Last edited 06 Feb 2021

Is construction knowledge fit for purpose?

Architect Dr Gregor Harvie, co-founder of Designing Buildings Wiki explains the findings of ‘Fit for Purpose? Big data reveals the construction knowledge gap’, a report about the increasing inadequacy of the knowledge framework that underpins the construction industry.


[edit] The knowledge framework

The construction industry is supported by a framework of legislation, regulations, case law, standards, contracts, professional practice and research which establish the boundaries for acceptable performance. Without this framework, it would be difficult for practitioners to have a clear understanding of the standards that are expected of them and what they need to know to perform particular tasks.

It is crucial therefore that we continually assess the knowledge framework to check it remains fit for purpose. Incidents such as the Edinburgh schools defects and the Grenfell Tower fire show this is not simply a matter of maintaining performance; people’s lives depend on it.

A wide range of organisations support the creation of the knowledge which underpins the industry:

  • Government (specific departments as well as bodies such as Innovate UK).
  • Research Councils, Higher Education Funding Councils and higher education institutes.
  • Business enterprise (manufacturers, contractors and consultants).
  • Private, non-profit organisations (institutes and charitable trusts).
  • Oversees organisations (such as the European Union).

In very general terms, these organisations follow a traditional model for knowledge creation. Broad strategic subject areas are identified by high-level assessment of what the future challenges are likely to be, then funding programmes are established to support the creation of specific pieces of knowledge within those areas. There are a few exceptions to this top-down model; for example, private sector research and innovation, and the development of publicly available specifications (PAS) which tend to be more bottom-up, demand-driven.

The dissemination of this knowledge also generally follows a traditional publishing model, with the production of research papers, policy documents, best practice guidance and standards. Many of these publications are now digital rather than solely in print, but they still tend to adopt a ‘closed’ rather than ‘open’ publishing model, in that they are charged for, or sit behind a sign-up barrier, and in some cases they are not published at all.

[edit] The impact of the Internet

The first website was published in 1991, the billionth in 2014. This has blown the knowledge creation process apart. Now everyone is a publisher, and the distinction between knowledge consumers and knowledge producers has disappeared.

This is a radical change with significant implications for the construction industry, because people tend to act based on the knowledge that is most easily available to them, and unfortunately, in a world where everyone is a publisher, this may not be the right knowledge. It is vital therefore that organisations creating the knowledge that underpins the industry ensure it is accessible and in a format which is easy for practitioners to put into practice.

To do this effectively, the industry needs to know:

  • What knowledge is available.
  • How it is used.
  • Where the gaps are.
  • Who is best placed to fill those gaps.
  • How to disseminate the knowledge that is created.
  • How to keep it up to date.

[edit] Our data

Designing Buildings Wiki is the cross-discipline knowledge base for the construction industry, allowing people from every discipline to share and find knowledge free of charge. Every year, more than 3.5 million people use Designing Buildings Wiki to access more than 5,000 articles about the planning, design, construction, operation and disposal of built assets.

Every time a new article is created, or one of the 5,000 articles on the site is accessed, information is generated about the popularity of the subjects they relate to, the links between those subjects, how long people spend reading those subjects, and the age, sex and location of the readers. This generates an enormous amount of data about the knowledge that exists in the construction industry and how it is accessed on a daily basis. And because the site is used by people from every part of the industry, that data is broadly representative of construction knowledge as a whole. Not perfectly representative, but the best sample group anyone has at the moment.

Over a representative two-month period from March to April 2017, the site was used by 724,000 people, generating 6 million pieces of data. Analysing this ‘big data’, and using advanced processing and visualisation techniques, has allowed us to build never-before-seen maps of construction industry knowledge, which have, for the first time, revealed the state of that knowledge and how it might be improved, as well as some wider conclusions about the industry as a whole.

[edit] What construction industry knowledge is created

Each article on Designing Buildings Wiki is assigned to one or more of 42 subject areas. The relationships between these subject areas were processed to create a cluster map. The colour and size of the clusters indicates the number of articles in that subject area, and the proximity of the subjects indicates how closely they are related.

What people write about high res.jpg

[Figure 1: What the construction industry writes about.]

The map shows a series of distinct groupings, with a ‘legal’ cluster in the bottom left, a ‘regulation’ cluster next to it, and an ‘academic cluster next to that. However, most notably, Building Information Modelling (BIM), it is completely disconnected from other subjects, an isolated island at the top of the map. This may reflect the fact that BIM emerged as an area dominated by specialists, and has struggled to embed itself into the daily practice of the rest of the industry. This is similar to the emergence of sustainability as a subject, which for many years remained the realm of specialists before it became an integral part of everyone’s activities.

It is also clear from the locations of the red hotspots that the industry has a significant bias towards the creation of knowledge in classical academic subjects such as; theory, case studies, research and innovation as well as design and manufacturer’s literature about products.

[edit] What construction industry knowledge is used

The analysis was repeated, but this time, the colour and size of the clusters on the map indicates the number of times different subject areas were read.

What people read about high res.jpg

[Figure 2: What the construction industry reads about.]

The differences between this and the first map are striking. There appears to be less interest amongst readers in the more academic and theoretical subjects that the industry writes a lot about. There is considerably more interest in subjects to do with the practical and immediate day-to-day running of projects, that is; appointments, procurement, construction management, contracts and payment. These are the subjects practitioners are likely to encounter regularly in the performance of their work, and where they are likely to need quick answers. Research on the other hand, is not sought out as frequently and so it may not be filtering through into practice.

It is clear then, that in very broad terms, what the industry writes about and what the industry reads about are not the same. There is a very significant construction knowledge gap, and this may leave practitioners looking for the practical knowledge they need from other sources – which may not always give them the right answers.

[edit] How long people spend reading different subjects

It is also important to understand how long people spend reading industry knowledge so that it can be tailored to best suit their needs. If people are only prepared to spend a few minutes finding answers to particular questions, publishing long papers with complex answers may not be very effective.

A scatter graph was created using data about the number of articles in each category, the average number of times those articles were viewed, and the amount of time people spent reading individual articles. The colour coding indicates whether a subject is broadly ‘academic’ (blue), to do with the industry ‘framework’, i.e. legislation, policy, standards and so on (green) or whether it relates to the day-to-day running of projects (red).

Fit for purpose - popularity v dwell time.jpg

[Figure 3: The amount of time spent reading individual articles.]

Very broadly, it appears that the more popular ‘project’ subjects have a higher dwell time, while the more ‘academic’ subjects have a lower dwell time. In many cases, this is the reverse of the way information is published, in that ‘project’ knowledge tends to be more concise, whereas ‘academic’ knowledge tends to be more detailed. The exceptions seem to be the legal subjects, which whilst they may not be popular, are both unavoidable and complex, and so take longer to understand.

Most notably, the average dwell time across all articles is less than 3 minutes. This suggests if readers do not find what they are looking for very quickly, they simply click ‘back’ on their browser and look somewhere else. Dwell time is likely to reduce even further as the use of mobile devices increases. 2017 was the first year that the number of internet searches on mobile devices exceeded those on laptop or desktop computers. A small screen on a mobile device is not conducive to a long read.

[edit] Who reads construction knowledge

We then looked at the demographics of the people accessing construction industry knowledge. The graph below shows the age and sex of the 724,000 users who accessed knowledge on Designing Buildings Wiki in March and April 2017.

Fit for purpose user distribution.jpg[Figure 4: The demographics of people accessing construction industry knowledge.]

Whilst overall, there were twice as many page views from men as there were from women, the disparity only begins from the mid-20s onward. Before that, the proportions are more equal, and if those women could be encouraged to stay in the industry, this may be a positive sign for the future. The overall picture is also better than the industry more generally where women only make up 15 to 20% of the workforce, compared with the one third seen here.

Our data also shows that younger people are more likely to look for knowledge online than older people, with four times as much activity from those under 45 as from those over 45. Again this does not reflect the makeup of the industry, where 35 to 40% of the workforce are over 45, compared to just 20% seen here. This may indicate a specific need for knowledge by younger people, particularly around the late 20’s and early 30’s, or may reflect a greater willingness by young people to seek out and rely on online knowledge sources rather than more traditional offline sources.

There is also a notable difference in the subjects read by older people compared to younger people. Whilst the core ‘project’ subjects are popular with all age groups of both sexes, older people appear to be progressively less interested in BIM, to the point that there is almost no interest at all from the 65+ age group. There is also a drop in interest in education, research and innovation, whilst there is more interest in subjects such as health and safety, regulations, and planning permission.

25 to 34.jpg
65 and over.jpg

[Figures 5 and 6: Subjects read by the 25 to 34 age group and by the 65+ age group.]

Understanding these differences could help target knowledge at specific groups, for example to encourage young women to stay in the industry.

[edit] Locations of construction knowledge users

Finally we looked at the geographical distribution of the 724,000 users who accessed knowledge on Designing Buildings Wiki in March and April 2017.

As expected, this revealed a significant concentration of knowledge consumers in the main urban centres of the UK. What is surprising however, is the extent of the focus on London. Just 13% of the UK population lives in the capital, but it accounts for 34% of construction industry knowledge consumption. This suggests there is 3 times as much construction knowledge consumption per person in London compared to the rest of the UK.

In part, this could be due to the concentration of construction industry companies in London. Office for National Statistics figures suggest 22% of UK construction output by value is in London. It may also reflect that fact that Londoners tend to be younger, and so may have a greater need for, or willingness to use online knowledge. 24% of Londoners are in the 25 to 34 age group, compared to just 14% in the rest of the UK.

[edit] Conclusions

The age profile of online users suggests the Internet will increasingly become the dominant source of knowledge throughout the construction industry. It is vital therefore that the knowledge made available online supplies what the industry needs, and in the form that it is needed. This will become even more important as Internet access moves from desktop to laptop to mobile devices, where the ability to convey information is more restricted, and dwell times shorter.

It is apparent from the data that there is a very strong demand for instant answers to everyday practical problems. If answers are not found quickly, in a form that is convenient for immediate use, users simply click ‘back’ and look elsewhere. However, the knowledge creators in the industry are still focussed on ‘academic’ rather than ‘practical’ subjects, written in an academic style where methodologies are explained in detail, but important findings are buried beyond a reader’s ability to find them in 3 minutes. Even where knowledge is about practical issues, it may not be presented in a way that makes this immediately obvious, or in a form that is easy to apply.

Expert knowledge is often behind a pay wall, or a sign up barrier, even where it has been taxpayer funded or where it may be vital for safety. It may be in a ‘large screen’ pdf format that is difficult to read, and it may include restrictions such as copyright symbols, added automatically by authors and publishers with little thought about the impact this has on the usability of their publications.

These problems are, in part, because of the strong tradition of funding and support programmes for specialist, niche research shared between experts; whereas there is relatively little funding available for broader knowledge creation and dissemination projects intended to improve general standards. The industry is good at making the best better, it is less good at improving the rest.

The people best suited to writing the sort of practical guidance the industry seems to need may be those who have recent experience of working on projects, rather than researchers, but these are often the people least likely to have the time, inclination or ability to do so. Private companies also have a tendency to protect what they see as their intellectual property, keeping knowledge that would be valuable to the rest of the industry on secure intranets. Incentives need to be put in place to encourage a feedback loop that allows practitioners, project teams and private companies to benefit from sharing lessons learned.

Most importantly, the funding, creation and dissemination of knowledge needs to be centrally coordinated and strategically targeted to fill the emerging knowledge gap. The industry as a whole needs to take action to ensure that when people look for critical knowledge, they find it, in the right format and from the right source, so that they act based on the right information. If this change is tackled strategically, with coordinated industry oversight, it will also give an opportunity to better understand and serve the needs of the different user groups that make up the industry.

[edit] Recommendations

The report makes six principal recommendations:

  1. More practical guidance is needed to help professionals understand how to perform everyday project activities.
  2. Creating practical guidance will involve encouraging, supporting and rewarding contributions from practitioners with recent experience on the ground.
  3. Research is vital to continued progress in the industry, but it needs to be presented in a way that draws out useful findings and explains how they can be applied in practical situations.
  4. There should be a concerted effort to create targeted guidance that encourages young women to remain in the industry and promotes greater participation by the regions.
  5. There is a need for more non-expert guidance about BIM and how it relates to wider project activities.
  6. Most importantly of all, tackling construction industry knowledge as a whole, rather than piecemeal, demands strategic leadership to ensure that duplication of effort is avoided and gaps are plugged.

A high-level discussion is needed, involving the current custodians of construction industry knowledge and practitioner organisations, to consider how these recommendations might be acted upon in a coordinated way. This should involve an industry-wide assessment of:

  • Where immediate action is required to fill critical construction knowledge gaps.
  • Who is best placed to fill those gaps.
  • How that knowledge should be created and disseminated in a way that best serves the needs of practitioners.
  • What short-term and long-term resources are required and who will contribute to them.
  • Who will provide the strategic oversight necessary to ensure construction knowledge remains fit for purpose.

If these steps are not taken, the industry will continue to operate blind, and it is inevitable that more mistakes will be made.

You can download the report here.

You can watch Gregor Harvie talking about the report here.

Gregor Harvie Fit for purpose youtube 290.jpg

You can watch Mark Farmer talking about the report here.

Mark Farmer Fit for purpose youtube 290.jpg

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