Canada’s building industry digital transformation: Facing and achieving the catch- up challenge

Ontario Construction News staff writer

Canada has a lot of catching up to do to join the international digital transformation in building design and construction, but progress is being made in adapting and implementing Building Information Modelling (BIM) and better collaborative models.

Megan Beange, national BIM lead for Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), says Canada presently places well below – and may even be a couple of decades behind other G20 countries – in reaching a state-of-the-art level for digital design and construction.

She told a Construction Specifications Canada (CSC) Ottawa chapter gathering on May 8 that the nation needs approximately 360,000 digitally qualified people in the AEC community in the coming two years. Currently, the Canadian construction industry only spends approximately two-tenths of a percentage point (.2%) on research and development, compared to 3.5 % in the automotive industry and 4.5 % in the aerospace sector.

Internationally, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has published 12 BIM standards and is “currently working on eight more.” In Canada, however, “we have not published a single BIM Standard – we haven’t even initiated discussions with standards development organizations to create a Canadian Standard,” she said.

Instead, organizations like the Institute for BIM in Canada, and buildingSMART Canada, have been releasing Best Practice Documentation like the Canadian Practice Manual for BIM and the IBC Project Execution Planning Toolkits and BIM Contractual Language Guide.

Things can change, and Beange indicated that Canada’s late start in the digital transformation process may have advantages, because we can leverage lessons learned in other nations and develop approaches that work best here.

“The real constraint to our ambition in the construction sector isn’t our technology, materials, design, specifications or details,” she said. “It is our ability to communicate effectively and collaboratively.”

There’s a need to properly implement Open BIM and Common Data Environments as a service to Canadians and the Industry. This will inevitably drive growth – both in our Construction Industry, and in the Software Market where giants like Autodesk and Esri currently hold the lion’s share of licenses in Canada.  

If there is more software competition, there’ll also be (as happens in other countries) incentives offered by software vendors, like free training and resources to help people catch up.

She observed that Finland was one of the first countries to mandate digital transformation in the construction industry. Many countries have adopted a similar strategy in order to address key challenges with aging infrastructure, complex brownfield or infill sites, achieving action against climate change, improvement in the economic development of their construction industry and skilled labour, as well as continually smaller project teams.

This can be seen with the US starting in 2003, the United Kingdom in 2016 and South Korea in 2010. Ireland and Russia more recently have made progress (in 2017 and 2018) and the digital transformation process will be well under way by 2020 in Germany and Chile, and Brazil by 2021.

“When are we going to see something for Canada?” she asked.

She said many of the early adopting countries were able to move first and fast, with a “top-down” model – where the government mandated BIM and other new technology standards on the industry. However, this caused several key market challenges for small and medium enterprises “who were being beat out of contracts” because they weren’t as agile with training, licenses and learning of managing multiple projects at the same time.

Canada has experienced a largely grass-roots “bottom up” approach until now – namely, voluntary industry and individual business implementation.  However, this approach can cause innovation “approval mentality” and create challenges with regulatory or contractual compliance. “If you need to ask permission, chances are that someone will say ‘no’,” she said.

The best solution, Beange believes, is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.  

The approach that will work best will be collaborative, with associations and different government agencies working jointly, with adequate research funding, to develop the best solutions.

There is progress. Finally, in the last four years, there are some Canadian-based data centres so the information can stay securely within our country, she said.

The industry can benefit through different funding models and the government can make progress by requiring digital information in its contracts.

There are challenges that need to be resolved. “There are a lack of precedents . . . and no one wants to go first. There’s no mandate, no legislation and no legal framework about who’s really responsible at the end of the day.”

As more digital information is gathered and the resource and data files improve, in part with the buildingSMART data dictionary, it will be easier to manage projects, schedule materials, control costs and “everything you would like to program into it to model, semantically linked.”

PSPC is building the digital transformation into its contracts, starting with pilot projects, before taking a mandate approach “in order to better understand market readiness, and the support the industry may require to deliver the data the Public Sector will need for initiatives like Smart Cities, or Virtual Tourism”. “It’s very flexible and it’s scalable,” she said. “We want broad industry support and full engagement.”

“As a country, it will become vital to have complete and coherent tools for professional associations for architects, engineers, project managers and contractors.”

There will also soon be defined and accepted educational standards both nationally (initiated by buildingSMART Canada) and abroad.

She said the federal government is preparing a digital policy “and has already published a strategy and begun consultation.”

In the immediate future, the focus is on raising awareness, then fostering readiness. Next will be adoption and implementation.

As a start, she says government employees and AEC industry practitioners can visit the GC Real Property Digitalization website at https://dbgc-bngc.ca/ for resources geared for individuals at the beginning, intermediate and expert levels while awareness and readiness become a priority across Canada.

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