When NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler first took on his challenging assignment to reform the construction sector, he said that at least part of the answer lay in technology and the potential to digitalise construction.
His words were spoken almost a year ago but he might have been thinking of BuildingConnected, a kind of LinkedIn for builders that’s about to launch in the Australian market by its new owner, US construction and design software giant Autodesk.
This online application has immense potential to reveal information about builders that can provide more than a few clues about the quality of their work.
This ranges from a basic profile to the ability to scale up to a full track record of everything from legal, business, and safety issues to reputational and financial issues.
It can mine data that can be found in building authorities and check out any disciplinary action.
Not a bad move towards some transparency and accountability in an industry mired in complexity and moving targets.
The brainchild of its founder, Dustin DeVan, the platform connects and “prequalifies” builders with a raft of information that can be designed to bid on certain projects.
It’s a kind of running database that means a head contractor can confidently bid on a job knowing where all the myriad trades are coming from. And whether they are qualified to work on the size, complexity and type of job at hand.
DeVan told The Fifth Estate in a recent Zoom meeting that for a builder this offers a huge advantage, primarily composed of time-saving and accuracy of potential players in a major projects, given the complexity of skills and people that must come together for the duration of the project and then disperse again.
More interesting than the efficiency dividend, though, is that the platform can assess the risk profile of the participants.
In the US, 13 of the top 20 tier one builders use it; seven out of the top 10 builders in Canada use it. Total users is more than 1 million.
DeVan says he came up with the idea in his work in commercial construction after kicking off his career as an engineer as a way to simply find the right builders and contractors for the right job.
“I saw the need,” he says.
He’d been working on big health care projects such as hospitals when he noticed something about construction in the US, as in around the world: it’s a very collaborative industry, with a bunch of people who come to work on a project, he says.
But there was something else. “It’s also very fragmented.”
Business come together to work on a project and then disperse.
And every project needs its own unique set of constructors to work on the project.
The head contractor needs to keep in touch with the team that they use and with people frequently moving between companies or geographically it can be a challenge to assemble the right team.
“You think that’s not a big deal, but if you work with thousands of businesses and thousands of employees all the time and someone hasn’t deleted correctly your database can end up a nightmare.”
The issue hit home when DeVan was bidding on a hospital in an area that was new to him.
“That presented a new set of challenges. How do I go out and find the right team to work on that? Do they have hospital experience? Have they worked on a project of that size before? Are they capable of that contact size?
“That discover mechanism took about a month to do.
“So I started BuildingConnected to solve that problem and we were very successful.”
The platform allows people to tender on a project and if they are accepted they create a profile of their business.
Questions answered include the person or business’ track record on efficiency, safety history and types of projects worked on.
So far there’s been about US$100 billion (A$160b) of new projects go through the system.
Most of the large projects use online submission in the US because of the increased transparency, DeVan says.
“In construction, I don’t think we do a good job of adjusting cost for risk so if you get two submissions of the same value, one company will invariably present more risk.
“So you should be able to adjust the cost for risk. Qualifying is a way of knowing what you are buying.”
“Does this contractor perform this dollar value all the time, and if they do, are they less risky? Is this contract really a step up to a larger project than they are used to and if so is there more risk associated with that?
“We want to help our contractor make the most informed decision possible based on as much information as we can gather.”
Overall, he says the US has very similar construction issues as Australia. Quality of work varies significantly.
“Look, everything is on a spectrum; there are some great builders.”
Would he buy an apartment off the plan, before it’s completed?
“I would not because I know how it’s put together,” he laughs.
“A lot depends on how the contract is put together.
“A lot of times it’s not the contractor’s fault; they’re told to go in with the lowest number.”
He says that often the root cause of defects lies in a faulty contract and contractors are unnecessarily blamed.
It means some projects are set up to fail.
Change has to come to construction, DeVan says.
“We’re getting to a point where I think things can change.”
Autodesk has paid about US$275 m ($441 m) for the company, which according to Forbes magazine, is not a bad return for the $85 million plowed in by venture capital investors such as Brookfield Ventures, Bee Partners, Brick & Mortar Ventures, Crosslink Capital, Freestyle Capital, Homebrew and Lightspeed Venture Partners.
The purchase completes part of the puzzle to fully digitise the construction process. It’s also recently bought digital blueprint platform PlanGrid for nearly $875 million (A$1.4 billion) adding to its BIM 360 platform.
Chief executive Andrew Anagnost said, “We are trying to completely digitise the construction process all the way from design to build,”
According to Forbes the construction sector is “late to the shift to digital technology” but construction software is now growing fast with the market to reach $10 billion by 2020 globally.