Contech in context

As the construction industry around the world finally wakes up to the need to embrace digitalisation, former managers from the sector are forming IT startups to provide them with the tools they require. But convincing the sector that it needs this is still easier said than done

It might seem as though you can’t open a real estate magazine or click on an article about the property market these days without reading about how digitalisation has been transforming the sector. Especially warehouse and logistics development, where developers and project managers boast about the latest cutting-edge digital processes – including AI, building information modelling (BIM) and digital twins – that are being employed in the design and running of their properties. The same can also be said to varying extents about office, retail and even housing projects. And digitalisation has now taken on a special importance as EU directives enforce the adoption of solutions for reducing carbon footprints and waste. But there is one sector at the heart of the entire process of bringing buildings into life that is lagging behind the others in this respect: construction management. And this seems to be particularly the case in Poland.

Traditional ways of managing building sites still tend to dominate within the industry. This is confirmed by Ewa Zagórska, a researcher and UX (user experience) designer at the Proptech Foundation, which is dedicated to helping to foster digital change within the Polish real estate sector: “The construction sector is one of the least advanced in terms of implementing technological innovations. This delay has many causes: from the complexity of processes, through low profit margins, to the commitment to proven traditional methods that have been used for years. At the same time, progress in the construction industry is limited by numerous challenges, such as budget overruns, delivery delays, construction site safety issues, work efficiency issues and staff shortages. The delay in digital transformation only makes these issues more difficult to manage. Moreover, in the face of global challenges, such as pandemics and armed conflicts, problems such as supply chain disruptions and rising material prices have intensified, making the need for digital transformation in construction much stronger and more noticeable.”

From lockdown to startup

The pandemic, which for many lines of work showed us the limitations of such traditional ways of working, also highlighted the need for more construction technology, otherwise known as contech. According to Ewa Zagórska: “The pandemic emphasised the need for digital tools that enable remote work, that increase collaboration and that maintain productivity in the face of social distancing measures. The change in attitude is therefore clearly visible, but there is still resistance and difficulty in adapting technology in the construction sector due to its traditional nature – with on-site problem solving, manual work and deeply ingrained habits. However, increasing pressure to meet new safety standards and economic benefits are slowly pushing the industry towards innovation.” This is a view echoed by Piotr Przybysz, the CEO and co-founder of Warsaw-based start-up BinderLess: “During the pandemic, constructors told us that the industry had been forced to change. That was when companies changed to using the Cloud. In the last 20 years, there has only been a 1 pct increase in productivity in the construction sector. The rest of us made a leap forward during the pandemic, but construction has only progressed a little. However, the pandemic showed that we can develop the tools needed to move forward.” Robert Grudzień, the chief product officer and co-founder of another Warsaw-based company working in the same sector, ProperGate, clearly agrees: “Although there is still resistance in the construction sector to changing old habits, the pandemic highlighted the urgent need to adopt contech to ensure business continuity and safety. In Poland, although acceleration programmes for contech startups have been held, in fact, due to low margins and limited budgets for technology investment, none of these systems have been successfully implemented on a larger scale. Construction companies, struggling with the need to cut costs, often choose lower prices for materials instead of investing in the optimisation and digitisation of processes.”

Among the tools now available, Ewa Zagórska lists: “IoT (Internet of Things) technology, because this is closely related to the collection of data that can be used for both current activities and later analysis. This consists primarily of various types of sensors that can monitor whether issues have arisen on the building being constructed and these include structural sensors for construction elements, sensors related to safety and working conditions, systems for managing materials and supplies, and equipment on the construction site. Other trends in construction-related technology include attempts to robotise construction work, although the industry is still mainly based on human work. Drones are also being introduced on construction sites that can be used for quality or safety control, deliveries, the photographic recording of the construction process and 3D scanning. And in order to automate and accelerate the implementation of construction work, we have seen the introduction of such technology as the 3D printing of buildings, for example, from concrete. It’s also worth mentioning the trend for prefabricated and modular construction, which, together with the digital tools supporting the design and production process, allows high efficiency to be achieved during the construction of even complex large-scale construction facilities.”

Contech goes mega

So far, the biggest interest in contech has been seen in countries with a high concentration of mega-projects, such as Saudi Arabia. For such large-scale ventures, monitoring the vast number of workers, machines and materials is essential. As Anna Walkowska, the chief technology officer and co-founder of ProperGate, explains: “In Saudi Arabia, there is no choice but to employ such tools. They must leverage the latest technology to construct their incredibly ambitious modern city projects. Otherwise, it would take a century, whereas the goal is to complete them by 2030 or 2040. We are witnessing a surge in contech startups worldwide, and our collective challenge is to speed up the rate at which the construction industry adopts these tools.”

While contech has already taken off in such countries as the US and the UK, in Poland the scene is still in its infancy and there are only a handful of companies and startups that provide such tools – but their number is nevertheless growing as such solutions become more popular. And, as Ewa Zagórska points out: “The advantages of Polish startups over large global players can include significantly lower software costs, lower implementation costs, but also software better suited to the construction of smaller-scale facilities.” One of these, although no longer a startup having been around for six years, is ProperGate, which specialises in digitalising materials supply processes. It has so far collaborated with the likes of Skanska, Hochtief, Mostostal Warszawa, Gulermak, Kajima and Echo Investment, supporting them in their strategies for managing the construction logistics for their office developments. Another example is the partnership of constructor Budimex with SkySnap, which provides drone monitoring services to track project progress. AI Clearing offers a similar system; while other interesting solutions on the Polish market include Surveily, which automates occupational health and safety supervision using artificial intelligence, and Hustro, which is an application for acceptance, inspections and fault management, BinderLess, which develops construction documentation management software, has provided software for such general contractors as Prime Construction.

One of the main advantages of such platforms is the simplification of procedures to avoid mistakes and misunderstandings by integrating them into one system. And by implementing this, efficiency can be improved and costs reduced. Robert Grudzień of ProperGate insists that “every construction site should have a single, unified source of information. Without this, material orders made via phone calls go untracked, leading to chaos. This is exacerbated on extensive construction sites. In Poland, the prevalent use of Excel and mobile phones is inefficient; you can’t measure productivity or derive insights for future improvements. Excel and phones only allow for registering deliveries, not for measuring KPIs. Exceeding budgets and schedules has become all too common and accepted.” Piotr Przybysz of BinderLess concurs with this view: “It’s easy to get lost in the overflow of documents on the construction site, not to mention a situation in which you have to find specific files. But by switching from paper archives to digital archives, we can make the process so much easier. During the implementation of each project, there are typically three copies of all the documentation and a USB – but they can easily get lost. And there’s no single source of the facts. Some people call each other, others communicate by email or during meetings… so managers often don’t know what the state of the building site is,” In fact, according to the company, 30 pct of documents get lost on the construction site and almost no data is currently being digitally processed in the construction industry and is instead stored in paper archives. But, as Aleksandra Owczarek, the CMO and co-founder of BinderLess, reveals: “We have created a web platform that can be accessed anywhere in the world. All you need is a computer or laptop and internet access to use it. This is important because if there is not one source of information and the versions of documents are changing all the time, then it’s hard to keep track of what is up-to-date. But this is where AI comes in. With our digitised platform, you don’t have to fill everything in again in your own documentation.”

Along with improved efficiency and reduced costs, such systems should also reduce the workload and stress of those managing sites, as Anna Walkowksa of ProperGate explains: “Construction managers do wish for efficient project execution. However, subcontractors often fail to plan their work, requiring constant oversight. Managers are accustomed to this and are forever extinguishing fires that could have been avoided. There are many technological tools available that, if used, could eliminate stress and make work on the construction site more predictable, with fewer issues to resolve and fewer fires to put out. Perhaps it’s in the nature of the industry that managers prefer solving these problems and returning home at 9 pm instead of 5 pm? Tech will never replace them – their work will still be essential in 30 to 40 years. What we’d like them to see is how technology can improve the quality of their lives by enhancing their work quality on the construction site.”

Turning old-timers into tech lovers

But how easy are such systems to learn how to use? This could be a concern in an industry where, according to the Polish Chamber of Civil Engineers (PIIB), the two largest groups of licensed construction managers consist of individuals of pre-retirement age (56-65 years old) and at retirement age (65+), accounting for 31 pct and 23 pct respectively. “For the more traditional, older demographic, we want to address their specific needs. They have to handle lots of documents – and the projects they work on are worth a lot of money. Our platform is intuitive, so that older people who are naturally more hesitant towards new technology aren’t overwhelmed with our platform,” insists Aleksandra Owczarek of BinderLess. Anna Walkowska of ProperGate claims that the implementation of its platform takes no longer than an hour, including training the subcontractors, and, in fact, after just 15 minutes employees should be able to use the app. “But the key is for them to recognise the benefits of using the system and to see it as a solution to their daily challenges. Delays, material shortages and unavailable cranes for unloading delayed transports are unfortunately the norm. Many projects suffer from poor and unpredictable logistics planning, which could be vastly improved with tools for planning and monitoring this, knowing what materials have been ordered, from whom, when they’re due, whether the correct quantities have been delivered and unloaded, as well as tracking their cost and location. Having this information at hand means that the 2–3 hours saved daily could be channelled into project schedule execution, potentially reducing project costs by 20 pct and accelerating completion.”

Curbing the carbon footprint

While many of the applications available on the market are aimed at optimising efficiency and construction costs, there is also the growing need to mitigate the negative impact on the natural environment of construction projects. This particular issue has become more pressing for the industry because, according to EU directives, all the materials used on sites should now have an Environmental Product Declaration to show the impact they have on the environment, while many buildings are also being constructed to meet the various sustainability certificates. All of this requires extensive planning and a great deal of calculation. “In addition to the standard optimisation of resource use, which of course also has a positive impact, there are topics such as waste management and recycling or calculating the carbon footprint, either built-in or generated during the construction phase of the facility – here, technology can certainly help manage the large amount of data that is needed to perform the calculation correctly,” emphasises Ewa Zagórska. And the amount of calculation required is only added to during the construction phase, when changes are inevitably made to the project, as Piotr Błądek, the senior software engineer at BinderLess, points out: “When the buildings are at the design stage, the carbon footprint of the materials used is calculated. But during the construction process, different materials might be used that were not specified in the design, so the carbon footprint will change. And for LEED or BREEAM, more than 50 pct of the certification process is related to the carbon footprint. So automatic calculations or machine learning are needed for this.” But, as he admits: “At the moment, people tend to look only at the price of materials, rather than their carbon footprint.”

The main mission of contech firms is summed up by Anna Walkowska of ProperGate: “Our aim is to create technology capable of anticipating problems, shortening delays and conserving resources. These goals reflect the aspirations of many tech entrepreneurs who, after direct encounters with the issues, are committed to developing solutions. In places like the US or the UK, many tech firms in the construction sector are led by individuals with construction experience who desire change. Although no longer directly part of the construction sector, by transitioning into IT, they have realised the profound impact they can make.”