Next month a roundtable hosted by Western Sydney University’s Centre for Smart Modern Construction will be held and some of the leading academics specialised in construction management have been invited. The idea is to hear from leading experts in the field how should construction workplace look in 2025 and to share thoughts about how the work will be managed on site since more and more companies have moved fabrication off-site.

Academics should also contribute by coming up with specific criteria needed for competition to create and design the new Smart Site Hub (SSH). The new project will be a site shed of the future, that will not only impact the first projects in which it is going to be used but also on all future projects. SSH will be a move toward a new, more connected construction site, which is more effective and collaborative and it will be a sign that a real change is coming.

On-site practices need to change

Whenever next-generation young experts get started learning on-site practices, they are faced with, how it is called “realities of the business”. They learn from experienced practitioners who are set in their ways and who have also learned from experts before. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that nothing changes on the construction site and working on construction sites remains the same as it has always been. The worst thing about it all is that the most construction workers don’t feel connected with their management, making them feel that any suggestion or idea is not going to be heard or implemented.

During the formal training, the apprentices are presented with examples of modern construction and all the new technologies in use worldwide, but when the training is over and they head out in the real world construction site, they are faced with harsh reality – design that is not coordinated properly, supply chain disruption, the need to fix on-site mistakes, construction delays due to poor weather and lastly – their own mistakes.

We can use a typical site shed given as an example by one of the construction experts – Building Information Modeling was used for design and the whole project was then translated into Design for Manufacture and Assembly platform. Around 60% of all physical components were built off-site in Europe and shipped to the local warehouse. This is what is usually called a “project in a box”. At that time, there were more than 300 variations, due to many different circumstances – from design to local compliance issues. In the beginning, the whole project had a great design idea, but it managed to lose it by the end.

The construction team, as always, have done a great job under those circumstances, but a young apprentice didn’t have the right opportunity to see and learn how off-site manufacturing can affect construction.

Construction ecosystem keeps redefining itself

Thanks to the rapid development of new technologies, construction ecosystem has been able to reimagine itself. Off-site manufacturers improved their capabilities and propositions, so now they have a more important role in the whole industry. Furthermore, a new change in the industry is disrupting how everything worked so far – thanks to suppliers who are sharing early contractor engagement stage, the traditional roles of constructors, subcontractors and designers are changing.

Off-Site Construction Manufacture (OSCM) was the main theme of many discussions lately, with experts trying to figure out why it has been running into obstacles. It was first thought that the problem was off-site, but now the focus shifted on the gaps between BIM and DfMA technologies and the fact that construction customers are not prepared to adopt Early Contractor Engagement (ECE). Furthermore, most of the smart solutions offered by OSCM companies have not fulfilled expectations.

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When it comes to the future of the construction, clients believe that the delivery of their services will change and that the complete process will rely more on smarter solutions. The way buildings are operated, constructed and specified will also get a lot smarter. Furthermore, most of the clients already realize that they will have to change their current business models to stay relevant in the future, especially when you take in account that experts believe that the future of construction must be more sustainable, smarter and adaptable. Buildings are smarter now than they were in the past, but they will just get smarter due to the rapid development of the Internet of Things (IoT).

The modern construction industry is pushing clients to strive to achieve more for less, which is something they will have to do since the construction costs are rising and the future of the industry is uncertain. Some clients are already getting really serious about changing how the current business is done and with most of the practices in the industry not being sustainable – they have to.

What brings new challenges to construction is that now buildings have to be built from many different sources and mostly relying on global supply chains. Further challenges include – logistics, off-site payments, regulatory compliance and lowering carbon emissions.

The focus now is on finding out how the construction site is going to change when more than 50% of what is fabricated is off-site and needs to be transferred on-site. This change is going to bring a lot of challenges, some of those are:

  • How will the new technology help modernise old processes?
  • What are the new skills that construction managers and the workforce will have to learn?
  • With residual work being done on-site, how will construction be defined?
  • Are the construction regulators preparing for the future?
  • With traditional work being replaced by the OSCM on-site assembly, what will be the primary focus of the head contractor?
  • When can we expect to see the careers of new generations will not be constrained by the current way the construction business is run?

What the future holds for new startups, designers, OSCM suppliers, head contractors, and subcontractors?

Currently, the OSCM momentum is being held back by the absence of any idea how the future construction site is going to work and how the head contractor fits in the picture. That is why we have to consider the following:

  • New work practices are expected to bring zero deaths to construction sites, while the overall amount of injuries should be reduced by 80 per cent
  • You have to keep in mind that most of the changes will not be accepted immediately by the whole industry. With the majority of projects being valued below $50 million, you should expect that the early adopters are probably going to be companies working on smaller projects.
  • Contractors will have to oversee the integration of OSCM and their responsibility will be to complete documentation, project integration, and
  • It is expected that more than 50% of all fabrication will be done off-site
  • Construction waste should be reduced by a minimum of 80% due to using modern on-site fabrication processes
  • There will be a need for integration of new processes to keep track of the quality of OSCM. This should be done with the use of modern technologies.
  • Design Development and Construction (DDC) will be managed by head contractors.

Taking all this in the count, it is expected that the general role of the head contractor will have to be completely reimagined, with new capabilities and new definition. One of the discussions about the future role of head contractors came to the conclusion that the new function of the head contractor on a modern construction site will be:

  • Ensuring the continuation of communication, technology, risk management, and assurance
  • Tracking logistics and the flow of work performed by different self-operated multi-skill teams
  • Changing management where needed and keeping track of payments
  • Head contractor should be the responsible person (under the OH&S regulations) that makes sure that the construction site can only be accessed by authorised personnel and visitors who are properly prepared
  • Making sure that there is an office hub on-site that can be shared and that enables at the same time management of on-site and off-site activities

As you can see, the scenario for a future construction site means that most of the work that head contractors have to carry out happens even before construction begins. Furthermore, it is possible that the construction setting will be significantly different since some contractors will probably have less direct employees working on-site. This opens new possibilities for contractors – for example, having a construction site like this means that they can have on-site employees and infrastructure only when needed.

However, this scenario doesn’t only affect head contractors, but also regulators and educators in the industry. Organisations like TAFE will have to change their education to properly support the future construction industry. Other organisations that will be affected will be SafeWork NSW and Building Professionals Board, both of which have to keep an eye on licensing, performance and accountabilities of the modern workforce and constructors.

Smart Site HUB (SSH) design and manufacture challenge objectives, prizes and sponsors will be announced in February 2019. It is expected that the first implementation of SSH will be on-site late next year.