I’ve just returned from a few days in Singapore, where the government agency that controls construction (the Building Construction Authority, or BCA) held a series of workshops under the aegis of “Construction Productivity Week.” This tiny country, with a population of about 4.5 million and a total construction market expected in 2011 of about $20B, has developed perhaps the most advanced stance on the relationship of technology and construction of anyplace I’ve witnessed.
“Productivity Week” explored the question of how Singapore can improve the effectiveness of building, and given the extensive amount of construction I witnessed there the motivations are clear. The country is really a city, and the sheer amount of building that has been accomplished in the several years since my last visit is nothing short of astounding. Just below is one of the many sites peppered with cranes near my hotel in the newly created Marina Bay Sands area. Unseen in this image is the enormous deepwater port—the largest in Asia—that is slated to be moved soon to make way for more building construction in the Singapore urban core.
The BCA’s strategy for industry productivity is based on the Singapore government’s conviction that construction effectiveness is a key component of economic competitiveness. This is logical, given Singapore’s central role as an innovation and economic engine for the southeast Asia region, and their small size. Their approach involves increasing production through pre-fabrication, widespread implementation of BIM (thus my visit), decreasing reliance on low-cost, imported labor, and correlating building permitting with demonstrated use of high-productivity construction methods. Soon it will be much tougher to build a hand-laid masonry building from a set of 2D drawings in Singapore.
And they’re backing this effort us with cash. S$250 million (about $200 million U.S) has been allocated to support industry productivity initiatives. Need help with your BIM training and implementation plan? They’ll provide a grant. Don’t have access to training classes or certification? Attend the BCA BIM Academy. There's sponsored research, consolidated development of standards, and support of specific lighthouse projects. I left Singapore with a new appreciation of what a focused, disciplined effort to improve an entire industry segment might look like.
Of course here in the States, where as many as 25% of everyone in the building industry is unemployed in a sector responsible for almost 10% of GDP, there are no such efforts underway. I realize I run the risk of jumping right into the middle of the “big versus small” government debate which I have no intention of examining here. But I remain concerned that, beyond the destructive effects of widespread joblessness and the potential loss of an entire generation of young architectural and engineering graduates unable to find jobs, the expertise held by this disengaged workforce may never be replaced. A vibrant economy needs a strong construction sector to provide the infrastructure for daily life, the platforms for innovation like libraries, schools and labs, and the inspiration to the world’s builders that we have always taken pride in. How is it that a country with 1/7th the population, and 2% of the construction spend, is so much more engaged and committed?