Construction is notoriously expensive. Can cloud platforms build a better future?

Mark Farmer, the UK's construction modernization champion, discusses how platforms like OpenBuilt can finally reform the building industry.

By | 6 minute read | April 14, 2021

Architect using tablet computer on building site

Construction is a highly fragmented industry, which drives up costs. Technology could finally help level the field.

Mark Farmer has been obsessed with improving construction throughout his career, as well as throughout his life. Whereas assembly lines and the Internet have changed almost every industry, buildings still rise in much the same way they have for decades or even centuries (they still call them “bricks and mortar” for a reason).

After growing up in a family of builders, Farmer became an expert in construction efficiency at EC Harris, a London-based design, engineering and consulting firm before starting his own, Cast Consultancy, in 2016. He wrote an influential report, Modernise or Die, on the dire state of the British construction industry, which helped him become the UK government’s official champion for modern methods of construction in homebuilding. With the launch of the new OpenBuilt platform designed to foster transparency and efficiency in the field, Farmer sat down with Industrious to talk about how to build better.

The construction industry is notoriously resistant to change and innovation. Why is that?

Construction industries in most developed economies share a lot of the same characteristics, and one of those is huge structural fragmentation.

The culture of the industry can also be very adversarial in terms of guarding a position. Construction has a way of doing things that is very analogue and low tech. From commissioning a building to work on-site, there are a multitude of different contracts in place throughout the supply chain. Every step that’s not efficient further hinders innovation.

It sounds like a shift in culture is needed. What could finally drive that?

Right now, the issue of labor supply is a big one. Construction uses a disproportionate amount of labor for the output it creates. And, because it hasn’t mechanized or used technology like other industries, it still requires a lot of manual labor. With aging demographics, especially in mature markets, construction is suffering a lot of workforce attrition. Other drivers that will force change are big picture societal issues, like decarbonization.

And that creates opportunities for the right technologies, like cloud, right?

Cloud platforms that enable people to collaborate in an open-source manner, such as OpenBuilt, could take the edge off the culture of opaqueness by enabling people to build interconnected ecosystems. It could build more trust in how we do construction and commercially contract.

Open platforms can also enable us to cut waste out of everything we do, which will lead people to think about better productivity. This is key to making the industry more efficient and incentivizing people with additional margin.

Will this affect every aspect of construction?

I see OpenBuilt as a broad opportunity for all sectors of construction to really embrace the idea of a connected ecosystem, from design to construction and sales.

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Right now is a very interesting time in construction in terms of modernization. Whether you’re talking about a housing project, a school building or motorway project, the workflows created are similar, and there are a lot of linked issues. In terms of automation, a single source of truth for data and verifications, a shared language of how data moves through a project—the need for convening versus fragmentation has never been greater.

With so much fragmentation, it seems like the scale of transformation needs to be quite massive.

This is about convening an ecosystem. Our industry is currently pepper-potted with point solutions that don’t join up. It’s vital to host something in a connected way where individual solutions can not only come forward, but also speak to each other.

Having a digital infrastructure that sits above it all, that glues it all together is key, which is something IBM and its international firepower has shown it can do. I see OpenBuilt as a unique opportunity to address not only structural fragmentation in the market, but technology fragmentation as well.

What’s that look like?

There are language issues around coding, and there’s also fragmentation around competing technology solutions. There’s no real roadmap to join the dots, but rather competing elements of technology. And while competition is an inherent part of the market, the barrier is that all of these solutions don’t talk to each other.

Moving to a cloud platform approach is the utopia, but to achieve that in the construction world we need access to a platform that has the gravitas to be able sit above it all and to host, to connect, exchange and automate. Digitization is such a unique opportunity for the construction industry right now. And it’s an international opportunity as well.

Does this mean we’re moving toward globalized construction?

Ultimately, that’s the ambition. I’ve been privileged during the last five years to travel the world and meet representatives of construction industries and governments. The challenges are shared, the issues are common and reoccurring, and a momentum for change is building.

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Regulatory barriers do not prevent the technology and the infrastructure that sits above it all from being uniform. We can collaborate better on technology standards irrespective of some of the product standards. Technology has no barriers.

Especially today, with the rise of cloud and mobile tech.

Exactly. We build things in disparate places with very disparate value chains. We want data to flow freely. The Internet, and now cloud, are the critical enablers.

From acquiring a site, to initiating a design, to procurement, to manufacturing to on-site work, to handing over the assets as well as operating them afterwards, technology enables us to do pretty much everything, everywhere in terms of how we build smart buildings. The cloud sourcing of data and the use of IoT and shared applications has liberated construction in innumerable ways.

Like when it comes to the workforce?

When you transition to technology, you begin rewriting the narrative of what the construction industry is about. Younger people can see construction as a more attractive, progressive industry. Older perceptions of our industry are not just held by younger generations but reinforced though their parents, schoolteachers, career advisers and influencers.

Speaking of influencers, three decades in, how’d you get here?

My father, who was a stonemason, led me into the world of construction. He did restoration work on  very famous buildings like St Paul’s Cathedral, all the way through to modern-construction on commercial buildings in London.

He used to point to buildings when I was kid and say, “I worked on that building.” That really impacted me—to be able to point to things in the built environment, buildings, motorways, railways, and say I was involved in making that happen. That’s a really powerful statement to make. And to be able to do it better now through technology and digitalization will really boost and reframe that narrative for so many.

Do you see technology as relating to those traditions?

The binary idea of artisan construction versus a digital approach is false. Technology can absolutely augment the traditional ways of doing things. My father is a classic example. He spent 50 years in stonemasonry, which is very manual and labor intensive. By the end of his career, with the emerging technology of the ‘80s and ‘90s, he was starting to use computer numeric control and digitally controlled machinery to cut marble.

Currently, there are some really powerful things ahead in terms of on-site augmentation. All too often we don’t think about the people at the end of this process who are doing physical work on the construction sites and who can greatly benefit from digitalization. Technology democratizes the whole process from top to bottom.

If we can do this all to scale with cloud technology, in a uniform ecosystem where solutions are talking to each other smartly, then we can transform construction into a really thriving, technology-enabled industry.