One of the UK’s most important sectors is facing huge disruption – and there will be clear winners

The UK construction sector will face disruption from technology in the next two years, with companies embracing digital ways of working set to emerge as the winners, according to staff.

A survey of workers in the industry, which accounts for 6% of the economy, revealed that even though technology is boosting productivity and efficiency, and helping firms create buildings “fit for the challenges we face now and in future”, some bosses are resisting the need to change.

The report – entitled Digital Transformation in Architecture – by Microsoft and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) found that 85% of workers in the construction industry believe it will be disrupted by technology over the next two years. Forty-two percent of those believe that change could be moderately or massively disrupted.

“While some believe that architects are ahead of the curve, most practices agree that the whole construction industry is changing,” the report states. “Digital technology adoption is not optional: 55% link it to business survival… [but] twenty-nine percent disagree that practices who do not adopt digital ways of working will go out of business. This figure rises to 38% among practices with fewer than 10 staff. This view could be dangerous for some UK architects: if they are not prepared for a major disruption to their industry, they may get left behind or even go out of business altogether.”

The construction sector has traditionally relied on blueprints and 2D models, but this is changing. The availability of 3D models at the design stage and mixed reality devices such as Microsoft HoloLens is improving collaboration, productivity and the finished product. More realistic rendering of designs through computer-generated imagery and through mixed reality allows clients to experience their building before it is built.

Thirty-seven percent of respondents to the Microsoft-RIBA survey said they had been on a digital transformation journey “for some time but it’s not complete”, while 39% were in the early stages. Just 10% said they had not started, revealing the importance construction firms are placing on using technology to improve how they work.

“We see in this research that many practices are using digital technologies to create a better experience for clients – putting them at the heart of the design process,” the report stated. “And, as well as using Building Information Modelling (BIM) and visualization tools to improve collaboration externally with clients, contractors and other consultants, architects are also using technology to work more effectively within their organizations.”

RIBA has previously revealed that Microsoft’s HoloLens is helping architects construct better buildings.

The survey of 300 professionals working in the industry revealed that 35% of architects are using at least one form of mixed, augmented or virtual reality, with some of those planning to expand their use of immersive technology and use other variants in the near future. In addition, 29% planned to use mixed, augmented or virtual reality within the next five years, with 48% seeing themselves using the Internet of Things in the same timeframe.

These innovations will increasingly be supported by cloud computing – services such as Microsoft Azure are already being used by almost 60% of those surveyed. Again, this is helping companies cut costs, be more productive as they work across multiple sites, and collaborate. The ultimate goal is for digital transformation to help create better buildings and places, and improve client outcomes; 56% of our survey respondents recognize this as a benefit of adopting digital technologies.

Digital technologies are helping 63% of practices to collaborate internally, while 66% of architects have changed how they present designs to clients, and just over half (52%) have altered how they communicate with clients.

Commenting on the findings of the report, Ben Highfield, Surface Product Manager, Microsoft UK explained that “The UK has led the way when it comes to digitising the design process, and technologies such as BIM and Mixed Reality are already helping practices across the country reimagine the way they design, create, present and collaborate. However, the digital transformation of the UK architecture sector still has a long way to go.

“To thrive in a digital future, architectural practices must continue to prepare employees with the direction and digital skills they need for success. In fact, getting this culture of digital transformation right will help architectural practices to thrive – using new innovations to create buildings that will have a positive impact on communities.”

The UK has a problem with productivity: only one country in the G7 has lower productivity levels per hour worked. The construction industry has struggled in this area despite productivity increasing by 2.6% from 2014–2016.

However, while the positives of embracing technology are obvious, the survey revealed there are hurdles to its adoption. This is most obvious among bosses, where “weak leadership, a lack of willingness to change and slow decision-making, are impeding progress”. Less than half of practices (47%) assessed their leadership as digitally literate, while only a third suggested that their practice has a clear or formal digital strategy.

“A digitally literate and engaged leadership sets the course, but everyone within the practice generates the momentum to swiftly and effectively adapt to, and drive, change,” the report stated.

Another barrier is cost, despite the financial risks of not investing often becoming more significant.

Respondents also pointed to a lack of digital skills as a reason for failing to digitally transform.

“Architecture qualifications are the result of years of study and practice-based learning. But skills levels are also influenced by how well a company or group of professionals share their learning and best practices,” according to the report.

This chimes with Microsoft’s view of digital skills in the UK. The company has launched an initiative to train 30,000 public servants for free in a range of digital skills. This will allow UK government and public sector organisations to deliver better, more efficient and modern services to people across the country.

Microsoft has also committed to making sure everyone in the UK has access to free, online digital literacy training that will prepare them for a world in which companies, schools and governments embrace technology to transform how they work.

Additionally, Microsoft is also launching a Cloud Skills Initiative, which will train 500,000 people in the UK in advanced cloud technology skills by 2020.