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Q&A: Aneesa Mulla, on moving Tilbury Douglas up a digital gear

4 June 2021

Aneesa Mulla, the new head of digital at Tilbury Douglas (formerly Interserve Construction), talks to Denise Chevin about grasping the opportunities in the government’s Construction Playbook, digital twins, and why standardisation of data and components is king.

Aneesa Mulla joined Tilbury Douglas, then known as Interserve in 2014, with a degree in architectural technology and three years’ experience in 4D planning, to help the firm support and implement what was then BIM level 2 on all the projects. Along the journey, she has been involved in the implementation of BIM across a number of flagship projects including the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre (DNRC) in Loughborough and the design and construction of the firm’s new HQ in the West Midlands. Last autumn she led the procurement of a common data environment (CDE) across the business, which has set Tilbury Douglas on a path to greater standardisation and digital delivery.

So where is Tilbury Douglas on its digital construction journey?

We’ve got to a position where BIM and digital has become business as usual.

One of the key things for us has been compliance with standards. We were the first contractor to be certified as BIM level 2 compliant. We’ve aligned ourselves really closely with the ISO 19650 which has provided guidance and support, and it’s allowed us to say, this is where we need to go, and this is what we need to have in place if we’re going to meet the standards required to roll out modern methods of construction and digital twins.

"Switching to a common data environment has provided us with consistency."– Aneesa Mulla, Tilbury Douglas

Last autumn we adopted a common data environment, Asite, as our business-wide enterprise solution. As our central platform for managing information, it handles everything from tender stage to handover. And we’re working with Asite on developing some new bits of kit to increase our offering and capability as well, such as integration with PowerBI, the Microsoft tool that allows you to do dashboards, and potentially integrating it with our new finance system and our planning and project programming software.

Back in 2014/15, we had a lot of different solutions in place, and we used a number of different systems for managing information, as well as a number of different systems for doing snagging on site for example.

Switching to a common data environment has provided us with consistency. It has been set up to comply with ISO19650. All of our projects now use that as a mechanism for sharing and managing information.

And it’s improving our approach to how we hand over information to our clients - because we know what we’ve got, and we know why the information is there.

We want to digitally enable all of our teams, regardless of their role. So, thinking about the building safety bill that’s coming in, the key there is quality management on site, construction records, and building safely. And to achieve that, we have to give our staff the tools that they need to comply. We’ve also started getting tablets out on site.

Do you hand over digital assets to all of your clients now?

Yes, in almost all cases. The majority of our work is government work. We do a lot of healthcare projects and schools and the handover has to include some sort of data handover. But when it gets down to the individual trust levels in healthcare, or individual local authorities in education, the requirements are quite generic. We’ll work with them as best we can to try and define what they’re looking for. But in terms of how it’s being used, there’s still room for improvement there to help them leverage the information to better manage the facility. 

What are the next big things for Tilbury Douglas?

One of the key areas for us is focusing on Asite as being the core of our business processes. Aside from that we’re also looking at how can we embed digital and modern methods of construction (MMC) into our workplace. It’s about standardisation, about having that catalogue of components, assemblies, rooms, and being able to say to our client “these are all of the things we know will work really well, how can we align to your requirements?” and giving them the chance to tinker with the design, involving them in the process.

And at the other end of the spectrum, at the handover point, we’re focusing hard on the development of digital twins. One of the things I’m really looking forward to is understanding how artificial intelligence will help us manage our facilities more efficiently, and more sustainably, making our homes and offices more environmentally friendly.

How does digital technology and learning get filtered down?

We’ve got our tech director at the top, and then within my team we’ve got a team of digital engineers and digital managers who help with the implementation of projects from a central perspective.

Across the business, we have our digital champions who lead the way on our projects. We make sure we use that team of champions to engage with the business, and make sure we get the message out there.

But alongside that we have things like our digital day, which we host annually. It’s a chance to share best practice, to look at what’s happening with the rest of the business, and to allow teams to show each other what’s worked well on their own projects.

People need to understand that digital is not just for the digital team. It affects all of our roles and there are so many efficiencies to be gained through digital processes if we really broaden the scope.

What would you see as the main challenges?

There are two things. The first, and we’ve already touched on it, is supporting clients on their journey. The direction that’s come from the government’s Construction Playbook will really help us on that.

The other thing is making sure everyone is on the same page, which includes our design team and our supply chain. As we move towards handing digital twins to clients there will a series of digital deliverables that will necessary to give to our clients and we need to make sure our supply chain can help us out there.  Supply Chain will play a big part in what we handover to our clients; whether it be models, drawings, documents, or data, we’ll be relying on them to help collate the relevant information over the course of our design and construction process and work with them to deliver in a format that works for our clients.

I was talking to the Supply Chain Sustainability School (SCSS) about what they’re doing in terms of upskilling the supply chain, and how we can feed into that. It is really quite impressive. They’ve started focusing on the digital aspect, and it’s critical to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Is there anything you’ve tried that hasn't quite worked?

One of the gaps we’re working towards tackling now is the 5D arena. Since I’ve been at Tilbury Douglas it’s something that we’ve tried a number of times using different tools but we’ve always struggled to achieve a fully integrated 5D model. We weren’t previously aligned with some of those industry classifications, because it was a while ago that we trialled 5D. But now, a lot of our design and planning and costings all focus on those industry standard classifications and this should make a difference.

How import is ROI?

Return on investment with BIM is quite difficult to put metrics against. But it’s one of the things that we’re looking at now. As we get into more of a data-driven world, we can start really using the data to quantify the benefits.

We’ve definitely been able to speed up design processes. We’ve been able to reduce some of the risks we’re taking out on site, because of the comprehensive design process.

Priorities for the next six months?

There are three aspects. There’s the Asite side of things, and integrating that across all of our processes. There’s connecting the MMC with the digital side of things within the business, to make sure we have a platform to deliver our standardised designs, and taking that standardised manufacturing approach across our projects, and working with our clients to really understand what they’re asking for.

"The key is making sure we can take the vision of the Construction Playbook and increase our focus on digital and MMC."– Aneesa Mulla, Tilbury Douglas

And the third aspect is the digital twin. There are three parts to getting this right. First is the capability to visualise and interrogate a virtual representation of the physical asset. Are there different ways in how we visualise it, how we look at it, how we understand it?

The second part is about getting information about that asset, and understanding it. It’s looking at information about how we manage that facility, how we look after it.

And the third part is real time updates, the ability to take real time information and within that digital twin make decisions that will influence the actual asset. It might be using sensors, it might be using output from the BMS system, almost putting those together and saying “this is what our building is telling us, what can we do about it, and how can we preempt future conditions and performance?”

We’re at the cusp of major change and major transformation. I can’t remember being as excited as I am right now, thinking about what’s coming up, in terms of the digital environment, how we roll digital tech out, and how we leverage the benefits.

The key is making sure we can take the vision of the Construction Playbook and increase our focus on digital and MMC and bring that together with things like the Building Safety Bill and sustainability, including how we manage net zero.

It’s a challenge but I’m really looking forward to it. My role encompasses so much, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.