Helping with the energy shift

The Kidston Pumped Storage Hydro Project in Far North Queensland involves the world first conversion of a disused gold mine into a pumped storage hydroelectric power generation facility. It is one of several projects where McConnell Dowell is looking to play their role in addressing the energy shift required across Australia and the wider Asia-Pacific region.

McConnell Dowell has been successfully delivering complex infrastructure for over 60 years backed by their innovative and creative approach to construction, an approach that marked them as the right partner to take on the first of its kind natural battery storage facility alongside John Holland.

Creative Construction is a term McConnell Dowell pride themselves on and the journey of development of the Kidston scheme is a powerful example of that approach to the market.

McConnell Dowell’s Executive General Manager – Engineering, Dr James Glastonbury has been part of the construction industry for 30 years across Australia, the US and UK, and says “creative construction” is at the core of how McConnell Dowell operate.

“An innovative mindset creates the foundation for how we work, a preparedness to explore and test options with our clients and partners, a willingness to challenge whether there is a better way – all leading to better project outcomes,” says Glastonbury.

“Construction is no doubt a very competitive industry and we are seeing lots of evidence across the globe that the sector is finding it tough. It is also a sector of huge interest in terms of investment, particularly in construction technology. This opens the door to new solutions, but it requires constant exploration and testing to find new and better ways.

“The very real challenge for me is supporting our project teams to keep the day job running, which is complex, demanding and relentless in its own right, and then also to ask them to consider something new on top of that. It’s akin to trying to change a car tyre while the car is still moving.

“I’m constantly impressed with the innovative and creative mindset our teams take and have seen examples across the business of an intelligent technology or method from other industries brought to bear on a construction project, with better results flowing from that. We need to continue to explore not just within but beyond our sector.”

As part of the Western Program Alliance, McConnell Dowell is doing their part in the Victorian State Government’s level crossing removal program which is set to remove 85 level crossings by 2025. Their teams are working with a landscape of relevant technologies such as robotic vision to improve people and plant separation issues. They are also working with a major telco organisation to create a “connected sites” network providing project data and insights.

Originally a Geotechnical Engineer by training, James has worked in consulting, research and delivery roles across transport, tunnelling, mining and oil and gas industries.

“About a decade ago, I moved across from professional services into construction, into a role that was very focussed on the “positive disruption” of the construction sector. That sparked my interest to explore how to shift an industry, how to challenge entrenched and traditional practices constructively and positively, and how to create the working environment where individuals and teams can think differently,” says Glastonbury.

“It is not simply the application of technology that will change our industry. There is no shortage of beneficial technology that can address many of the issues we have in our sector. We have to also look at the culture, the environment and diversity of thinking we create in our teams to help embed this positive change.”

Glastonbury says McConnell Dowell teams right across their business continue to explore and identify new ways of working in order to remain competitive, but also because it’s the right thing to do in terms of safety and sustainability.

“The last decade or more for me has been about the positive disruption of the construction industry. If we look at the industry scorecard, there is still a lot of work to do to address waste, rework, safety issues, productivity and environmental impact and that’s just to name a few key areas for improvement, so we need to be urgently progressing with the positive disruptors and opportunities for change,” says Glastonbury.

According to the 2021 report from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Australian buildings and infrastructure: Opportunities for cutting embodied carbon, up to 10 per cent of national greenhouse gas emissions come from embodied carbon and 28 per cent of emissions come from the building and construction sector globally. The construction industry draws far too much on resources around the globe and can play a huge role in challenging and addressing this generational problem.

Projects like the Kidston Pumped Storage Hydro Project will help redress some of that broader sector impact as we work towards a more sustainable future. Once completed, the project’s entirely new approach to large-scale energy storage will generate enough electricity to power 143,000 homes for 8 hours.

Extensive digital engineering has been used in the development of the Kidston solution to resolve design interface and construction methodology challenges

Glastonbury says he wants to play his role in helping the business continue in their journey to increase health, safety, quality and productivity in construction.

“At the front door of the business there is an invitation to come and join us, but with a clear statement that we want to be creative in how we approach the industry. I think people can recognise that as a trait of the business,” says Glastonbury.

“Being open about that creative culture provides the platform or fertile ground and certainly makes it much easier to start having conversations with project teams around a new technology or process.”

There is an ever-increasing shift in the construction industry towards procurement models such as early contractor involvement (ECI). Clients are looking to find partners that they can work with at earlier stages to help explore options and then shape a solution, often to inform a financial investment decision or to accelerate getting a project delivered.

“With the increased general industry trajectory towards this style of engagement, we are often working collaboratively with an owners team and engineering partner to test and validate or rule out options. This environment certainly opens the door to more industry innovation,” says Glastonbury.

“We certainly see more of that style of working and there are some interesting opportunities that go with that. For instance, we can start to leverage data-sets to test and validate options more quickly than traditional practice, drawing on a big pool of knowledge from your previous portfolio of experience. It allows you to have different conversations and explore and layer on information to build insights in a way that the industry perhaps hasn’t done in the past.”

“What we’re talking about in the early definition phase of working with clients is working in the “grey space”. You’re working at a level of ambiguity that requires particular attributes. Practitioners need to be happy to sit in the undefined or the creative space and explore and test options for a little longer to achieve a better outcome, after which you might hand it over to a delivery team to take a well-developed plan through to construction completion.

“There are also obviously some deeply technical skills required when you’re trying to define a scheme such as a renewable energy project. You can’t be in there without the requisite technical skills and something like a Pumped Hydro Scheme requires highly specialist skills and a team that can leverage lessons along the way.

“We’re quite selective in what we approach in the market. We’re a business that has some rich experience in particular market sectors and thrive on delivering more complex projects by helping our clients arrive at a complete solution. We don’t simply want to be seen as just constructors, we’re creative thinkers and innovators as well as constructors.”

The Kidston Pumped Storage Hydro Project received funding from ARENA (Australian Renewable Energy Agency) as part of their Advancing Renewables Program and is a great example of a valuable contribution in the move towards a more renewable power network in Australia.

“The project is currently underway and it’s hugely exciting. There’s a team of people that know they’re working on a world first and there’s real energy and purpose in how they’re going to work, and pride in what they’re delivering,” says Glastonbury.

Glastonbury says the construction industry has been slow to leverage the lessons from past: “What we need to activate in the industry is a broad culture where sharing lessons, the good and the less good, is a priority. We’ll only get better by building on what we’ve seen and done in the past.”

McConnell Dowell utilise drones for complex construction projects.

There is undoubtedly still work to do to achieve better transparency in the industry. “I regularly have engaging conversations with our new graduates in the business. My invitation to them is, as they move about the business in the various roles they will occupy, to really explore, enquire and challenge why we do things a certain way. If they can see a better way, then they have a real licence to help us explore and develop that,” says Glastonbury.

The world has changed rapidly just in the last few years. How we move, how we communicate, how we shop has changed massively in the past decade. There are tools, technologies and approaches in the world around us that Glastonbury says have some benefit in construction.

“The construction industry needs to be agile in how we learn from other industries, not just how we challenge ourselves and incrementally change but there is opportunity for real disruption in some of our construction activities. We can learn from banking, retail, automotive, communications, or gaming and these are the sorts of enquires and conversations we need to be having,” says Glastonbury.

Today, many of the conversations in the industry revolve around data. We’re seeing increased investment in construction technology globally in a bid to change the way the industry collects data, connects complex data sets and derives what Glastonbury calls ‘actionable insights’.

“The possibilities that come with not just collecting data but connecting data in our industry are immense. We build things to prescribed codes and standards and there is a real opportunity to start to build the sensor network into these assets, whether it’s a heavy haul rail network or a high-rise building, and start to see how these assets perform under their operating and exceptional load conditions. We’re then going to start to chip away at some of the conservatism that might otherwise go unchallenged,” says Glastonbury.

“I think there’s a huge opportunity in the world of construction data and that for us is a live and regular discussion point, and we’ll certainly be doing more on that front. It’s a hugely exciting landscape, it’s an ever-evolving landscape and there are undoubtedly some things in there that can move the industry forward.”

McConnell Dowell has over 3000 employees across 15 countries adopting a Creative Construction approach to the way they work. It’s exciting times ahead for the business, with many complex projects currently underway, including the Kidston Pumped Storage Hydro Project, and in the pipeline.

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