Standardising construction

In late 2022, we held our first GS1 UK construction event, bringing together experts from across industry to explore the role of trusted data in building a more productive, safer and sustainable future.

construction workers using laptop

Like many other sectors, the UK construction industry has had to adapt to a range of new challenges. More change is coming and, while much of it may be unknowable at present, laying solid foundations for the future will be essential if industry is to adapt and thrive.

The importance of people, trusted data and collaboration covers all industries and sectors. As consumer demand for trust and transparency increases, so too have the legislative demands placed on UK businesses; demands that cannot be met without the sharing of accurate data, open communication and close collaboration between all stakeholders. 

Our global data standards have been powering progress for businesses and consumers alike for nearly 50 years. That is why GS1 UK is now committed to working with the construction industry to drive adoption of GS1 identifiers and standards. As part of this collaboration, our “Powering the future of construction” event included an insightful panel discussion featuring Robert Barbour, group data and insight director at Travis Perkins plc, Angel Jimenez-Aranda, digital innovation director at Genuit Group, and Nick Wright, global head of digital solutions at CBRE UK.

These three experts were all asked a series of questions centred around the key challenges and opportunities facing the industry in achieving digital transformation. We have summarised their answers below: 

Robert Barbour, Group data & insights director at Travis Perkins PLC

Robert Barbour, Group data & insights director at Travis Perkins PLC

What are the main barriers to change?

Robert Barbour – “The culture surrounding data is certainly a key challenge. Data is still not widely regarded as an asset, there is little understanding of what ‘good’ looks like and lots of silos. Manufacturers and merchants are working to different agendas and customers are still struggling to effectively communicate what they need.

“Education is the other big piece, but there are also various new regulations coming in, so we are starting to see a far greater focus on data. Developments, such as the building safety act, have made stakeholders realise they need to start getting their data in order. This growing demand for data may have initially been driven by legislation but, once the customer starts to make similar demands, you really start to see a ripple effect.

“I have been with Travis Perkins plc for over five years now and this year, customers have really started to request greater visibility of the upfront and embodied carbon, of the materials we distribute. It’s been great to see how these conversations have really accelerated, especially by our larger customers, this year.”

Angel Jimenez-Aranda - “I agree that culture and education represent key challenges, there is also a great deal of diversity when it comes to digital maturity across the sector. We see that some customers are still working with fax and asking for paper receipts, while others are asking for data to be transferred directly via APIs. Meeting these varying demands and levels of digital maturity can be difficult.

“Also, we have to contend with the growing complexity and amount of product data that is being produced. For example, we have physical product data, certifications, performance data, design specifications and more, and we are wrapping this data around individual products."

How are you seeing stakeholders make decisions around data and what is your systemic view of the landscape today?

Angel Jimenez-Aranda – “As manufacturers, we are the source of a lot of data. Not only do we need to create and maintain this data and we are now moving towards democratising the data. We are not worried about competitors using it, we are worried about people not using it and ensuring that, when they are, they are able to use it to make decisions.

Angel Jimenez-Aranda

Angel Jimenez-Aranda, Digital innovation director at Genuit Group

"If we think about the different stakeholders we have across the sector, from consultants and architects to constructors, contractors and merchants, the truth the matter is that while many of them will never actually see the physical the products they are buying or selling, the still need the data and, at the moment, we don’t have an easy way to share it.

"We need a way to structure this data in a standardised format that can be used across the sector. This is one of the key areas we need to improve on first.

"So, it is really important that our data is interoperable and we are structuring it using standards so we can clearly demonstrate the different attributes and properties of our products. 

"We are also looking for ways to share it, so one element we need to take into account is trying to offer the data from a single source of truth, one that is reliable, well maintained and trusted.”

Nick Wright – “The culture surrounding how we use data is really important. Construction is a very fragmented industry and I think with that, comes a lack of incentivisation. People usually have one job to do so have little incentive to look beyond that. As a result, data and technology are often an afterthought as we are not encouraging people to be the holders, keepers and processors of data throughout the lifecycle of a building. I think if we can get this right, we can then look at driving greater adoption, but this will mainly come through better processes.

“I would say cost is the other key challenge, but it can also be an incentive. We need to follow the money. If there is a lack of available funding, people are not going to do it. We need to make sure solutions are cost effective, with clear incentives for implementing them.”

In terms of prioritisation, what do you think we should focus on in the short term?

Robert Barbour – “For me, one of the most important focus areas is safety. What are the key categories we can work with from a safety perspective, with manufacturers right through to the end customer? What are the high-risk products? Focusing on those areas now will make a real difference, especially in terms of traceability and batch recalls. Making sure we can recall the right products, when we need to from the right locations is a must.

cranes against sky

“ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) and climate change are also top priorities. The industry lacks standardisation in both areas. We talk about carbon accounting but, if we look at how data management is done across construction , we are still a long way off from achieving that. To get there, we need a framework for sharing trusted data. We are committed to leading in this area, and GS1 has a huge role to play here, but the industry needs to come together to ensure it is done correctly and used for good – to save lives and protect the planet – is an excellent starting point.

"The case for prioritisation becomes even stronger when there is a high customer demand.

"The safety conscious customer, the carbon conscious customer is focusing on these areas, so what interests them interests the industry. It very much comes back to the end customer demand, but as a leader in our industry, we also have a responsibility to help drive and facilitate some of this.”

Nick Wright – “Prioritisation is difficult, we have talked about the safety act and saving lives, but the energy crisis is really interesting as that is driving stakeholders to be better operationally. It has made them look at their systems with a view to optimising them, but the challenge here is that half of them don’t know what’s in them. Without data to review, it is very difficult to find opportunities for optimisations. I think from the perspective of getting this to work, anything that is legislative, anything that prevents reputational risk is going to drive change and adoption.”

Angel Jimenez-Aranda – “Focus on what adds value to the industry. Safety, carbon reduction and regulatory compliance are huge, but we can’t forget the cost factor.  All businesses have interests in these areas so framing the case for unique identification and standardisation around them will help drive adoption.”

How can we make sure the value that might be derived from standards in one area of the supply can be seen in others?

Nick Wright – “Everyone wants to be as high up the decision-making chain as possible as that way you get to have influence. But, the formation of a traditional construction and design team usually begins with a funder finding a development manager, who then finds a designer who will put a design team together, this team then selects project contractors and so on and so on. So where do we influence and at what point?

Nick Wright, Global head of digital solutions at CBRE UK.

Nick Wright, Global head of digital solutions at CBRE UK

“At the CBRE, we take an “influence and engage” approach.  We persuade through thought leadership and discussions with very senior people in our client base. So, when an opportunity for improvement arises, they know that we have to talk about data and technology in the early stages of development. 

“We have a team within the group I am part that offers design consultancy. If we are going to manage the building on completion, we get to have an input into what the design looks like, but it is amazing to see how far removed those two conversations often are.

"If we come in at stage two or stage three of a project, then work is practically done. Clients then ask, ‘what do you think,’ and we are then left correcting mistakes that have already been made. This is far from ideal as changing things that have already been done is expensive and the same is true with data and technology. It is all about being involved as early in the process as possible, but it isn’t easy to get everyone from each stage together to discuss their needs.

“We need to be asking stakeholders; ‘what is your technology currently?’ ‘What is your data strategy?’ ‘How are you going to have a digital format of all of this information so it can be passed seamlessly from completion on to operation?’ but this is not currently happening.”

So how do we have these conversations and how can we make sure standards are a key part of them?

Robert Barbour – “It is important to be flexible about digital maturity. Some organisations are very mature and have a good understanding of GS1 standards. There are also many who are not so mature or have an inclination to do things in their own way. Maturity and levels of understanding vary wildly.

“The same is true for customers, we have some that are very mature and want direct access to our data, and there are others who aren’t interested in data yet at all. We need to try and level the playing field as managing these different conversations and demands can be challenging. What we do find is that being at the heart of the supply chain, we have a real opportunity to act as educators. We keep our clients informed of what is coming down the track and share our recommendations for improving their use of data and promote an understanding of how data can be of benefit to their business and our customers’ customers.  We are acting like a partner and facilitator in their supply chains, speaking directly to our clients to understand their needs and giving advice where we can.”

man in warehouse on computer

Angel Jimenez-Aranda – “We have customers across all stages of the lifecycle of a building and easing links to product data, finding ways to improve how that data is captured, shared, and used, will lead to direct change. Interoperability is key. 

"Currently there is a lot of manual work involved in changing data that is often saved in spreadsheets, often in different formats. It is essential to accelerate digitalisation and the sharing of data.

"There are plenty of examples of how this has transformed other industries such as the financial sector, healthcare, retail and many more. What we are trying to achieve here is not new and we can learn a great deal from other industries.”


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