THE FUTURE OF ENGINEERING MEANS BRINGING BACK THE CONSTRUCTION OF BRUNEL

Daniel Nikolla

Daniel Nikolla

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Elson Bajrakurtaj is the Founder and Managing Director of Elysium Construction. In 2019, he asked Stephen Hawkins if artificial intelligence will one day take over the world.

Mr Hawkins replied: ”Alongside benefits, AI will also bring dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It will bring disruption to our economy. And in the future, AI could develop a will of its own—a will that is in conflict with ours.” 

If you were to get a time machine and bring Isambard Kingdom Brunel to your project site, his mind would be blown.

The technology and tools we have at our disposal, not to mention modern attitudes to safety, specialist roles and the complexity of required outcomes, would be staggering to a Victorian engineer. But that doesn’t mean everything would impress him. The way 21st Century teams coordinate work would seem illogical and inefficient to Brunel and he’d be right. If we want our sector to thrive and grow in the future, we need to rediscover the simplicity of the working methods of the past.

When Brunel was working on the Great Western Railway, the project duties for an engineer were comprehensive. An engineer was responsible for handling all aspects of the works, from financing and initial site surveys through to design and construction. They represented a single point solution for a client – someone who not only had complete oversight of a project but was physically involved in every aspect too. This meant there was one controlling mind that oversaw a project’s progress so ambitious works could continue quickly, smoothly and efficiently.

Cut to the 21st century and the process couldn’t be more different: engineering firms have morphed from creators into construction management companies. Projects are split up between multiple parties and services are delivered by myriad hands that aren’t focused on the outcome desired. This fragmented approach sounds more efficient on paper but construction isn’t a factory assembly line – dividing a project between numerous engineering firms only introduces costly delays. Precious time is lost seeking answers from different parties and it can take days to get a reply or confirmation from the design team. And that isolated design team often builds beautiful models but fails to fully consider buildability.

When a large number of parties are involved in a project there’s also more opportunity for confusion. Anyone in construction knows that successful projects rely on the ‘Three Cs’ – communication, coordination and cooperation (the backbone to collaboration) – and failing in any one of these areas starts causing problems for deliverables. As more parties are added to a project, the chance of failure in one of these areas grows. When there’s no controlling mind, what’s left is a confused network of inadequate systems – such as project controls, clash detection and stakeholder management – that attempt to achieve the same project coherency yet always end up falling short.

If the construction industry wants to shake off its sluggishness and grow beyond the pandemic, we need to reverse this fragmentation and return to the working methods of the past. Of course, this doesn’t mean bringing back the safety standards and working conditions of Victorian engineering, but it does mean embracing the single point solution of Brunel and his contemporaries.

 

We need to start turning to engineering firms to deliver multiple parts of a project, not just one aspect. Reinstating a single point approach brings back that one controlling mind which simplifies a project and strengthens communication, coordination and cooperation. It allows for greater responsiveness as there’s no communication delays and a team can instantly respond to any issues that arise. It improves the relationship between the client and project team as one point of contact allows for easy project management and a better working dynamic.

It also provides greater opportunities for innovation. Allowing one firm to own every stage of the construction journey gives them the freedom to innovate and bring additional output value. A single point solution makes it easier to integrate the latest tech – such as 3D imaging and drones –  across an entire project, rather than being stymied by different firms’ capabilities and preferences.

The growth of our sector relies on looking to the future but sometimes that includes refreshing our memories of the past. It’s not regressing to revisit historical engineering methods if you can combine them with modern tools and insight. It’s not idealistic to take inspiration from engineers who have gone before. If we want to cut down inefficiencies in engineering and maximise our potential, it’s the single point solution of Isambard Kingdom Brunel that is the answer.

Elson Bajrakurtaj is founder and managing director at Elysium Construction

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