Better data management can address construction’s competence conundrum

Data management
Image: Alexandersikov | Dreamstime.com
The foundation for more a competent construction industry is data and its effective management, argues Antony Brophy.

Five years on from the Grenfell Tower disaster, the investigation into its origins has revealed that the building consistently failed fire tests for 12 years. It was also found that the materials used to construct it did not meet English fire performance standards.

This has highlighted two obvious issues. First, there was a lack of clarity over fire safety regulations. Second, there was a lack of awareness over the materials that had been used in the building.

If information about the materials used to build Grenfell was recorded accurately and made easily accessible to everyone involved in its construction and maintenance, could this tragedy have been avoided?

While this is a theoretical question, the disaster has reaffirmed how essential it is that those working in the industry not only receive regular training about safety standards, but are also given the information they need to carry out their jobs competently.

Antony Brophy of Cobuilder

“It’s vital that the information being put in front of people is accurate, and that as many people as possible know how to access and use it.”

Antony Brophy

Building safety management is an issue that the BSI has addressed recently. Three new standards set out competence requirements for newly regulated roles, such as principal contractors and principal designers.

More work is needed, though, to ensure that competence runs through the entire building project. From the initial design to its construction, handover and population of the premises, as well as on-going maintenance and inspection to eventual demolition.

The right information for the job

Many roadblocks remain in the way of ensuring standards of competence are upheld. A huge amount of responsibility is still placed on the client to know what a compliant building is and what a competent contractor, or subcontractor, should look like.

Clients often have all the information about health and safety or building materials in their hands. But they don’t fully understand what to do with it. One of the main reasons for this is a lack of competence in managing data. Traditionally, this type of information has been stored in multiple paper-based documents, making the job of collating it a struggle.

In addition, the construction industry is a late adopter of digital technologies and data management practices. Both are key components in the ability to drive collaboration and improve visibility over information. That said, changes are taking place to transform visibility on building projects. Virtual reality, for example, is helping to get clients more hands on.

However, sourcing the most-up-to-date data remains a challenge. It’s vital, therefore, that the information being put in front of people is accurate, and that as many people as possible have the required competence to know how to access and use it.

Standardising data for better oversight

“By improving the way that information is managed, individuals will feel better equipped to make competent decisions.”

Antony Brophy

This individual competence is directly linked to the systems, processes and resources that are used by construction companies.

By improving the way that information is managed, individuals will feel better equipped to make competent decisions. It’s essential that this data can be shared more widely across the sector too, so that everyone from architects to installers (and even technology companies) is able to benefit from it.

Common data structures, such as data templates, are helping organisations to share information in a more consistent and unambiguous way. They allow everyone in the construction value chain to understand and interpret it similarly – regardless of role, organisation or location.

Avoiding miscommunication

This common digital language can help clients, designers and contractors to avoid miscommunication during new building projects, for example, as everyone is on the same page about what products or materials need to be used. Later in a building’s lifecycle too, data templates can serve as a credible source for maintenance providers.

Crucially, when it comes to building safety, this common language also allows organisations to see that a product or asset produced by a manufacturer meets industry- and country-specific requirements and regulations.

The foundation for more competent construction is data. With better data management, individuals can make the right decisions based on accurate information, and competence standards across the sector will be raised as a result. The biggest challenge the industry still needs to solve, however, is ensuring they have the technology that helps them achieve this more readily available.   

Antony Brophy is UK director of business development at Cobuilder.

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