AI in construction: get on board or get left behind

abstract image for construction AI
Image: Wrightstudio | Dreamstime.com

Construction is ripe for transformative change via AI, so embrace the future, says Estimate One’s Simon Herod.

In today’s turbo-charged digital arena, AI is the buzzword on everyone’s lips. Whether marvelling at ChatGPT’s feats or fretting over robot overlords, AI dominates the conversation. But here are the facts: AI isn’t just a trend, it’s shaping our future, and we either get on board or get left behind.

The good news is that construction, with its balance of precision and process, is ripe for AI’s transformative touch. We must forget the fearmongering about job losses: AI is not here to steal our thunder. It’s about boosting productivity, plain and simple.

From project pitch to spade in the ground, construction is overflowing with data. Contracts, architectural designs, tenders, submissions and suppliers’ quotes (RFQs) all produce huge amounts of information. But buried within lies untapped potential, ready to unlock greater efficiency and safety.

Simon Herod of E1

“The industry needs to move beyond the misconception that AI will replace jobs. Building is not just about blueprints: it’s about collaboration and interpersonal relationships, skills that AI cannot mimic.”

Simon Herod

It’s at this stage that AI comes into its own. It’s able to analyse previous projects and quickly identify what was done right and what was done wrong. Understanding project success and failure at such rapid speed allows companies to make smarter, more informed decisions.

At E1, it’s something we’ve understood and have been using AI to streamline subcontractor contact processing – from the location of keywords in page-heavy documents to auto-identifying documents that supersede previous versions, all of which help improve building speed and accuracy.

Improve not replace

However, to get the best from the tech, the industry needs to move beyond the misconception that it will replace jobs. After all, construction thrives on human expertise and connections. Behind every successful project lies years of hands-on experience and real-life communication. If you’re stuck behind a keyboard, you’re missing the point. Building isn’t just about blueprints: it’s about collaboration and interpersonal relationships, skills that AI cannot mimic.

Charting new frontiers

We must also remember that construction desperately needs an answer to its productivity problem. As one of the lowest-performing sectors in the UK and in Europe, it needs a shot in the arm that I believe AI can deliver.

Data crunching and low-level decision-making on autopilot frees us humans to innovate and think more broadly and strategically. Yet to get there, it’s going to take more than paying lip service to AI: it will need fundamental change. Not just how technology is perceived, but how it’s welcomed – and the speed at which this transformation can happen.

This means fostering a data-first ethos, identifying which areas of the business can benefit, and then putting a framework in place to make AI a part of daily workflows.

Training is also vital, but it’s about more than learning how to extract information: businesses must be able to act swiftly and decisively on their findings. It’s a culture shift for sure, but without it, construction will forever be in the lower stages of underdigitised sectors.

Data-driven decision making

Ultimately, companies must learn to be led by the data. Much like today’s F1 teams, which look at performance indicators in real-time to make adjustments on the fly, construction teams must also take the same approach.

The quicker we can forge relationships between data analysts and the functional, hands-on experts on the ground, the closer we move toward a data-driven construction landscape.

Within this world of algorithms and tech adoption, we must never forget the importance of the human touch, which lies at the heart of construction. Without it, the sector will not benefit from innovation, craftsmanship and personal connections – all the things we need to get projects off the ground. Those already aware of this knowledge stand to gain the most. Companies willing and able to embrace AI successfully will gain an edge over their competitors in the long term.

Simon Herod is international manager at Estimate One.

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