Paul Brennan, BAM Ireland’s Head of Digital Construction and a CitA Board Member speaks with Irish building magazine about training and skills, the importance of offering more than competitors, and the critical role of CitA.
Paul Brennan has witnessed construction change significantly over the past 15 years. Digital Construction is now mainstream and in his BAM role, he is at the peak of this transformed industry. He has seen education and training change to meet demands. “CitA was possibly the only organisation providing BIM and Digital Construction training 10 years ago. Since then the Institutes of Technology have done great work to deliver courses to industry professionals and to undergraduates.”
Industry was ahead of academia at one stage he says. “Industry was doing more research on BIM than the third-level colleges back then, but there has been a major turnaround. Now we have a great range of courses.” However, he believes it would be an improvement to provide more modules with greater depth at post-graduate level and third-level colleges should be giving more syllabus space to Digital Construction. “It should be more integrated into traditional industry courses such as quantity surveying, architecture, construction management and design engineering as it is now mainstream. This is the reality of the industry and in the UK, courses have changed and are reflective of how we work in construction today. In Ireland we can be very loyal to the tradition of some professions and that is often reflective of the course material we teach our students. Industry professionals do positively influence courses when they lecture part-time in colleges.”
Paul says in the UK Digital Construction is top of the public agenda across the major departments and institutes while here in Ireland it is not. He does not hear people talking about Digital Construction when discussing our major infrastructure needs. “It is rare that I hear it mentioned when people speak of the housing crisis.”
Most clients in Ireland depend on consultants to guide them on projects, benefiting from the expertise of architects, engineers and surveyors. Major FDI clients are knowledgeable and know what to ask their supply chain to deliver. Private sector aside, the knowledge of the Irish State as a client has impressed Paul in recent times, and he says its Digital Construction knowledge base is continuously improving as evident in the questions asked at tender stage. “Public clients like the NDFA and Dublin City Council should be applauded for what they have done without a national agenda and policy for BIM.”
He believes there has been an issue in recent years where companies have down-played what BIM offers as they are apprehensive of the transparency that it brings. “They feel the pressure of having to perform on a project whilst not having the skills readily available within their organisation,” he adds.
With BAM, Paul has been involved in and has witnessed exemplary examples of the application of digital skills in diverse, demanding environments. They demonstrate how knowledge and skills cultivated through experience and learning delivers great work. “There have been many amazing projects in Ireland that BAM has delivered using a range of digital tools. These projects have led to major improvements in how we deliver projects internationally.” Firstly, Dubai’s Museum of the Future which is a major complex project which has garnered international media attention partially due to its aesthetics. This €190m, 30,545m2 museum with its unique form and futuristic stainless-steel facade featuring illuminated glazed Arabic calligraphy is known worldwide and featured in Irish building magazine in 2018. “BAM Ireland has a team of BIM specialists working on the project both on-site and remotely from Ireland at present,” Paul says.
The second project takes us from the searing Arabian desert heat to the freezing cold. The BAM Antarctic Survey encompasses the demolition of buildings and construction of a wharf. Construction started in early 2019 for the modernisation of UK Antarctic research facilities, storage and living quarters at Rothera. Contracted by the Natural Environment Research Council, this €120m project will last 7-10 years. Due to the extreme conditions construction work is only possible for a few months of the year there. The team had to transport and mobilise the site compound, fleet and equipment, undertake the excavation and then return home before the drop in temperature. “If a machine breaks down there are no parts available! The 50 BAM staff that worked there are based in Oxford.” The team trained in Leeds using simulators to learn what using 360-degree excavators in freezing temperatures would feel like. “They learned how to maintain the machines and accounted to ensure they had every bolt as the team were 11,000 kilometres away from the UK.” The way technologies were used to train and prepare for this project is fascinating and would make a great industry documentary.
The Coal Drops Yard in Kings Cross, London is a high-end architectural design and was part of Irish building magazine’s summer 2019 article on the development. The verification of what was built compared to what was designed was executed excellently by the Digital Construction team. The fabricators and the fitters benefited from the use of BIM Paul tells us. “Rhino was used in the roof design. The design and manufacture of components for the roof was a major undertaking offsite. Construction planning and logistics for the roof were simulated many times for optimisation prior to assembly on site.”
The teams that worked on these projects are highly trained in Digital Construction and a range of associated areas. Paul believes engineers and technical staff are comfortable with technologies but there is room for improvement with trades and operatives. “Our engineering colleagues are well trained and have amassed much experience. Over the years BAM Ireland has invested considerable time and money to ensure this expertise. However, there is major room for improvement in upskilling site crews in digital applications for Health & Safety, Quality Control etc. In the future, tradespeople will be considered as assembly technicians. They can use applications to snag work, get work signed-off and aid to get their responsibilities on projects over the line. There is an opportunity here for developing skills.”
Given his international experience, he says that Germany is a leader in site worker training. “Germany is more advanced in how they prepare their tradespeople for the industry. TU Dublin delivered a great course for operatives to develop knowledge and develop their digital skills. Like this, we should be preparing trades to work with technologies. There is so much that they could do and could have greater career opportunities.”
A broad online learning offering is critical for busy professionals. There are benefits of face to face learning, but this is not always possible for people. There are some amazing courses available from the Institutes of Technology and professional bodies. Soon the large companies will want to deliver their own online courses Paul says. Notably, BAM has a reputation for in-house training and for developing their own e-learning modules internally.
BAM has held Digital Construction Days in London in recent years. These events were organised jointly by the BAM companies operating in the UK and Ireland. The 2019 event was held at the Institute of Chartered Engineers’ One Great George Street HQ. Major technology vendors attended and presented Paul says. “Presentations demonstrated BAM’s vast in-house expertise. Due to COVID-19 BAM will be hosting an online weeklong event this year.” BAM’s past training days can be viewed online. Paul describes a typical event. “Tech companies provide exhibitions showcasing their equipment and technology. Tech talks and experiences are shared. Our event partners tend to be big industry names: Autodesk, Microsoft, Leica, Topcon, and Bentley Systems. The best technologies, both hardware and software used by BAM are showcased.”
These technologies have positively influenced the value delivered to clients. Paul says clients in Ireland get great value for money due to competitive tendering and contractors striving for advantage; sometimes in digital skills. “Clients expect you to be adding something more, a better construction method or modern technologies. Contractors must be able to add extra value, whether this is in design management, procurement or being able to rapidly provide alternative design options. With the technologies we have, we can use models to explore where we can provide greater value for example through modular construction, structural steel, or precast concrete versus insitu-concrete.”
Paul believes contractors must be constantly thinking of how to add greater value. “Clients expect you to be at the cutting edge of technology. Ireland’s contractors tend to offer better value engineering and alternative design solutions compared to those in other geos. You need to be constantly thinking about how to get ahead and having the expertise and skills is critical.”
As is expected internationally, Irish contractors want graduates and professionals trained to meet the industry’s requirements. Paul says, generally, Irish graduates are as good as you find anywhere; but there is room for improvement. “One area for improvement is online training. We do not have enough online courses. There are many great colleges and companies in Ireland offering top-class training courses online and face to face, but we need more online courses. We need the flexibility they offer.”
Construction constantly needs educated people, with CPD and charterships being actively promoted. When the next downturn comes it is the companies that have a flexible outlook that will survive. “Companies need experienced people with the skills to evaluate tenders differently, to foresee challenges and bring alternative solutions. Construction is highly competitive and based on small margins. We forget this when times are good and work is easily won but if a recession comes you have to offer more than competitors to survive. In recessions, you are left thinking whether you should have done more in the good times to develop skills, expertise and push your capabilities in winning work, and made more of an effort.”
Training takes time, you might have to travel and it takes you away from family. However, your CV must be comparable with other candidates for you to be employable. “We compete as companies and we compete as professionals for jobs.”
Paul has recommendations for construction employees. “You must be comfortable with information technology. You need to know more than the basics and be proficient in the hardware we use; laptop, phone, and tablet. Standards and technical language must be understood by professionals. For example, you need to be able to discuss the principles of ISO 19650 and know the terminology. Construction professionals should be able to navigate a 3D model. These are basic skills but are becoming ever more necessary.”
Online courses must be flexible so that you can learn whenever you want by accessing course resources. Live lectures are also important to facilitate open dialogue with the lecturer. People’s preferences are diverse when it comes to learning and the two main influencing factors are family life and work demands.
BAM has people working around the world that access Irish based CPD courses. These people are working in demanding roles and critically need the flexibility to upskill. “If clients’ teams are evaluating bids, they are looking for up-to-date knowledge; they want to see if the project team are chartered, etc. There must be encouragement and investment across the construction industry to better oneself, their company, and industry.Collectively we need to develop and align our career and company goals. This mentality leads to a better industry culture.”
Companies are worried that if they train somebody and they leave, the company is losing investments of time and money, but as it is often said, if the person is untrained, and they stay, it can be to a greater cost.
Paul has been on CitA’s Board for five years and says CitA is an important organisation for the industry. “When international construction was moving towards digital innovation, CitA was following the latest global trends. Now many organisations are leading digital innovation in Ireland due to CitA’s original innovation network.” He says Ireland had a traditional industry and prior to CitA we looked abroad for news of new methods and innovations. “There is a thirst for knowledge, to get information from the best minds from around the world. This is seen with the popularity of Irish building magazine interviews where international construction experts are featured.”
CitA reaches a range of audiences from the industry top tier to small companies. “There are people knowledgeable in Digital Construction who want to know what is coming next. Then you have another group who are getting used to having BIM on their projects. They want to understand what Digital Construction offers. CitA is catering for these two groups.”
The CitA Digital Transformation Series is popular among BAM teams with some BAM colleagues as far away as the Americas and Australia often viewing events live on YouTube. Companies attending events and undertaking training help build the culture of Digital Construction Paul explains. “The CitA Regional Roadshow brings Digital Construction to SMEs around the country. This reaches companies that may not have a Dublin base or doing work internationally. CitA’s Tech Trend Series sees CitA return to its roots. This series is a technology showcase and people can talk about what technologies they need. CitA’s Skillnet provides unparalleled training, across a broad range of topics from Revit to time management to Health & Safety.”
Paul’s highlights from his term on the Board include working with fellow Board Members and attending CitA’s major events. “The Board Members come from the public sector, from contracting, consultancy, academia, and they are all experts in their field. The CitA Gatherings are international draws for professionals. We need to have these big events in Ireland to showcase Irish capabilities and to learn from experiences across the world. CitA’s media partnership with Irish building magazine has been great for getting the message of Digital Construction out to our industry in Ireland.
“For many years BAM has been a sponsor and avid supporter of CitA. As a not for profit organisation, the work that CitA does is important for our industry and I do hope our industry recognises this and in turn will support CitA into the future.”
CitA’s work continues. The CitA Technology Trend Series, CitA Regions Series, and Digital Transformation Series are running as webinars due to COVID-19 restrictions. CitA is also running various mini webinars with tech members and CitA Skillnet webinars on a weekly basis. All details of webinars are available on the CitA website. CitA Tech Live 2020 which was planned to take place on 24 September in Cork will be hosted virtually due to COVID-19. The theme of the event is ‘Changing the Way we Work’.
CitA Co-Founder Dr Alan Hore says the variety and pace of technology innovations are helping project teams to be more productive and work more efficiently during the design, installation and operational phases of a construction project. “In 2020, COVID-19 has in effect catapulted our industry into looking strategically at these technologies as we adapt to a new norm of remote working and social distancing for the foreseeable future.
“These technologies will change the way we work, help teams to face challenges, improve collaboration and coordination of information, creating more accurate project data, improve communication between project teams, and leading to smarter buildings and better project outcomes that clients will increasingly demand.”
CitA Tech Live is taking place 21-25 September. CitA have assembled 20 experts from across the globe for this event.
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