How failure to keep up with construction technology will hit Hong Kong hard in next decade

Industry professionals fear city cannot attract global talent if building sector does not change mindset

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 October, 2017, 10:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 October, 2017, 11:58am

Hong Kong must be more aggressive in adopting the latest technology for its construction sector for the city to retain its competitive edge, according to one of the world’s biggest engineering firms.

While other cities, such as Singapore, have made building information modelling (BIM) mandatory, Hong Kong is only starting to open up to the technology, Aecom president for Asia-Pacific Sean Chiao said.

“Traditional design planning is no longer good enough to deal with the future,” he added. BIM is beneficial in improving project delivery, cost efficiency, design quality and construction site management.

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The technology uses digitised drawing tools to allow architects, engineers and contractors to work with the same 3D design files in a virtual environment, avoiding the need for repetitive and overlapping two-dimensional shop drawings – often still done with pen and paper.

“If Hong Kong doesn’t catch up quickly, it will taste the bitter fruit in probably five or 10 years,” Chiao said, adding that while it was still a “great city”, it could lose its competitiveness if it failed to continue attracting global talent.

Singapore, Britain and France now require all bidders for public-sector contracts to use BIM.

While Hong Kong’s government has acknowledged its importance and benefits, usage of the technology is not mandated.

In her maiden policy address on Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor acknowledged the city faced challenges in its high construction costs and labour shortage. Lam said the government would adopt BIM technology in major government capital works projects scheduled to start next year and “promote the use of this technology in private construction projects”.

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Aecom, which has 87,000 employees around the world, is now rolling out a programme across the Asia-Pacific region to train all its architects, engineers, designers, planners in BIM within two years.

The programme, according to the company, is designed to help users master various tools and processes for this technology.

Local architect James Law, who runs his own firm, agreed with Chiao’s assessment and feared the slow progress in taking up BIM would affect the city’s competitiveness.

Hong Kong’s construction industry isn’t really dictated by push and pull forces
James Law, local architect

Law said the problem was not the lack of know-how but a lack of application and drive from the market. “Hong Kong’s construction industry isn’t really dictated by push and pull forces.”

Dr Wilson Lu, who conducts research on BIM at the University of Hong Kong’s department of real estate and construction, said the local construction sector was notoriously slow in embracing change.

“Local practitioners are very clear about that. They earn good money, so why bother to change?” Lu said.

“The key word in BIM is ‘information’. The information does not come without cost. Companies have to develop BIM and keep the information updated,” Lu added. “This cost and expertise required is the major hurdle preventing BIM from being widely adopted.”

Aecom’s Chiao said the mindset shift would have to begin in universities, where engineers and architects should be trained to understand each others’ professions, rather than sticking to the traditional way of thinking in “silos”.

“It’s not just about design, it’s about how you construct, how you do the cost and quantity surveying, how you maintain and operate a built infrastructure or building,” Chiao said.

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“It’s a lifetime of material, not just a design that you give to a contractor who then throws it away to do his own thing.”

He was speaking on the sidelines of the recent Imagine 2060 forum in Hong Kong, which discussed design visions for cities over the next 40 years. The event was organised by Aecom and the Asia Society, a non-profit outreach organisation.

Chiao also said Hong Kong needed to think more about how to improve its living environment through smarter and more holistic urban planning in order to attract human capital.

This included enhancing and expanding open public spaces and waterfront areas.

“Hong Kong has to be very conscious about what’s next and how to do better,” he said.