Construction technology and what the changes look like between 2000 and 2020


James Finnie

May 26th, 2020
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It’s good to remind yourself where technology was in 2000. Google was only 2 years old, Mission Impossible 2 was the big movie, memory sticks were brand new and the iPod hadn’t yet been released. If you were on the go, a Sony CD Walkman was probably how you listened to music.

It’s understandable that a large part of the industry doesn’t want change because systems, methods, and procurement routes are well established, they’d need to set up new systems from scratch. In the short term, the costs often appear to outweigh the advantages. As industries tend to advance slowly, the average company may be able to survive without much change.

Information technology has driven tremendous changes in industry and a few companies are leading the pack, dragging us all forward. If you work for one of those game-changers, these are exciting times.

People always say that we’re in an industry that is slow to change, but what has changed?

The construction industry is slow to change, but many things have changed, although it may not seem like it sometimes. Looking back over the last twenty years, there have been major advances.

One of the biggest is greater environmental awareness. Environmental issues have filtered into all facets of the building industry. Regulations have tightened and carbon goals set. Even government have set their own demanding requirements with carbon goals dominating the discussion. Green Building Councils grow stronger as the number of green buildings increase. The use of sustainable materials has created a whole new market, in particular the use of wood.

There is also greater awareness of buildings post-construction. In the past, the goal was often to just get the building or infrastructure project completed and occupied. In 2000, full life-cycle costs were often the first thing to be cut during value engineering. Now it’s very much part of the discussion at the outset.

Today, the availability and use of software streamlining much of the pre- and post-construction process is a testament to how far the industry has come.

Traditional building systems, like precast elements and external panelised units, are now becoming more sophisticated. Buildings with many repetitive parts, such as student accommodation, are being assembled in factories, brought to site, and plugged into place.

Here are some of the new terms surrounding this surge:

  • MMC – Modern Methods of Construction
  • LC – Lean Construction
  • BIM – Building Information Modelling
  • AR – Augmented Reality
  • VDC – Virtual Design and Construction
  • IoT – Internet of Things
  • BMS – Building Management System
  • UAV – Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (Drone)

The term CAD is hardly ever used these days. It has been replaced by BIM, Building Information Modelling, which has come to the fore as buildings and infrastructure projects get more complex, and require to be procured and built quicker.

The management of developments has become incredibly sophisticated, particularly large complex projects with demanding programmes. These require specific software tools that monitor and streamline the project. MMC and LC are terms which exemplify this.

Health and Safety has also benefited from advances in data technology and biometrics. All aspects of the site can be monitored, from site inductions to individuals’ movements on site. Each person’s activities can be assessed and analysed to increase efficiency.

Monitoring and site progress is more sophisticated. Using drones to “survey” the site using recognition software allows a data base to be built up with each successive survey. Software identifies where construction has progressed, and can be used to verify payment certificates. The time saved on large projects is sizable and reports can be produced in real time.

Laser surveying equipment creates point clouds that can also survey new and existing buildings and terrains in minutes, with information imported into BIM software and available to work on immediately. The same point cloud technology can be used to scan anything, including precast elements that can be 3D printed.

There have always been repetitive building elements in construction. They were often more expensive, but reduced time, so there was some benefit. Today, prefabrication and modularization elements produced in factories to higher standards and greater accuracy seem to be the way forward. However, it’s a fine line as prefab factories need a constant body of orders to make production profitable, which hasn’t always been the case.

What are the leaps forward?

Environmental awareness

This has been one of the biggest leaps forward. People are more switched on to their environment and the building environment. There is a demand for better, greener, healthier buildings that enable occupants to be happier and more productive.

Carbon guidelines have been established to push forward the greatest impact and change, ensuring that decarbonisation is considered from the outset during concept design, or at least before technical design work begins, and efforts can be carried out in all subsequent stages of the project. A final assessment must then be made at the practical completion stage, giving the contractor the opportunity to measure their carbon impact and see what can be offset to achieve a net-zero construction.

With regulation changes towards energy reduction and carbon neutrality goals set towards 2050, we seem to be heading in the right direction. Almost all new buildings worth their salt will be striving to achieve the highest possible BREEAM certification rating. The green building movement continues to lead and haul us forward.

BIM advancement

BIM advancement in the UK is some of the best in the world, and the UK Government has set its own targets to reach BIM Level 2. Although not achieved yet, the initiative is there. The industry continues to push the BIM envelope as the benefits are so many.

BIM Level 3 (Cat 6D) is when one model contains a fully co-ordinated building with time, programme, cost and facilities information. Compiling large amounts of co-ordinated information in one location has many benefits. Maybe there will be a Cat 7 once all the building specs are also included.

Information Technology

Information Technology has gone through the roof, and like environmental awareness has filtered into all parts of the industry. Software has pushed Computer Aided Design (CAD), Procurement, Project Management, Health and Safety, Monitoring and Surveying. Now we are beginning to see the first signs of 3D printing and robotic building automation.

There is no comparison today to the way construction was documented in 2000. A few consultants were modelling in 3D, but now it’s almost compulsory – although it’s a fine line for smaller projects versus the cost of the software and the time taken to build the 3D model. However, once built it is able to make speedy changes and compile documentation quickly.

Specification writing is a large part of construction documentation today and takes time to compile. NBS (National Building Specifications) are working hard towards imbedding this into the BIM model.

3D printing

3D printing is still very much in its infancy, but the potential is enormous – its uses almost limitless. Originally developed way back in the 80’s, it has only become prominent in the last few years. Around the world, small family houses are using concrete to “print” the walls, and there is an ambitious printer-built pedestrian bridge being constructed, but will take 2 years to complete.

I have heard of a small three-storey apartment block being built in China, though details are difficult to come by. The process is currently slow, but there is talk of precast concrete elements being printed to speed up work on site. Besides the ongoing R&D, 3D systems will need to get more sophisticated as there are limits currently.

Survey technology

Survey technology. 3D Laser Scanning scatters hundreds of laser beams to create point. The speed and accuracy can’t be bettered. Originally, it was an expensive option, but now it’s more affordable and almost the norm. Surveying existing buildings, particularly high spaces, could take days, and is now done in minutes. Built work can also be surveyed to ensure it’s within tolerance.

Building monitoring

Building monitoring, also seldom got past the value engineering phases. Today it has become sophisticated and even standard systems are normal in developments, monitoring water consumption, water recycling, energy storage, space heating and building performance in an effort to reduce those life cycle costs.

What exactly has changed which is transformative?

There are some wonderful early examples of modularisation around the world. Twenty years ago, a social housing project built by the Peabody Trust in London, called Murray Groove, still stands as a great and bold example of what can be done. Strangely, modular apartments haven’t developed much over the years. However, it now seems to be taking off.

Panels, modules and pods now form micro apartments, hotel rooms, and living modules for student accommodation. Now 100+ size units are going up around London; the practice of CZWG seems to be one of those leading the way. Marriott, the hotel chain, is in the process of building a 26-storey hotel made of stacked modular rooms in New York. On the outskirts of Cambridge, a new satellite town is being planned which will employ modularisation for quality and speed of construction.

Still not the norm, there are many advantages to building small units in a factory. They can be built to a higher standard of detailing and accuracy. They can be delivered to site quickly at non peak hours. Construction time is greatly reduced through speed of assembly.

The use of robots in construction has barely started. However, a large truck with a mechanical arm has been developed in Australia that comes fully loaded with blocks and can lay them twice as quickly as a bricklayer. Some human assistance is needed, but every block has its own code and is pre-programmed to be placed in an exact position. This solution would seem to be faster than 3D printing. However, I can’t help but think that the walls could be pre-manufactured, brought to site and erected even quicker.

IoT or the Internet of Things is a system of interrelated devices which essentially “talk” to each other without human interaction. This truly makes me feel we have reached the future when devices communicate with each other, going back and forth to carry out a task or series of tasks.

Virtual Reality & Augmented Reality have become sophisticated tools which not only allow the end user to see what they’re going to get, but also benefits the designer and the contractors. Virtual reality allows the potential owner of an apartment to walk around inside to see what they will be getting. Augmented reality takes things a step further, dropping in the built environment around and outside the development.

What might we look back on in 20 years time and view as the big changes between 2020 and 2040?

I feel that the big changes will be combinations of the previously mentioned advances.

Could we see drones bringing building modules to construction sites? It’s a possibility, as large drones are already being developed to deliver medicines to remote places. If building modules continue to get lighter, the two concepts could easily work together.

Along with pods and modularisation, timber buildings are taking off. The tallest timber building at 85m high is currently being built in Brumunddal, Norway. I can’t imagine a building type which couldn’t be built in timber. It’s the one truly sustainable natural material with great thermal and acoustic properties, appropriately fireproofed.

A topic I haven’t heard much about recently is intelligent facades. There was talk that facades of the future would be “organic” and respond by themselves to specific weather types. I think this might gain some traction if engineered into the industry.

Looking back over the last twenty years, the lack of new materials is a little surprising. I don’t envisage that much will change in the next twenty, though who knows what scientists will come up with?

I feel that by 2040, those who embrace innovation will be able to make more profit, as they will build cheaper and quicker so they can move onto the next project, while the “traditionalist” is still plodding on. Innovation has risks if it doesn’t satisfy demand.

However, I suspect the “traditionalist” will still be able to function and deliver using older outdated methods. Not everyone can be cutting edge!

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About James Finnie

James has been based in Cape Town for the last 14 years, trained in Scotland, and has worked with some prodigious practices over the years. He recently started his own architectural practice where the philosophy of Kind Design puts kindness at the centre of the creative process.

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