24 September 2018
Winston Churchill famously said that ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’ and went on to state that construction was one of the first businesses that humankind developed, and one that continues to shape our lives today. This is as true today as when it was said in the House of Commons in 1944.
However, our lives have changed so much since then and are changing at such a fast rate. So how does the design, engineering and construction sector evolve to ensure a continuation of quality and what role does technology have in this?
Virtually all businesses rely on the construction industry to provide and maintain their facilities and infrastructure – from homes, schools, offices and hospital to the roads, rails and tunnels that link everything. Whilst the sector has changed a lot since 1944 other sectors have seen vast leaps forward (and reaped the benefits) and I find myself asking, has the construction industry been hesitant about fully embracing the latest technological opportunities?
Technology offers us the opportunity to vastly improve productivity, efficiency and quality but to capture this potential requires a committed and concerted effort across the entire sector. It affects the supply chain from manufacturers to specifiers to contractors and facility manager. However it goes much deeper as it affects the operation and strategy of these businesses and is influenced by regulation and education.
John Beck, Executive Chairman of Aecon Group, a Canadian construction company that employs more than 12,000 staff, has stated that getting where we have got to date, and beyond, has been a slow and arduous journey but that megatrends are now shaping the future of design and construction. Furthermore, when you think of the size of the industry globally, it is easy to understand that even the smallest improvement in technological application would provide a substantial benefit.
BIM has been one of the biggest technological changes the sector has seen but the speed of adoption hasn’t lived up to expectations. That said, BIM has shown that it can bring success and it will be critical to the procurement, delivery and operation of major projects over the coming years. Adopted by the larger organisations it is slowly filtering down to the smaller businesses with the barrier to adoption being the usual culprits to time and cost.
VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) are slowly following in the footsteps of BIM with digitised walkthroughs starting to appear. These are far more intuitive to clients and as they have their roots in consumer applications such as computer gaming, they are probably easier for us to understand and adopt.
Away from visualisation and design of future projects, there are signs that materials are evolving to play their part. 3D printing (another technology that we have seen work successfully in other sectors) is starting to be used. It has started out with the 3D printing of architectural models but has quickly shown that you can use it for much larger applications. Manufacturers are using it to create 3D printed elements and whole buildings are now being produced. In 2016, a team in Beijing used it to create a whole house. It took just one month to produce the 400sq ft, two storey dwelling. However, in 2017 a team in Russia built the same sized house in just one day and at a cost of $11,000. So in less than 12 months technology has improved so much that we can build a house, 30 times faster!
There are other technologies that we are starting to adopt from other sectors. Drones exoskeletons and artificial intelligence, once the futuristic backdrop to sci-fi films, are now the thing of real life discussions with the intention of seeing how they can improve the way we design and construct buildings.
We live and work in an ever more globalised marketplace. We readily adopt technology in our homes and admire advancements in other sectors. Now is the time for us to take the same approach to construction. CABE has always been a visionary organisation. With chapters around the globe, including the Middle East, Asia, New Zealand and the USA, the organisation is able to learn from others whilst sharing knowledge and experience. Additional working across the design, construction, evaluation and operation of buildings means that CABE has a unique understanding of the processes that go into creating our built environment, a build environment that will continue to flourish as we adopt technology.
Sectors such as automotive, aviation and telecoms have undergone radical disruptive change and digital transformation is now well underway. Isn’t it time the construction industry followed suit?