Construction innovation – interview with Paul Maher (Part 1)

drone image of housing site spoke with Paul Maher, Construction Director at Harry J Palmer Ltd, about construction innovation, specifically in relation to house-building. This is the first part of the interview, part 2 can be found here. (IST): The construction sector, compared say with the automotive or IT sectors, has historically been somewhat hesitant when it comes to disruptive, technological innovation. In recent years though, things seem to be changing.

PM: Yes, the construction industry has historically been somewhat reluctant when it comes to innovation and IT. With many construction methods being quite traditional, the stock response was “this is the way we do it and have done so for years, so why try to fix it ain’t broke”.
When I first started work in the early 1980’s we relied upon hand-written notes, carbon paper, hard-copy drawings, the post (envelopes & stamps), type-writers & Tippex and land-line telephones as the main methods of communication, along with lots of ‘colourful’ dialogue. The photocopier had barely been invented at the time, and when the fax-machine was introduced in the 1980’s we all thought this was ‘dark art’…which turned out to be a ‘light art’ as the ink on the fax paper was light sensitive and all the text completely disappeared after a time whilst in archives.. so much for that innovation!!

IST:  There’s a lot of noise about innovations including the use of technologies like Building Information Modelling (BIM) and Virtual / Augmented Reality in the pre-construction phase. As with any industry, there’s the attention-grabbing headline innovations, but there is also a lot that can be done to improve things like site operations. What areas do you think are the low-hanging fruits in the home-building business, places where focused innovation can be applied to great effect?

PM: I’m very glad to say innovation, including the introduction of IT in construction, is being successfully driven by forward-thinking people, especially the younger generation, who understand and embrace technology.

One example that springs to mind, is the use of drone technology, which is being used in potentially dangerous roof surveys, or similarly hazardous environments.  It’s not widespread yet though, but I do see the use of drones increasing significantly. Substituting a machine rather than a person in such circumstances would always be preferable if it’s practical. This same philosophy could be applied in other ways too – I know there are already 3D printers out there making houses, machines that lay bricks, and driverless excavators controlled by drones.

As far as site operations are concerned,  building sites have the potential to be dangerous places.  People’s welfare is paramount, so one has to be careful not create a ‘technology bubble’ – i.e. a detachment from any real hazards or potential danger.

Whilst sales tools like 3D ‘walk-throughs’ are currently targeted mostly towards the home-buyer  with computer generated ‘house-dressings’ and virtual reality walk-throughs, this type of  BIM technology could be used for training purposes by demonstrating different scenarios of what ‘not to do’ on site, high-lighting dangers and hazards.

Off-site fabrication of construction systems with easy assembly on site is another way forward so using innovation to provide teaching aids for assembly methodology of the systems would be useful. Easy assembly on site also means reduced risk of harm on site. This also gives more confidence of performance in the long term (i.e. less to go wrong due to human error or a lack of understanding of the process).

Whilst system building is becoming more popular in some sectors of the industry (as building in our climate is so affected by the weather) the more that is made & assembled off-site, the better quality achieved – which leads to less defects. There are some efficient tools available that are innovated by the system designers again to make life a bit easier for ‘the man or woman on the ground’.

IST: How are you using data and information systems to assist in the management of construction projects, and what efficiencies has the introduction of such capabilities introduced?

PM: We all use smartphones with all the apps – they have become very useful from being able to Google, have accurate weather forecasts, digital photograph, a built-in spirit level, compass and even Face Time where you can show colleagues real situations on site without them having to come to site is perfect.

Whilst we still use hard-copy drawings on site for practical purposes, all of the construction drawings, schedules, spread-sheets, correspondence, progress photos, completion certificates & user manuals etc. are all kept electronically and distributed via e-mail, via Dropbox or other portals, which works well and has significantly increased efficiency.

We keep all our data in a secure Cloud which again means we don’t have to be concerned with having copy disks either in fire-proof cabinets or kept away from the office. I believe this gives us more capability as well as more efficiency, as I can navigate our whole system without leaving my chair and trolling through drawers and files. Being able to file everything electronically is a great way of working, very speedy – I love it!

Part 2 of the interview continues here. Read on to hear Paul’s views on the most important technology for 2019.

Paul Maher is a construction industry veteran of more than 35 years experience. Maher is a Member of the Chartered Institute of Building, and Construction Director for Harry J. Palmer (Broadstone) Ltd. The firm, based in Wimborne Minster, Dorset, has been building high-quality, traditionally styled homes for more than 80 years.

Scott Stonham

Scott is Chief Technology & Innovation Officer at He has been at the forefront of many technologies we take for granted today, including mobile internet and smartphone navigation. Today he helps clients navigate innovative emerging technologies and is available for speaking opportunities.

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