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There were a record 2,349 construction firm collapses in the calendar year 2023 — accounting for nearly 28% of all Australian business failures. Going forward in 2024, the construction industry faces the continued pressure of higher relative interest rates, disruptions in supply chains, higher materials costs and labour shortages. There’s a risk construction quality and worker safety could suffer if businesses cut corners.

A 2023 report from The University of Melbourne in partnership with software firm Autodesk argued that integrating a range of technologies into construction industry workflows could help safeguard both construction quality and worker safety in the future.

These include the utilisation of data capture technologies like 3D scanning and Lidar, through to common data environments for project and industry stakeholders that use 4D simulation and VR-based experiences to maximise the benefits of contractor training programs.

Construction failures highlight project data management gaps

Australia has witnessed a number of residential construction debacles. These have included the Opal Tower and Mascot Towers in Sydney, which were revealed to have severe defects, and Melbourne’s Lacrosse Tower, which caught fire after being adorned in flammable cladding (Figure A).

Image of the Opal Tower in Sydney, Australia.
Figure A: Defects in the Opal Tower development in Sydney led to residents being evacuated and years of remedial works. Image: Ecove Group

These problem projects, which have cost some building residents millions, led to a national investigation and The Shergold Weir Report, which recommended a national best practice model to strengthen the effective implementation of the National Construction Code. The construction failures and report prompted state-based regulatory efforts, such as NSW’s new Building Commission, which has the power to veto or intervene if standards are not met.

Building product concerns superseded by need for clear, shared data

The report from The University of Melbourne found recent Australian residential construction problem projects had highlighted the need for:

  • Better audit trails of materials installed.
  • Better capture of information and streamlined information sharing across project stakeholders involved in the specification, selection, installation and maintenance of construction materials, components and systems.

SEE: Effective data management is necessary for any industry.

The report noted that by 2023, concerns over one issue — the quality of building products and where they have come from — has reduced. The industry is now focusing on high standards during the execution and installation process to enforce underlying construction specifications.

But despite progress in digitising construction from design through delivery and operation, there are still problems, with The University of Melbourne’s report singling out a lack of clarity to enable decision-making and inconsistent information capture as some of the top quality issues.

Audit trails and ‘as-built’ information capture are key problems

The report found 51.9% of industry respondents are still dealing with a lack of clarity and audit trails for decision-making processes, despite shortcomings detected in the Opal Tower and Lacrosse Towers, indicating the need for better capture of information and audit trails.

Information and audit trails provide “source-of-truth” documentation or data on how a building complies with a building code, as well as what changes or decisions have been made during the construction project, to support compliance with regulation and transparency for owners.

In addition, 50% of the industry is struggling to capture “as-built” information. This information is a drawing or data that shows how a building has actually been built, including any modifications, additions or other changes made during construction that may differ from the original plans.

With the continued use of paper forms and problems with digital system integration and information sharing, other predominant issues include:

  • Difficulty in accessing data (42.3%).
  • Difficulty managing and maintaining data (40.4%).
  • Lack of due diligence (36.5%).

Technologies tipped to support construction quality standards

Improvements to building information management during projects

Building information modelling is used for the creation and management of data throughout the design, construction and operations process. Through digital representations of the project, managed on an open cloud platform, it can enable real-time collaboration among participants.

SEE: Businesses may want to consider project management software for construction.

The report suggests BIM jointly applied by the industry in “common data environments” — which bring otherwise disparate datasets together — are promising avenues that would help project teams improve collaboration and digitise the likes of verification and approval processes (Figure B).

Aerial view of the Optus Stadium development.
Figure B: The use of BIM while building the Optus Stadium in Perth was “tremendously helpful” according to one of its architects, HASSEL. Image: Autodesk

The continued digitisation of construction workflows

Digital workflows are assisting construction teams manage a variety of activities on-site:

  • 3D scanning and Lidar technology are being used to capture accurate “as-built” information, replacing a past era of manual checks and documentation.
  • Reality capture, including through 360-degree images, allows builders to digitally capture actual jobsite conditions to move faster and make smarter decisions.
  • Geofencing, which uses GPS signals to pinpoint and keep equipment and people within a defined area, is being deployed to keep construction resources well-managed.

The report notes that artificial intelligence overlays will likely offer additional ways to automate processes like checks and approvals in the future. AI may also be used to support the design and building of prefabricated materials for construction projects in Australia in the future.

SEE: Australia will need to overcome these IT challenges of AI.

Improving construction industry training with technology

Technology is expected to play a growing and significant role in assisting construction contractors to improve their safety records. 4D simulation, which demonstrates 3D construction activity over time, and VR-based training are being used to support training of workers.

Technology could minimise future construction catastrophes

At the time of the report’s release in 2023, author Dominik Holzer, The University of Melbourne’s associate professor in digital architectural design, said technology had a key role to play in “priming construction companies for risk prevention and establishing safety barriers.”

While the report acknowledged technology could not “fix” all of the issues affecting Australia’s residential construction sector in particular, it played a key role within the context of complex dynamics and information flows that drive productivity and transformation across the industry.

“Technology has the potential to assist in tackling many of the challenges faced in construction practice via interfaces and information environments that connect people and workflows, no matter if applied within one’s own organisation, or holistically across project teams and beyond,” the report said.

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