The road to digitalisation in the construction industry

digital transformation

Some companies may be in the slow lane while others are speeding ahead. But what is becoming clearer all the time, is that the construction industry now has a road map towards digital transformation and the journey is underway. Finbarr McMeel, technical director at Gilbert-Ash takes a look

We have all read the reports which place construction at the bottom of the table when it comes to industries across Europe adopting digital methods, but within a short space of time our industry has been making significant gains and we should be proud of what we have achieved so far.

The first major catalyst for embracing digital construction came back in 2016 with the government adoption of mandatory BIM level 2. It was successful because it provided a pipeline for companies to make investments to embrace BIM.

Five years on, there have been more encouraging developments from the government such as procuring for value and the “golden thread of information” which promotes the traceability of information, giving us the ability to access the information through the whole life cycle of the buildings.

Embracing digital technology

I believe the golden thread could be the next major catalyst. It’s not common practice yet but we are moving towards a time when we will all digitally record how a building was designed, built and maintained for its entire lifespan.

As I have said, companies within the industry are at different stages of their journey towards digitalisation. At Gilbert-Ash we pride ourselves on our ability to deliver technically challenging projects that push boundaries, and we embrace digital technology.

Our journey with BIM began over ten years ago and since then we have been investing time and training budgets into effectively develop and hone our skills.

Within our team we have people on different stages of their digital journey also. We have older employees who are embracing BIM for the first time while younger members of our team are in a position to mentor up.

We enjoy that open exchange of information, not just within our team but also with our clients, the other disciplines and our trusted supply chain partners.

As a company, we have to be very focused on the technology that we ultimately invest in. The technology has to provide a measurable and tangible return to the business for it to be viably adopted.

We’ve known the benefits of BIM for some time but there have been certain jobs which have really brought home to us just how transformative it can be for the construction industry.

Mayhew Theatre

Our work on the Mayhew Theatre which is sited within the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) at Whitehall in London, could only be completed using BIM.

The building, which was an extremely complex design, took up the full dimensions of an existing courtyard within the FCO and was surrounded on all four sides by Grade I listed buildings. It was only accessible by craning over the existing buildings from the street 90 metres away.

These complexities meant we approached it differently. We created a digital twin which enabled us to create an accurate 3D representation of the surrounding buildings, the sub structure and the access we would avail off to get the building constructed.

The team were then able to rehearse the build, perfecting the sequencing and logistics, as well as refining and de-risking the construction process. As we developed the design, the construction limitations and the sequencing limitations were at the heart of every decision we made.

The digital twin was fluid, we continually developed it as we opened up further areas. As we constructed foundations, we would feed this back into the model and learn from that and use it to inform our decisions.

We also mocked-up offsite all of the steelwork and preloaded that in relation to simulating roof tensions. This allowed us to look at actual reflections rather than theoretical data.

The Mayhew Theatre has changed how Gilbert-Ash approaches contracts of this nature.

The learning curve of Covid-19

Last year was a learning curve in so many ways, but the wide-ranging and adaptable benefits of BIM were underlined once again as we used the technology to help get our teams back onto our sites following the initial Covid-19 lockdown.

Within a very short space of time, at several of our sites, we had planned one-way systems, exclusion zones and modelled maximum occupancy levels which delivered a safer working environment for our people and supply chain partners.

It was extremely reassuring to be able to ‘walk through’ the building virtually with senior managers to test our plans before instigating a safe return to work.

As social distancing remains a firm focus, along with finding ways to negate plane travel for now, we have adopted a series of digital methods at our project to build the CitizenM Hotel in London.

The hotel is a full modular build and we have been able to carry out quality inspections digitally of different aspects, as they are constructed in a factory in Europe. This has reduced the number of people we have needed on site and removed the need to travel to the factory to carry out the inspections. It has worked very successfully.

We have also seen advances in being able to digitally sign off projects for Building Control. These are things that even six or seven months ago would not have been possible. All these benefits contribute to gains in health and safety, time management and work/life balance for our employees.

Overall, I believe the construction industry is at a junction on the road towards digitalisation, but for the vast majority, they will speed ahead.

At Gilbert-Ash, we are looking forward to continuing our drive towards digital transformation. There may be a few bumps on the road, but we will embrace the journey.




Finbarr McMeel

Technical director



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here