Report by Colm Quinn, Think Media
The SCSI held its first PropTech and Smart Construction Conference on April 19th in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin. There was a vast array of speakers from Ireland, the UK and further afield. Although they had different opinions on what the future holds, they all agreed on one thing: it’s time to understand and embrace technology.
The Conference was chaired by Shane Coleman of the Irish independent and Newstalk. His first job was to introduce SCSI President Colin Bray who he said came from the “hugely innovative, forward-thinking OSi”.
Once a techie
“Once a techie, always a techie.” This was how Colin described himself, and he said that the Conference was on a topic which was very close to his heart, having chosen fostering innovation as a strategic pillar of his presidency. He has worked for many years in Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSi), overseeing the implementation of new technologies and innovations which have made the organisation one of the most advanced mapping agencies in the world.
This Conference ran along a similar theme to other events he has organised over the past year. Last year, there was the SCSI Technology Roadshow, which travelled the country, and which Colin said was the start of the Society’s conversation on disruptive technology.
He summarised the takeaways from the roadshow:
- disruptive technology is an opportunity, not a threat;
- it has always been around and always will be; and,
- it is important to be an early adopter.
He recommended that companies try to create a curious organisational culture and said innovation is about asking if there is a better way of doing something. There has been an increase in the use of laser scanning and drones, and Colin said: “We can’t afford to keep our heads in the sand when it comes to tech”.
He warned that it is not about technology for technology’s sake. Not everything will be suitable for everyone, but if something does suit you, you should look to be an early adopter.
Irishman James Scott works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Real Estate Innovation Lab, and the title of his talk was the ‘Autonomous Future of Real Estate’. His work looks at the technologies and processes which are changing the built environment.
James said data is very important to the Lab because of what it tells them about the built environment. It has a database of over 1,800 PropTech companies in which over $10bn has been invested. James broke down what areas those companies are in, with many in data services and listings.
One company is WeWork, which provides shared workspaces. It is valued at $20bn but it doesn’t actually own any property, so where does it get its huge valuation from? The answer is the data it holds.
Much of James’ work focuses on the autonomous future of work. He said that previously, the only jobs that could be taken by automation were manual and routine but that is now changing. Research undertaken on 720 jobs to see which were most at risk of being lost to automation claimed that residential surveyors were in danger, but James doesn’t believe that will be the case. Although the process of buying property may become automated, James said that no one is going to invest a large amount of money on a property from looking on a website. They want to go there and they want someone to walk them through the process.
James’ advice is to know your market and your customer to be successful. Technology will change the industry but he said it is something to be embraced: “This is an area that’s ripe for change. Change is needed”.
Sreelatha Chunduri works for the Dutch construction giant BAM Group, a world leader in the use of building information modelling (BIM) and other new technology. It is working on the Museum of the Future in Dubai, which will be partly 3D printed.
Sreelatha was involved in the building of the first 3D printed bridge in the Netherlands. The bridge was 8m long and used less concrete than normal because when printing, concrete only has to be placed where it is needed.
She talked about the need for digitisation in the construction industry and why it is important. Construction is changing and more digitisation will lead to more productivity. She explained that there are two sides to digital construction: processes; and, the built environment. Processes is about information sharing, 3D printing and robotics, while the built environment is about smart devices, sensors, smart communities and digital exploitation. With these technologies, she said: “People can see how their buildings are performing”.
While renovating Tower Bridge in London, BAM used 3D scanning technology. It allowed them to see what was under the deck of the bridge, such as piping, etc.
Sreelatha explained the benefits of linking digital assets to physical ones. For instance, by putting QR codes on all machines in a facility, it allows anyone who is going to perform maintenance on them to scan the code and receive a file telling them all about the machine and how to maintain it.
Three quick talks
Three surveyors took to the stage next for a brief talk on technologies transforming the industry.
Lily works for JLL at Linkedin and is the Chair of the SCSI Facilities Management Committee, and she said that there is a lot more technology involved in her work now than when she started: “As an FM and a CS, I have a unique insight into why these things work”.
She talked about how workplaces are changing, and now attract and keep staff by offering things such as food, gyms, etc. With working from home more of an option, companies may need less space.
Lily asked the audience if they were using their space and their data correctly: “We’re now in a position to digitally read what’s going on in our buildings”.
Peter works with Cushman & Wakefield in valuations and advisory. He said that his business has “embraced technology 100%”. The company is using iPads on property inspections. It has also set up a database on national transactions for market research and information. Peter said the key to valuations is market transparency and that the Property Price Register has helped. He would like to see something similar on the commercial side and believes it is only a matter of time.
He spoke about automation in the valuations markets, saying it works well in transparent markets but that there are limitations in accuracy.
Liam is a quantity surveyor (QS) based in Co. Wicklow. He talked about how the profession has changed over his time. When he started, there weren’t even calculators and he said: “Things really have moved on”.
When CAD came on the scene, Liam said the people who embraced it did well and those who didn’t found themselves with less work: “We’re faced with the same things today”.
He thinks BIM is coming in a dramatic way and that the role of the QS will be subject to huge change. Although new technology is coming and may automate some jobs, skills will be required to use the new technology, interpret it and bring clients through it.
Before the coffee break, there was a panel discussion with SCSI President Colin Bray, SCSI Director General Áine Myler, MIT’s James Scott and BAM Group’s Sreelatha Chunduri. In line with the conference’s theme of technological innovation, throughout the day the SCSI utilised a website called Slido.com so that delegates could use their smartphones to respond to polls and post questions, which were displayed on a screen on stage, and out to the speakers.
The panellists were asked about the role Government has in pushing new technology. Colin Bray said governments need to make sure mechanisms are in place and that it comes down to policy: “We need to drive it in the public sector”.
Áine Myler said that the rate of adoption of new technology is uneven. Bigger companies have more resources to invest. She floated the idea that smaller companies could form co-operatives so they can pool resources.
What PropTech innovators will we see in the next two years? James Scott talked about Katerra, a US company that plans to manufacture everything needed to build a house in its factory, ship it to site, assemble it and sell it themselves. He said if they make a success of this: “It will be massive”.
When asked if companies should have digital implementation plans, Áine said yes but that you need to commit. She said the Society can advise firms on what way they want to go.
The panel was asked about the possibility of there being 3D printed buildings someday. Sreelatha Chunduri said that is the future but that you need to be practical. How big can 3D printers be? There are still some studies going on but she said: “Hopefully, one day we’ll see a 3D printed stadium”.
The Conference then split into three breakout sessions, which catered for different levels of expertise in data and technology. For delegates already well versed in these areas, there was the ‘Better information management’ session, which was chaired by Avril Behan of Dublin Institute of Technology. It featured Mary Flynn of Dublin City Council, Colin O’Grady, Commercial Manager at John Sisk & Sons, and Shane Caffrey of Survey Instrument Services Ltd.
Get tech smart
This session was chaired by Shane Coleman and featured Mike Hinchcliffe of DPW, Sarah Sherlock of Murphy Surveys and Les Curran of Go Report, who spoke about how technology is affecting different surveying disciplines now.
Mike spoke on the practical uses of BIM and what a quantity surveyor can use it for. He named three benefits: quicker design; better co-ordination; and, project controls. Animations are helpful as they allow you to see problems before you get to site. Even with BIM, everything still needs to be checked by a competent person.
Sarah said it is important to know the data you are using for things like BIM is correct. She said the role of geomatics is to verify data. You have a problem with data if you don’t know who created it, when it was created and if it was changed. You also need to know why it was created. She said that the value of good data is huge. Ordnance Survey UK did research that said spatial data will reduce travel times across the Commonwealth by 12%.
Les said his company works mainly with building surveyors and offers a secure, user-friendly web portal for producing reports. He said that technology needs to be made to work for surveyors. Professionals need to be adaptable. He said we are now in the fourth industrial revolution. This is the internet of things, where more and more things become connected by the internet.
The future of property data
In a session chaired by SCSI Director General Áine Myler, three speakers looked at the impact of how we use data in land and property.
Adam Willetts of Urban Splash talked about how the company is using 25 years of experience and data to create a unique development in Birmingham. Port Loop will include a mix of modular and traditional housing, with an emphasis on sustainability. Adam spoke about designing for the communities of the future, where most people won’t own cars, so spaces formerly used for car parks could be used as community hubs, with cafés, parcel delivery points and Uber stops to cater for the community’s needs.
Stuart Green of Teagasc introduced the audience to fascinating new technology in land management. Data from earth observation satellites is being used to build knowledge on soil, grass cover, carbon sequestration and drainage, and this information will have an enormous impact on land management, compliance, productivity and the environment.
Finally, Nicola Sothern of McDowell Purcell spoke on ‘Data opportunities and the GDPR’, offering a 12-step programme for companies to help them to achieve “data protection by design and default”. She said that there’s still time to get educated – and advised identifying key personnel and risk areas within your business. She emphasised the importance of knowing what data you hold, and how and why you hold it. Businesses will need to review all of their data processing procedures to ensure compliance with the GDPR.
A Farmer on construction
After lunch, Mark Farmer of the Cast Consultancy in London spoke. He is the author of a highly influential report called ‘The Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model. Modernise or die: Time to decide the industry’s future’.
Mark worries that the industry will not wake up in time to the need to modernise. However, he said that discontent could be a driver for change. There is a structural problem in the UK construction industry. The second biggest UK construction firm, Carillion, went bust last year and although Mark said it shook many: “It should be jolting people into thinking who’s next?”
He believes that the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy has led to a lot more scrutiny: “Build quality was clearly substandard. … How it was signed off is beyond me”. He said that compliance and enforcement will drive change towards technology. Following the disaster, the UK government is pushing for more quality and the industry is not trusted to monitor this. Although the UK government is pushing proptech by mandating BIM in its public buildings, this has not worked in Mark’s opinion. He said that they pushed digital into analogue construction management.
He said there is scope for more product-led thinking in construction, where components are mass produced offsite. He thinks the traditional structure of construction where a large contractor hires smaller sub-contractors does not work and will become more risky, as it does not facilitate manufacture-led thinking.
Whether the industry likes it or not: “We’ve got exponential change coming into our industry”.
Making a splash
Adam Willets works for Urban Splash in the UK, who are known for regenerating old industrial spaces in British cities and transforming them into residential and work spaces. He said: “The ethos of everything we do is design”.
Recently, the company started working on suburban developments, saying it was frustrated by the lack of choice in that market. So it tried to do something new. It now offers two- or three-storey houses, built in a factory and assembled on site, with stories stacked on top of each other. The company offers customers choice on how many rooms they want on each floor. It is possible to have a large open plan living space on the bottom floor, or have two or three rooms. You could also have the living space on the second or third floor if you prefer. He said: “For us, it was about letting customers drive how they live”.
The company bought a factory to build houses as it was doing everything else and couldn’t see it working any other way. Its first development was in Manchester and it has six around the UK now. Adam admits that for it to work, the process needs to be scaled up and the company needs to start manufacturing thousands of houses.
But it is being done and he said that it goes to show that: “You can put the theory into practice”.
Analyse your way to profit
Yvonne Holmes is Head of Data Analytics at AIB and said that proptech is about removing friction and enabling discovery. She spoke about the importance of data analytics and how it provides insights which can then be turned into actions.
AIB is trying to predict what its customers want. For instance, if the bank’s data shows that someone has moved back home – it is a good indicator that they are saving for a mortgage. AIB will recognise this and may start marketing mortgages to them. When an ad pops up online for an AIB loan, the amount on offer in the ad is specific to what the person looking at it can get. It is not just a random number.
The bank also looks at the Property Price Register to see how many houses were sold in an area and how much of that business it got. She said that AIB has a lot of data because it is a big player in a small country.
AIB looks at the transactions of customers, although she said this data is only viewed once it has been aggregated and anonymised, to see what is changing for customers.
She said that developers can use data such as theirs to possibly help with planning applications, as they could show who could possibly buy in an area.
Following Yvonne’s talk, she was joined onstage by Mark Farmer, Adam Willets and Áine Myler for the second panel discussion of the day. They were asked about offsite manufacturing. Adam said that it was not necessarily the end of bricks and mortar but that: “We need to disrupt construction”.
Mark said that traditional methods of delivery need to change. Áine said that with the supply we’re trying to create in Ireland, modular housing offers a great opportunity.
Adam said that at the moment the price of modular houses is more than traditional ones and the only way that is going to change is for the production to be scaled up. He said governments should get involved to support companies like Urban Splash.
They were asked will modular homes hold their value the same as bricks and mortar. Mark said that longevity and standards do need to be addressed.
But how would modular wooden houses fare in the damp climate of Ireland and Britain? Adam said there are solutions to these things which can be done in the factory. He said that the houses Urban Splash produces are overengineered and that the company has satisfied accreditation.
The Conference split into two as James Scott hosted a group workshop in ‘Developing your technology toolkit’ and Stephen Lynam held the BIM users forum.
James’ workshop looked at the future of real estate. He wanted to give people an understanding of what automation is and described it as: robotics; machine learning; and, artificial intelligence (AI).
There are different kinds of AI. The AI from sci-fi films, where clearly intelligent machines have conversations with humans is a long way off. That is called general AI. Where we are now is called machine learning and an example would be Netflix recommending things for you based on what you’ve already watched. The next stage is deep learning, which James said “is an evolution of machine learning”.
The best use of this so far is in image recognition. If a machine captures an image of a stop sign, it will ask itself hundreds of questions about the characteristics of a stop sign to see if what it sees is the same.
James said that deep learning will be massive in quantity surveying. A lot of people are worried about automation taking jobs and although James said that some jobs will be lost, automation in the past has tended to lead to more jobs. When ATMs were first introduced, people were worried it would lead to job losses in bank branches. It did but it also made the cost of running a branch much cheaper so banks ended up opening more of them, which compensated for the lost jobs.
James said we don’t know what tomorrow’s jobs will be and the benefits of automation always outweigh the negatives.
RTÉ’s first Chief Digital Officer Múirne Laffan was interviewed by Shane Coleman. She spent many years working for marketing giant Universal McCann in the United States before coming back to Ireland. Múirne took the digital department of RTÉ from being literally stuck in a corner to front and centre in the organisation.
When she started, the RTÉ website was just three years old. She said she never had a job description and was tasked with sorting all this digital stuff out for RTÉ.
Múirne tried to bring people together to work on projects. Her team built the RTÉ Player and she said they didn’t really know what was going to happen but it was something the department felt they needed to do: “We knew the on demand thing was coming”.
She was also involved in RTÉ News Now and GAAGO, both of which have proved very popular. GAAGO offers people around the world the opportunity to watch GAA games online.
She was asked where Ireland and RTÉ stand compared to the likes of the BBC and the big US TV networks who have much more money. However, she said these are not the benchmark in the trade. It is Netflix and Amazon that have disrupted the industry.
Offsite is alright
Peter Browne works for McAvoy Group who are based in Dungannon in Northern Ireland and are an offsite construction company. He spoke about the report by earlier speaker Mark Farmer ‘Modernise or die’ and said it is his company’s Book of Kells.
He said the McAvoy Group delivers high-quality buildings for education, healthcare and residential. The company describes its work as offsite rather than modular as the word modular has negative connotations. McAvoy is BIM Level 2 certified.
Peter believes if you don’t get on the bus, you’re going to be left behind. The company has a VR suite but said that it will spend more on augmented reality (AR) instead because it can be used with smartphones and tablets, rather than needing special headsets.