“The dream of a building that will be designed by AI, delivered to site by drones and then constructed by a robot: I don’t think so. No time soon. But smaller stuff, yes. So, setting-out robots, by all means.”
That was one of many compelling sound bites that Paul Morrell OBE delivered last week during his CIOB lecture: ‘How much longer? Why is change so difficult (and yet so necessary) in construction?’
Addressing an invited audience for an hour on 28 November, Morrell reviewed the industry’s issues with candour and humour via the prism of the government and industry’s response to the Grenfell tragedy, his ensuing review of the construction products testing regime, and his stint as government construction adviser.
Morrell returned to the topic of real-world innovations: “Nobody would take off in an aeroplane without going through checklists. Are we ready? Are we ready? If we want artificial intelligence to do anything for us, get it to shout out ‘You’re not ready!’ quite early in the project.”
“We have a standard requiring the regulation of a bidet, but no standard for a fire door.”
Standards for bidets not fire doors
Addressing the topic of standards, Morrell drew attention to an absurdity: “We have a standard requiring the regulation of a bidet, but no standard for a fire door, because Europe couldn’t agree on the standard!”
He added: “Standards are critical: standards for products, standards for testing, standards for people who do the testing, standards for those who do the verification of the people who do the testing, all the way up to UKAS.
“Standards are not red tape. I think that’s a category error made by politicians. Standards [that state] if you do something, you should do it properly are not red tape.”
He noted that enforcement of standards and regulations is an issue: “There has been no enforcement at all. There has been not one single action under the Construction Product Regulations, not one. There has to be an enforcement system that works. People have to believe that they are not competing with people who are not bound by the same rules.”
A BIM too far?
Among the CIOB lecture audience was Autodesk head of industry associations strategy Marek Suchocki, who asked whether the BIM movement (that Morrell helped launch when he drafted the Government Construction Strategy during his second term as government construction adviser) had aimed too high or too low?
Morrell responded: “If I think back at what hasn’t happened, I think [the BIM initiative] took off and went too high. The politicians loved the idea of Digital Built Britain, because politicians – mostly boys of course – love the idea of running the country like a train set.
“So suddenly, we were talking about Digital Built Britain, and we still didn’t know what BIM Level 3 looked like.
“I think it got away from us, the middle of the industry, when it went to Cambridge University. I think it got too complicated. The standards were effective, but a lot more complicated than the ones we envisioned very early on.
“And it became too much of an intellectual plaything. But I was entirely confident, very early, that it would be unstoppable because people would see the benefits.”
Morrell recently appeared before the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee to discuss the government’s response to his review of the construction products testing regime.
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