their building will work. Ideas and changes can be tested in the virtual world and spaces (such as those designed by sector, i.e. residential, healthcare and workplace) quickly adapted to suit new circumstances or project conditions, without losing embedded knowledge and intelligence.

With access to interdisciplinary data, teams can also see detailed information on sockets, lights, grilles and other building services from day one – limiting the potential for costly, last minute changes down the line.

 2/ Maximising value across specifications

While a building’s spaces determine its look and feel, its systems — ranging from structural to business services and internal wall systems — form its engine room. The building-system components of digital libraries provide fabrication and construction-ready information that enables teams to optimise these elements from an aesthetic and whole-life perspective by selecting the products, materials and solutions that can deliver the best long-term value for the project.

In addition, this better quality, more detailed design content makes it possible to repeat best-practice and well-designed spaces across programmes of projects, replacing the design standards typically used. And AECOM teams are now using digital design libraries, consisting of construction-ready spaces and systems to drive residential developments, repeatable retail plans, high-performance workplaces and adaptive healthcare and higher education buildings.

 3/ Blending innovation and tradition, strengthening collaboration

By having the latest tools, software and solutions in one place and ready to deploy via a digital ecosystem, including design for manufacture and assembly (DFMA) techniques such as modular construction, teams can help to eliminate waste, reduce costs and save resources across the project lifecycle. For example, the adoption of off-site modular solutions — which use advanced manufacturing technologies and processes in construction — can deliver high-performing, precision-engineered buildings equipped to lower running costs, adapt to changing needs and save energy.

In cases where modular approaches are not suitable, such as commercial offices or airport terminals, digitally integrated platforms can bring together manufacturing and construction software tools to help multidisciplinary teams and supply chain partners collaborate more efficiently, reducing downstream costs and delays and making these complex, often global, programmes simpler to manage. For example, by linking an architect’s model to engineering software, you can limit the need for multiple design iterations and ensure early design decisions are as robust as possible.

Delivering for the future

Digital delivery is truly transformative, giving project teams the opportunity to not only transform the way we design and create our built environment, tackling long-standing productivity challenges in the design and construction industry, but also crucially deliver the faster, smarter, better buildings that our communities and the future demand.


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