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OVERVIEW | Digitalisation in the construction industry

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Digital transformation, as described by the European Commission, is characterised by a fusion of advanced technologies and the integration of physical and digital systems and their effect on buildings and energy efficiency in buildings. These concepts will be explored in the next paragraphs.


As regards buildings, and with the aim of enabling the European constuction industry to capture a share in the emerging markets for the products and services of the future, the European Commission has established a number of initiatives. One of them is the Digital Transformation Monitor, an initiative aimed at identifying key trends in digital transformation. It also measures progress made at national and sector-specific level. This is achieved by providing a monitoring mechanism to examine key trends in digital transformation, including evidence on the pace of digital transformation in particular sectors and in all EU countries, which is then measured against a Digital Transformation Scoreboard.


The rise of digitalisation comes with a false fear of losing jobs. Such fears grew after Lord Kenneth Baker’s report was published in UK, predicting that the type of jobs that will be in demand in the near future will be in technical management.  Whilst his predictions show a net change in employment and a decline in employment in the construction sector, the report did not highlight the potentially increased need for skilled professionals to which digitalisation may be associated. Such changing skills will primarily involve the ability to interact with data collected from various sources and exploit it appropriately.


In the buildings sector, the need for and development of new skills has been highlighted by the European Commission. In this context, the Commission's Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME) organised an international BUILD UP skills workshop recently, held in the framework of CONSTRUMAT’19 in Barcelona, to promote upskilling within the building sector whilst aiming to meet the challenges of new European energy and climate targets.  The subject of new skills has also recently been discussed in another dedicated BuildUP overview article. In addition, the BUILD UP Skills initiative, coordinated by the Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME), was set up in 2011 to boost education and training in construction. Its primary aim is to increase the number of qualified workers across Europe to deliver building renovations, which offer high-energy performance as well as new, nearly zero-energy buildings. This initiative funded 30 projects in 2011-2012 to gather key stakeholders from the energy, education, training and building sectors in ‘National Qualification Platforms’. The platforms mapped the existing workforce, qualification programmes, gaps and barriers, and future skills needs. On this basis, national roadmaps were developed. One of the main findings within the BUILD UP Skills initiative was that 3 million workers in Europe would need training on energy efficiency and renewable technologies by 2020. Then, in 2013-2014, a second batch of 22 projects was funded to turn the national roadmaps into action. In this context, more than 8 500 people across Europe were trained in 805 pilot courses. From 2014 onwards, within the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme, the focus was shifted to large-scale international qualification and training schemes, while also addressing professions (engineers, architects, building managers, etc.).



Digitalisation in construction can be said to have started with designers moving away from their drawing boards to computer aided design practice some decades ago. From there, and with the constant improvement of digital technologies, the construction sector has progressively embedded the use of Building Information Modelling (BIM). BIM is the digital information management approach being adopted by the construction industry to improve productivity and quality in building and infrastructure projects, to reduce financial losses during construction, and to provide a basis for developing future services. At its core, there is 3D object-oriented model with embedded data that can be shared by and amongst all actors, at all stages of a project from design to maintenance. In this context, each actor retains responsibility for their own data, but project managers can use BIM as one single reliable source of data for their decision-making.


The use of BIM is expected to result in a more efficient use of resources, more effective communication (and therefore collaboration) within the design team, leading to greater flexibility and improved long-term planning – the benefits of which accrue to client, project manager and contractor. To differentiate the levels of complexity of BIM, a BIM maturity level has been established which ranges from a maturity level 0 (CAD drawing only) up to a maturity level 3 where a single online model is shared among stakeholders to manage the project information from the design stage, to the construction, towards cost and life-cycle management. BIM allows identification of potential design clashes and constructability issues, making corrective work possible. While focusing on the later stages of the built process (also referred as life-cycle phases of construction projects) inspection and maintenance are now enhanced by digital tools to help the long-term maintenance schedules and key performance indicators for property control, asset management and performance-based contracting.


When mentioning BIM, it also crucial to mention the international quality standard ISO 19650-1:2018. This standard governs the organisation and digitalisation of information about buildings and civil engineering works. This helps the client, project manager and contractor to agree and develop a shared understanding, and to exchange data more easily. This standard is expected to help roll out BIM across the industry and bring stakeholders together within a project. Besides making the construction sector more competitive, BIM is driving innovation and sustainable growth and is a tool to deliver improved quality infrastructure.


The potential benefits of digitalisation within the construction industry (and with a particular emphasis on energy efficiency) are numerous. As well as improving data and information sharing, communication among different players, and monitoring, digitalisation can also facilitate the implementation of methodologies for testing and surveying. For example, when testing air permeability, a portable digital compressed air-based system to measure the air leakage of a building or enclosure at a near-ambient pressure level (4Pa) has been developed. With the advancements of digitalisation, such technology has been made suitable for construction workers, who can now undertake airtightness assessments by themselves. This example has been integrated into the Built2Spec Virtual Construction Management Platform. The available video shows both the simplicity of this device as well as its connectivity with BIM. When it comes to surveying, there has been an increased use of drones and/or 3D cameras.



Besides the potential of technological advancement in different phases of the building’s life cycle, digitalisation can have a considerable impact in the overall buildings’ decarbonisation. Digitalisation – as a societal trend – can have a measurable impact on energy efficiency in buildings. 


As part of the development of a 2050 Energy Efficiency Vision, the Coalition for Energy Savings has commissioned the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research to assess the potential for energy savings by 2050 under three different scenarios. The tasks included an update of the techno-economic energy saving potentials and an assessment of scenarios focusing on so-called ‘New Societal Trends’, such as changes in lifestyle, the impact of digitalisation and a shared economy. These changes have shown a potential impact on energy efficiency improvements and a potential contribution to decrease or increase energy consumption. In particular, an increase in energy consumption might be the result of new societal trends that are not accompanied by policies with a strong implementation of the Energy Efficiency First Principle. Results presented in this report  state that, by 2050, the final energy saving potential identified can lead to a reduction in household energy demand of 63%.



When BIM is combined with other innovations such as mobile devices, 3D cameras, the ever-expanding cloud and the extension of internet connectivity into physical devices and everyday objects (Internet of Things, IoT), the boundaries between work phases of the built process are disappearing. In such a landscape of interconnectedness, digitalisation in the built process enables improved predictability and reduces project risks by putting the data (of buildings) at the centre.


The European Commission has been driving innovation by funding research projects. For instance, HIT2GAP is a project that aims to reduce the gap between the theoretical energy performance of buildings and the actual measured energy consumption in use, by focusing on what happens, and on what could be done, while a building is in operation. This is attempted by the use of highly innovative building control tools tackling the energy performance gap via an energy reporting platform, which the partners of the project are currently developing.


Built2Spec aims to revolutionise construction practices by introducing a new set of breakthrough technological advances for self-inspection and quality assurance to the construction site that will be put into the hands of construction professionals to help meet the EU energy efficiency targets, new build standards and related policy goals. The project expands upon a cloud-based construction support platform.


Another concept recently introduced refers to digital twins. A Digital Twin Environment is an integrated, multi-domain physics application space for operating on Digital Twins for two main purposes: to predict future behaviour and performance of the physical product, and as a source of information for current and past histories. Twinning this virtual information model with the reality helps significantly in decision-making during each phase of the whole lifespan of the building, increases collaboration and reduces inefficiencies, while improving the energy efficiency and reducing time and costs. The SPHERE project has approached this topic by implementing a concept of layers. These layers range from a design layer to an integrated ICT layer, including building and construction apps and apps for operation and maintenance. Here, each previous layer underpins the developing of the following one, so the system of systems and their tools could provide a flexible and scalable solution.


Addressing the fact that 90% of the EU building stock was built before 1990, the BIM-SPEED project aims at responding on how to improve the performance of the building stock on such a scale. This challenge is addressed by developing a combination of methodologies and tools with one central information source at its core, namely Building Information Model (BIM). This model will be the catalyst for a smarter, more efficient, method of deep renovation for the residential building sector.


The objective of BIM4REN is to improve the low productivity rate of the European construction sector in the market segment of energy renovation by allowing every kind of construction actor to use novel and adequate BIM based digital tools in an easy way. By so doing, the project aims to overcome current barriers in culture, knowledge, tradition, affordability and opportunity that hinders access to the digital revolution. To achieve this, the project will propose an independent and collaborative service platform, which has the ambition to engage all stakeholders in the whole technology design and development process in line with the Open Innovation 2.0 paradigm. Open Innovation 2.0 is a positive approach for innovation, which helps solving key European challenges by embracing change and not resisting it. It is based on a model where government, industry, academia and civil participants work together to co-create the future and drive structural changes far beyond the scope of what a single organization or person could do.


This article has shown that the need of supportive programs for skills development is supported by numerous EU funded projects. As a final remark with regards to the topic of digital innovation in the construction sector, we would like to refer the readers to the objectives of the European Commission, which can be summarised in helping the construction sector to become more competitive, resource-efficient and sustainable. Among other initiatives, the European Commission is helping the construction sector and its SMEs digitalise and automatise, e.g. by supporting building information modelling (BIM) in the public sector (see the BIM handbook and BIM task group video to learn more). 


In conclusion, the benefits of digitalisation in energy efficiency in buildings are undeniable: the foreseen effects of digitalisation are, at the very least, increased productivity and reliability (exemplified by the time and cost reduction due to digital automation) vis-à-vis improved collaboration, since digital data facilitates inter-organisational collaboration.