How the adoption of digital technologies can save UK house-builders money

Stewart Dalgarno, Director of Product Development at Stewart Milne Group – the independent, award-winning house-builder and leading timber systems manufacturer – discusses how utilising digital technologies in the design and build process can bring added value and yield savings for UK house-builders.

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Stewart Dalgarno has spent close to 30 years working for Stewart Milne Group, progressing to Managing Director of its timber frame operations. His current role is responsible for all product and process development across the group, as well as chairing the group design and technical forums within Stewart Milne Homes.

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K house-builders are faced with the challenge of delivering quality new homes, on time, within budget and at scale, and in today’s modern world, the suitability of traditional design, construction and aftercare services is being questioned.

In a bid to drive the sector forward, Stewart Milne Group – in partnership with the CITB and MacTaggart and Mickel Homes – undertook a pilot study to assess the case for digital working and the benefits that new 3D technologies, such as BIM, virtual and augmented reality and clash detection, could deliver.

The study concluded that using digital technology in construction could provide savings of £3500 per plot and yield many more benefits. Based on UK Government figures, nearly 165,000 homes were built in the year to June 2017, which leads to a potential combined saving of £575m could be realised for house-builders.

Digitalisation is the answer to faster design, planning approval, improved quality, productivity and early sales revenues. By replacing 2D working practices with 3D digital technology, developers could effectively prepare themselves for future challenges and increase their competitiveness and efficiency.

Traditional 2D paper-based processes are susceptible to accuracy discrepancies and changes which can add significant time to the design process as plans must be re-drawn and laboriously updated. Design conflicts are often not identified and the risk of error is high as drawing revisions are difficult to track and require multiple reworking.

To overcome this, Stewart Milne Timber Systems launched the UK’s first digital BIM library for off-site timber building systems. Featuring over 100 Stewart Milne Timber Systems’ wall, floor and roof systems; architects and designers can easily create ‘smart’ digital models of new homes, so different teams can collaborate and compare with 3D information.

Using the 3D digital models, design revisions are faster, easily tracked and less costly to produce, with inconsistencies flagged early and resolved more promptly.

A digital-enabled planning and design process streamlines drawings and generates accurate visualisations showing clear design intent. By working digitally, there could be a 50% increase in the likelihood of a positive planning outcome, a reduction in the planning cycle by about a third and a cost of disruption saving of approximately £600 per plot.

By putting digital technologies into practice, Stewart Milne Group is confident that a positive planning outcome can be achieved for its own developments and those of Stewart Milne Timber Systems.

The benefits of digitalisation extend into the construction phase, as the technology has the potential to improve on-site safety for workers by a third and minimise the risk of, and time needed for, snagging and defects, leading to a potential saving of £250 per plot.

As well as value added benefits across the construction phase, digital technology can also be used to support the sales process and reduce marketing related costs. The study indicated that sales rates for homes could increase by 20% when realistic 3D models were shown. Time and money is also saved as marketing images can be generated directly from the digital model, and as VR technology becomes more mainstream, there will be opportunities to give customers an immersive virtual walkthrough of their prospective homes and developments.

Based on the study and the Stewart Milne Timber Systems BIM library, the business case for shifting to digital 3D design, construction and marketing is clear and compelling. However, the transition from traditional 2D practices won’t be realised overnight, and the fear of failure can be a challenging hurdle to overcome.

As well as evaluating the benefits of digital house-building, the Stewart Milne Group study also investigated the challenges of supply chain adoption. Of the 74 house-building suppliers surveyed during the study, more than 90% were not BIM-ready, and 59% admitted they were not even aware of BIM or looking to develop digital solutions.

The low level of digital technology readiness, coupled with deep-rooted culture and the general lack of collaboration, led Stewart Milne Group to create culture change plans as part of the study. These plans included measures to improve collaboration, behaviours and trust, as well as training and upskilling for a variety of different roles and functions across the business and supply chain.

Stewart Milne Group’s study is demonstrating the many advantages of adopting digital technology, including the financial-, time- and efficiency-related savings that can be achieved as well as the value generated. However, to be successful, the advantages of digital technologies in house-building must be made clear. Organisations must prepare their teams for change and ensure full commitment towards more integrated and collaborative working.

Organisations that remain 2D will find it increasingly difficult to deliver cost and material efficiencies. They risk losing their competitive edge and, as traditional 2D systems become outdated and unsupported, profitability becomes increasingly limited. Companies that embrace 3D digital solutions will become more valued, profitable and attractive.

Whilst successful implementation will require investment and sustained effort, Stewart Milne Group believes that digital technology solutions will provide a clear, immediate and sustained payback. Stewart Milne Timber System’s clients are already realising the benefits from the UK’s first BIM library for timber frame systems, pushing their businesses and the sector forward by incorporating new collaborative ways of working digitally.

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