Digitalisation: How can the construction industry catch up?

Digitalisation: How can the construction industry catch up?
Rhona Henry, head of construction and engineering at Matheson

All industry stakeholders need to be equipped with the requisite resources, know-how and experience to enable the transition, says Rhona Henry of Matheson

What's your name?

Rhona Henry

What’s your current job?

Partner and head of construction and engineering at Matheson

How long have you held the position?

13 years at Matheson

Can you describe your daily work routine?

Managing and running an extremely busy construction and engineering practice (in collaboration with my partners at, and the running of the business of, Matheson) with a particular focus on capital projects, development/construction financing and PPP construction expertise.

What is your professional background?

I joined Matheson as an associate lawyer in 2005 and was a senior associate from 2009. Partner and Head of Matheson’s Construction and Engineering Department in 2015. I have a BA (Hons) UCD and received a Diploma in Construction Law and Contract Administration at TCD in 2006. I am a member of the Law Society of Ireland. I am also an active member of various other professional organisations such as the Construction Bar Association of Ireland and The Society of Construction Law.

Tell me about yourself away from work?

I love the gym and walking.

Tell us something very few people know about you?

I love my job!

What in your opinion are the barriers that must be overcome to ensure the construction industry can effectively catch up with technical innovation and digitalisation?

Access to Resources All industry stakeholders need to be equipped with the requisite resources, know-how and experience to enable the transition. In our experiences advising on large-scale international construction projects we have had widespread exposure to the employment of innovative technologies such as BIM and lean construction on construction projects, which in turn, has presented us with the opportunity to develop specialist expertise on the implementation of legal framework to support the operation of these technologies.

Capital Outlay in Acquiring Technology There is a substantial initial cost involved in implementing some of the technologies in the construction industry. It is entirely understandable that firms will need to investigate the product and confirm its commercial necessity and benefit before making such a considerable financial commitment.

Confidence and Trust in Technology As the employment of digital technologies becomes more widespread, the industry as a whole will naturally become more familiar with the methods of each initiative and consequentially an increased confidence and reliance on technology will emerge. To reach this stage each individual technological advancement must follow the same path towards the breakdown of traditional means of operation and achieve familiarity. It is natural that the construction sector will be slow, or reluctant even, when replacing current norms with new technological systems until they can see concrete benefits justifying the implementation.

Education There is of course an appreciable cost to an employer in enrolling employees in training courses relating to current technological developments. It is great to see that Ireland has already developed comprehensive third-level education programmes focused on BIM for construction students.

What changes do you envisage for the sector in Ireland over the next five years?

Legislative Developments The adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on 25 May 2018 will see major reform of current data protection legislation. Notable amendments of particular importance to the construction industry are the appointment of data controllers, the updated procedures for responding to data breaches and the substantial punitive sanctions granted under the GDPR. I have worked extensively with various entities in the construction sector ensuring compliance once the GDPR becomes enforceable and Deirdre Kilroy, partner in Matheson’s IT and commercial contracts department recently addressed the CIF on the preparations to be made in advance to ensure compliance with the GDPR. The GDPR is just the latest legislative developments, other upcoming developments include the Housing (Regulation of Approved Housing Bodies) Bill, the Home Building Finance Ireland Bill, and the Building Control Bill.

Further Technological Advancements The constant stream of technological advancements will, we hope, continue to benefit the construction industry. Various digital initiatives have surfaced in recent years, and one which could become a mainstay in the construction industry in future years and warrants further discussion is virtual reality (VR). We have already seen the benefit of BIM in the construction industry, and its success in the construction sector is exemplified by the drive by Governmental departments and professional organisations across the world to fast track BIM’s regulation, education and compulsory implementation.

Like BIM, VR offers the end user a perceptible end product of a build. However VR has the potential to go further than mere functionality in the building schedule and offers an opportunity to enter the building and examine the finer details of the construction. If the technology performs to its potential, it is likely to become a highly useful and universally adopted advancement in the industry.

Enhanced Development of Brownfield Sites The recently published National Development Plan caters for enhanced infrastructure in response to an anticipated population increase expected to result in a demand for approximately 660,000 more jobs and 550,000 more homes. Consequently, Ireland is faced with a challenge to ensure its cities remain open, accessible and attractive places in which to live and do business. In response to this, a focus on the development of brownfield sites located in suburban regions of Irish cities and townlands is expected. The development of brownfield sites represents a desirable solution to the issue, as it offers affordable potential construction sites in areas surrounding prime locations where planning permission applications are more likely to be successful and less onerous.

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