Technology and Innovation in construction interview: James Lee Burgess, XL Werks
Embracing tech is key to saving construction from disruption and obsolescence
“The challenge is smaller, talented technology companies disrupting the industry from the outside… If the industry doesn’t engage with technology, firms could find themselves left behind.”
A trained architect, James Lee Burgess (Lee) is XLWerks’ director and founder. Lee built his career working in various settings from traditional firms to large multi-team organisations before establishing his own practice. XLWerks is a design practice with a mission to embrace technology and new ways of working. We met up with Lee to hear his thoughts on innovation. Two clear themes stood out: collaborative working and technology.
The siloed echo chamber
Lee recognises that pockets of innovation exist. But often it's stifled by the way the industry works. Silos in short, which are borne out of avoiding risk. Unless new tools and ways of working are adopted throughout the chain, the industry can’t move forward. Collaboration is key to this. As buildings have become more complex the number of consultants and specialists required has grown. Multi-disciplinary teams are now working together, developing better ideas and anticipating and fixing issues. This is crucial to avoid what Lee calls the ‘echo chamber’ where single specialism or professionals only speak to each other. Better, different thinking is possible when new ideas are brought to the table and barriers taken down. Tech can enable us to do this.
Working to embrace technology
Technology is also an issue - the pace of change needs to increase. The industry needs to be getting hands on with technology, to see what processes and practices can be innovated. It’s not just a question of the tech ‘haves’ vs ‘have nots’, but also the tech ‘wills’ and ‘will nots’.
There is a generational element. As old boards retire, new blood comes in. Newer teams are often more inclined towards innovating with technology. But change by attrition can be a slow process.
And what about education and skills? The industry needs to address the skills gap now and for the future. He points to forward thinking schemes such as at Norwich City College. The Digitech Factory is a hub to bring together a range of digital technology, design and engineering courses. This is the future. Drawing from adjacent industries, cross fertilising ideas and building tech competencies is necessary to stop young talent from bypassing the construction industry altogether.
Putting his money where his mouth is
Lee believes augmented reality (AR) will revolutionise the construction and design industry. XLWerks uses AR as standard on every project. It uses the second generation, enterprise ready HoloLens 2 from Microsoft.
The Hololens is a headset that scans your environment in real time. It forms a 3D model and allows holograms and information to be projected into what you perceive as your current space. Earlier virtual reality executions were interesting to Lee, but there are clear safety issues for such an immersive experience onsite. With Hololens the information is ghosted in front of you. AR content is overlaid through the display onto the real world environment.
“AR is going to be a really big thing in construction and design going forward. It's being used tentatively now already. But it's a game changer because it links the 3D model to the person on the ground on site,” says Lee.
It's accessible to most people and so offers far reaching advantages – both on-site and off.
If the 3D model is overlaid onto their working area, an on-site worker can immediately understand how a design fits together. It reduces cognitive load and increases site safety. Managers leading on-site briefings can use the Hololens to talk team members through particular elements, speeding up the process of understanding. Reviewing the model in situ allows you to spot issues – clashes with services for example – so you can build right the first time, with no wasting time or materials.
For design teams, it makes working together easier. Problem solving becomes more dynamic and accessible if your team members can bring up a 3D model of the building on the table in front of you. Everyone can see the design, interact with it, discuss the different connections, pull it apart and rebuild it. Problem solving becomes more dynamic and accessible. XLwerks uses Trimble Connect for Hololens. It allows design team members to view the same model remotely, talk to each other, and be present in the same spaces via avatars. This is ground breaking in terms of collaborative design.
So the benefits are better collaboration, better, faster and more accurate design and build. There are also opportunities, important in our Covid age, to speed up and make easier some of construction’s more resource heavy ‘real world’ activities by virtualising processes and delivering them remotely.
Microsoft offers Remote Assist: office-based workers can link into an on-site worker’s HoloLens, see what the on-site worker sees and add real-time instructions and notifications. If site workers have a problem, they can connect with the architect and point it out through the HoloLens, saving time and money as trips to site are avoided. It’s easy to see how this remote access would deliver increasing advantage to architects working across multiple sites.
AR tech may not be widespread in construction yet, but compelling use cases are developing. Pushed for a prediction, Lee thinks that things could look very different in just five to six years.
And what of the future?
If Lee could wave a magic wand to fix an issue in the industry, what would it be? One word: planning.
According to Lee, the planning process is ripe for innovation. The volumes of survey data passed to Local Authorities are used once, and not shared. And there’s great scope to learn from that data – to make processes more transparent, accelerate understanding, reduce time spent and cut down on unnecessary fees. For Lee, much could be done to impact on the delivery of housing and infrastructure if this could be fixed.
Meanwhile the use of digital twins - detailed digital replicas of physical entities, such as buildings or cities - is on the rise for planning, particularly in urban environments.
Lee says “Ideally, if you had a digital twin with planning policy represented clearly everyone would know where they were, including planning committees. So much would change if the planning process was made more transparent: more upfront about outlining constraints and identifying where the opportunities are.”
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