Digitalization and cultural change – two of the building industry’s most important factors for success - Brandskydd, Ventilationsbrandskydd, nödbelysning - Briab

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Digitalization and cultural change – two of the building industry’s most important factors for success

21 September, 2019

A digitalized building industry with higher quality, greater efficiency and a new culture that does not tolerate construction defects – that is what is waiting around the corner. Anders Sjelvgren, Director General of Boverket (the Swedish National Board of Housing, Building and Planning), has some interesting insights into what the future holds.

Anders Sjelvgren, General Direktör Boverket brandskydd

During our week at the Almedalen Week Summit we met, spoke to and discussed necessary developments with key industry figures. The shift in the building industry is late and neglected in many ways. 100 billion SEK, or more than 10 billion EUROs, worth of construction defects sends a clear message, and for too long we have been aware of the problem, without solving it. Briab’s Michael Strömgren discusses this matter, and other necessary changes, with Anders Sjelvgren, Director General of the Swedish National Board of Housing, Building and Planning.

Michael Strömgren: Anders, you’re educated as a structural engineer, how did you end up at Boverket?

Anders Sjelvgren: Previously I worked in the industry, at large flue gas purification facilities around the world. Our main duty was to do calculations in many different countries around the world, and we saw that if we could work with standards that were common to many countries, it would simplify things for us enormously. We could use the same solutions in different countries. So when I started at Boverket, I wanted to get involved, and introduce more similar regulations for all of Europe, so we could expand our market. That’s why I ended up there.

M.S.: Was that the Eurocodes?

A.S.: That’s right, the Eurocodes were what drove me. I had worked with them for many years, also in other parts of the world. You could use them in Asia, they were used across Europe and that was enough for them to be accepted there. I saw the value of common systems like that, and implementing them was a motivator for me.

M.S.: Boverket is a key stakeholder in the Swedish construction industry. What makes Boverket’s mission so exciting?

A.S.: Buildings and infrastructure are major parts of how our society develops, and of what happens in society. Being able to work with these issues, and being part of the societal structures aimed at keeping our country successful, are some of the most exciting things you can do. All these issues have a huge influence on the future of this country. This makes it the best Director General job a person can have.

“The building sector is very slow and conservative, compared to other industries”

M.S.: Now there are a lot of changes underway. We have a committee for the modernization of building regulations, which is reviewing building regulations and the control system, and you have quite a few commissions yourselves, in particular the digitalization of building regulations, processes and so on. The entire industry is taking giant steps in this drive to change. Why do you think it’s happening now?

A.S: The building sector is very slow and conservative, compared to other industries, and I would actually say that it’s the other sectors that are putting pressure on and making inroads into our sector. Digitalization comes from other areas than building. Now people are realizing that construction is a field where you can apply what you’ve already done in other areas. So, I would say that our sector has an external pressure, and this is causing us to change. There’s a conservatism that makes it hard for us to change, but now “our hand has been forced”, because the external pressure for change is so great.

M.S.: The building regulation and control system is being reviewed, and we expect changes, possibly with greater influence from the building sector as well. What do you see is the key to an effective system?

A.S.: I believe very strongly that we have to let go of the idea that everyone has to understand the building regulations. What’s important is that the industry can interpret and understand them. We have to increase our professionalism, so I see a need to change the regulations and go from a detailed to a more general level. And if we’re going to have to describe the regulations on a general level so that anyone can understand, it’s not going to work. Instead, it’s based on a situation where the person who has to read and understand it, must have a high level of professionalism. It’s an interpretation to be made by someone with expertise. That’s the key, and then we could develop more innovations, where the regulations don’t decide whether we can be innovative or not. And since we need innovations, but also to maintain the safety level that society demands, I see it as an important prerequisite for our future success.

The way I see it, there have to be two paths: a standardization path, where you use accepted methods, and then a possibility for the profession to interpret the overriding functional requirements, and to use and apply them in their own way. But this requires another control system, because we can’t use the system we have today. That’s the big, important question. I usually compare it with EKS* or BKR**, how security class 1, 2 and 3 are described there. It doesn’t say that if two people die it’s class one, if three people die it’s class four. Rather, it describes the safety level.

Plus, researchers, universities etc., are discussing “what do we mean”, and there, inside our profession, is an understanding of what safety class 1, 2 and 3 are. It doesn’t say exactly in writing what they are, but the profession is able to interpret this. And I think this is how we have to write our regulation system too. We have to address our profession, and ask them “Do you understand what this says?”. For me it’s also about increasing the chances of doing good business based on solid foundations, not on bypassing the system. Rather, because you have more freedom if you understand what it is about.

M.S: What is the greatest potential in digitalization?

A.S: There are several parts to this. Firstly, we can increase quality. We can repeat things, we can create systems to keep better track of what we’re doing, enabling us to increase quality. We can also massively increase efficiency. And increasing efficiency might sound a bit boring, but it helps us reduce our costs and increase quality. And that’s important, we have to do this.

To be honest, the productivity increases in this sector are terrible, compared to other sectors. Everyone says “There’s more contents in buildings”, but it’s like that with all products; they’ve become more advanced. But we haven’t managed to lower our costs and increase efficiency, and this is where I believe digitalization can boost our chances of moving these processes forward.

 

To be honest, the productivity increases in this sector are terrible, compared to other sectors.”

I also think that digitalization based on a planning perspective can increase democratization and the ability to understand what’s happening. If you look at a plan map today, it’s not easy for a layman to understand, but with digitalization it’s easier to visualize things, so people in the community can understand what is going to happen and how things are going to look.

 

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M.S: So in that case, digitalization becomes a sort of communication tool.

A.S: Exactly, a tool that can convey the value of what’s going on. You can see more clearly and understand better what the result will be, what it will mean to you, as neighbor and resident. You can reduce risk and uncertainty.

M.S: So digitalization can be one of the keys to getting the building industry to increase productivity and quality. But how far can we get, compared to other sectors? For instance, the auto industry has full control of every single part and material, and they can recall cars if they detect a fault. Will builders be able to reach that sort of precision?

We’re still doing things the same as we did 60 or 70 years ago, and we haven’t adopted industrialized working methods”

A.S: Yes, I’m sure of that, and the reason we haven’t done it yet is that we haven’t industrialized our sector. We’re still doing things the same as we did 60 or 70 years ago, and we haven’t adopted industrialized working methods. If we can get the industrialized processes going, it will be natural to follow our own products, in order to develop them, and this will increase our expertise.

I believe strongly in the circular economy. There, you have to know what’s out there, you have to be able to quickly remove and replace things. And you need far greater knowledge of what you’ve put into your building, and its exact location. I definitely feel we can come just as far, it’s just that we’re so far behind, both in our way of thinking and in our working methods. We’ve got a long way to go.

M.S: And of course, digitalization gives us better control of our data, and facilitates control of what we have built.

A.S.: That’s right, and if there’s some defect or something happens, we can easily find out things such as, in how many places has this defect appeared? How many buildings do we have to remedy? We can do simulations and keep track of things in a much better way.

M.S.: I thought we could talk a bit more about accidents in buildings. Preventing accidents could be the oldest type of regulation we have in our society, there have long been regulations to prevent buildings and villages collapsing. But if we look more at the modern era, we see that it’s after major accidents that we make substantial changes to requirements. It’s a reactive process, you react after something happens. What are the challenges involved, when societies change legislation following major accidents, which happen less often, such as a building collapse or a large fire?

That’s how it works with these rare events – when they do happen, we tend to overreact”

When I worked abroad, I saw how lots of countries adjusted their regulations after an earthquake. Now it wasn’t the buildings that were designed to withstand earthquakes that collapsed, but they still raised the levels. And that’s how it works with these rare events – when they do happen, we tend to overreact. It’s almost impossible to prevent, and it’s more a question of whether the political system can manage it any other way. They have to show that they take action. In these cases there’s a great risk of ending up with the wrong result. It’s very difficult, both in terms of design, and fire. If a ten-story building collapsed, there would be long discussions about what was right and wrong in the building. As a person responsible for a regulation system, when something does happen, it will be difficult to have reasonable discussions about the changes we should make to the system.

The problem is also that when we change the regulations, we won’t be able to see the effects of the change. The events are so rare, the changes take time to implement, and the systems are so complex, with so many different things that have to happen at the same time. This makes it very difficult to see and understand the effects of the change. Understanding the details of these systems is very complicated.

M.S: A recent example is Grenfell Tower. It had plastic insulation and cladding made of aluminum with a plastic core. Apart from that, the structure was concrete and steel. But now they have prohibited inflammable materials in external walls from 18 meters and up, which naturally affects wooden building as well. But when you return to prescriptive requirements that use prohibition, rather than functional requirements, you get all these other consequences.

A.S: We recently had a similar case in Sweden, with the prohibition of EIFS***. But what exactly is this system? They wanted to prohibit it because there had been accidents.

M.S: Yes, it’s easy to look for an easy, fast solution, without thinking about the consequences from a system perspective.

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Is the root cause that it was an inflammable material, or is it something else?”

A.S: Yes, it’s interesting to talk about the root cause. Is the root cause that it was an inflammable material, or is it something else? Here we tend to not investigate deep enough, to find the root case. Is it some control system, or is it education, or something else? What is the actual reason for what happened? This is a very important job, not to overreact to the specific event, but to identify the core reason for why it happened.

If we have a system where people can do more or less as they like, then there will just be another type of mistake another time, for a completely different reason, and the result could be a disaster that is just as big. But you haven’t remedied the root cause. This is why you need to keep a cool head when these accidents happen.

M.S.: You concluded in a report last year that we have construction defects totaling roughly 60 to 110 billion Swedish crowns per year. The building sector contributes close to one quarter of Sweden’s GDP – so why hasn’t this waste been stopped? These are enormous amounts of money, so the incentives are there…

It’s far too easy to pass the cost on, further down in the system”

A.S.: You can compare to the industrial sector, which has much lower tolerances in terms of defects, and where they actively look for defects. One thing is that we don’t have industrial processes. Every time we build something, we start from scratch, I think this is one of the reasons.

Another thing is that it’s far too easy to pass the cost on, further down in the system. These hundreds of billions, the property owners don’t shell out all that. What happens is that we get fewer or smaller schools, less health care, and more expensive housing for people. Costs get passed on several steps down the line, without anyone taking responsibility for the increase having arisen. There has been no pressure to say “this isn’t acceptable”, it has just been passed on through the system, which means no one is interested in addressing the problem. This is one of the reasons we’ve ended up where we are.

M.S.: At the seminar on construction defects you argued strongly that we need a cultural change. But to reduce the defects in Swedish construction, what is most important? Is it cultural change, digitalization or a new system for construction regulations and controls? Or something else?

A.S.: Actually, cultural change is very important. We often know what’s right, but as long as each person just does their own thing and ignores what’s going on around them, we’re going to keep on making mistakes. But if we can adopt a new way of looking at mistakes, where we react whether or not it’s our own responsibility, when we see that something’s not right. Or that we are more interested in someone reacting to “we can’t do it this way”. Then we will reduce these mistakes. And that’s a cultural difference. Today everyone looks at their own little area, and doesn’t care about what’s going on next to it, but if everyone helps out to make this final product really good, we’ll also help each other identify the mistakes.

I believe cultural change is important, as it enables you to remedy a number of other problems as well. The sector has just started to talk about a desire for cultural change, it has a vision of zero deaths in work-related accidents, they are talking about the ID06 workplace ID system, that everyone is above board, pays tax etc. People are working together with this, because they want the sector to become something else, and this is where the discussion about culture comes in, and if we can make it happen, then we can go far.

M.S.: Has the building sector regained its impetus?

A.S.: Yes, because it wants to and has to attract new, young people, and to do that it has to show that it stands for something healthy and good.

 

* EKS = Boverket’s Series of Provision on the Application of European Construction Standards

** BKR = Boverket’s Design Regulations

*** exterior insulation and finish system

 

 

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