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Where is the digital transformation of construction?

Why haven’t we seen the digital transformation of the construction industry yet? This was often promised with the advent of BIM (in all the various interpretations of this wonderful acronym). Although BIM has been around for a very long time and has become an essential tool for many professionals in the construction industry, we still see most of the industry struggling to adopt a truly digital mindset. 

Architects and engineers use digital tools on a daily basis to create remarkable digital models of the built environment. Sometimes these models are also used by contractors to plan and monitor the construction process. But the design and construction phase is only a small part of the whole building life cycle where there are so many more stakeholders involved. And most of them rarely get any value out of these rich digital models. 


So where is the problem? In my view there are 3 main reasons why the construction industry has not crossed the digital transformation border.

  1. Project-centric

  2. Fragmented

  3. Complex

1. Project-centric: Construction projects are seen as one unique challenge

Most construction projects are like prototypes because they are always treated like unique objects. All the effort goes into developing the “best optimized solution” for a specific location and purpose. In other words, maximizing the value for the specific project at hand. Usually the specific solutions developed for one project are not directly transferable or scalable to other projects because this is not in the interest of the project. Hence, less thinking goes into general process improvement and information management.

2. Fragmented: Focus on one's own field of expertise

The industry as a whole is made up of so many different actors across the building lifecycle and most of them are very small companies. You have architects, engineers, contractors, subcontractors, material manufacturers, developers, clients, facility managers etc. Each of these disciplines has a range of specialized sub-disciplines. They collaborate with each other but thanks to the project-centric nature of the industry a different group is assembled for every project and they have to learn to collaborate all over again.

3. Complex: It’s much harder than it looks People often assume that construction is really simple, much easier than building for example an iPhone. But if you take into account the myriad of material options (just walking into any hardware store to see it first-hand), combine it with the inherent industry fragmentation and project-centric approach then it becomes evident that automating and digitizing the entire supply chain is much harder than it looks.

(But wait,) there is hope!

Fortunately, there are solutions to the above problems and we can even use these to accelerate the digital transformation of construction. Looking at the problem, one thing stands out: There is usually one stakeholder who is always involved in every construction project - the government! They are centrally and locally the connecting party and information about each project flows through government systems one way or another. Many countries and municipalities have already implemented a way to process building permits digitally but mostly using PDF-s and 2D drawings. This only gets us half-way there because this is just a digital version of a fairly manual process.

Using OpenBim and automating the building permit process to improve the overall quality

The true potential for digital transformation lies in two key factors: using openBIM to exchange properly structured data, and automating the building permit process. This approach makes the process faster, more transparent, and improves the overall quality of designs. Estonia is the first country in the world to implement a BIM-based permit system on the national scale, Finland has piloted the approach in the Rava3PRO project with several forward-thinking municipalities and Geneva has also made the first bold steps in implementing a BIM-based process.

The importance of municipalities

The key is not just the collaborative software solutions but getting municipalities to understand the importance of structured data and their role in enabling the exchange of built environment data between all stakeholders in the building lifecycle. The municipalities are the ones who can improve not only their own processes but also help the entire industry to move forward.

The ice is moving

Wherever you look around Europe, you notice that Digital building permits and BIM-based automation are becoming a hot topic. The European Network for Digital Building Permits (EUnet4DBP) pools together dozens of public, commercial and academic organizations looking to improve the building permitting process globally. 

The European Commission has started several initiatives like the Transition Pathway for Construction, Digital Building Logbooks and the “Support of the digitalisation of the built environment, public procurement and SMEs in construction”. The EC has also funded several ongoing horizon research projects focusing on digital building permitting, namely ACCORD, CHEK and DigiChecks.  

Additionally the buildingSMART Community and the EU BIM Task Group are supporting public clients and policy makers to automate and standardize the exchange of built environment data.

How to catch up?

With all these initiatives it might be confusing to understand where you should start your journey towards a more efficient and digital future. The best way to get up to speed is to buy a ticket to the Digital Building Permit Conference in Barcelona on the 18th - 19th of April. The event is organized by the EUnet4DBP in collaboration with many other organizations. We will be there along with all the innovators and pioneers in the field of digital building permitting. The program includes both cutting edge research and practical examples from the first pilot projects and software implementations.

Join the discussion and don’t miss out on the opportunity to be one of the forerunners in digital transformation of construction.


This article is written by Jaan Saar, Chief Evangelist of Clearly.BIM at Future Insight. Jaan has over 20 years of experience in the construction industry. He has helped both commercial and public organizations to implement digital tools to make processes more efficient and human-centric. He is a strong proponent for openBIM and international open standards because they enable better collaboration among all stakeholders in the building lifecycle.


For more information about this article, contact Jaan Saar:


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