Shift in Construction Technology for a ‘post-Covid, pre-vaccine’ era

by Amy Butler, JB Associates

In 2017, McKinsey Global Institute slated construction for evolving at a ‘glacial pace’ due to its ranking as the least-digitised industry in Europe. While plenty of technological advances were pitted as ‘on the horizon’, many companies were reluctant to take the necessary steps to push forward with digitisation. Critics warned that a lack of innovation would lead to companies folding, although it took a global pandemic before this prophecy materialised and those without suitable digital infrastructure in place were shaken.

The pandemic is now considered a catalyst for industry improvement, propelling construction out of its ‘glacial’ evolution and deep into the digitised era. A recent study undertaken by Procore found that two thirds of the surveyed construction companies had rolled out new technology during the lockdown, with 94% of these seeing an improvement to productivity and teamwork. However, what exactly are these technologies and where do we go from here?

Smart Buildings

While we are all now experts in the world of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, the challenge lies in returning safely to offices and various other workspaces. With many UK companies pushing for their teams to be back in work physically, how do we ensure that commercial buildings remain safe? Smart Building technology is reshaping the workplace and ensuring safety as well as energy optimisation. Buildings with integrated BMS systems and IoT sensors were already an option before the pandemic. Now, they are a wise choice for business owners.

Essential for a post-Pandemic and pre-Vaccine era, IoT systems can control air quality and ventilation. High-performance air filters and moisture controls will now be key due to Covid-19’s airborne nature. OKTO Technologies (Smart Buildings specialists) have even launched an Artificial Intelligence-led air filtration solution that is reportedly so advanced it can eliminate 99.98% of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) from the air in 10 minutes.

Similarly, density control counters and heat detection cameras can be incorporated into BMS systems to ensure that viruses are less likely to spread or enter into a facility. Airports have been trialling infrared cameras to measure body temperatures for a fever and several companies offer leases or installations for these cameras. While they are not a definitive medical diagnosis, they add a level of reassurance. This may be the aim of much of this technology; a form of due diligence in protecting staff.

BIM & VR

Technological advances are also prominent on site. Construction News reported that contractors employed for the Nightingale Hospital projects found huge value in Autodesk programs. A vital tool for tracking constant streams of updates in rapid working conditions, construction management software proved its worth in recognisably challenging projects across the UK.

As social distancing measures remain in place, it is imperative that technology is prioritised; virtual communication is still far safer than face-to-face. Software like BIM is also providing insights and tools to manage projects during a more challenging time. Even more impressively, companies are merging BIM models with the cloud, GPS and Virtual Reality software. This development means a ‘digital twin’ of a facility can be created and it opens a world of opportunities for Project Management and Design efficiency.

Remote working could even be a trend that stays long past pandemic precautions. Drones have been used previously to reduce safety hazards for technicians and now may be utilised in future remote inspections. Similarly, researchers at the University of Strathclyde have been given £35,000 in funding to create a remote inspection system. The 3D immersive building environment program aims to reduce risks by eradicating the need for Quantity Surveyors or Health and Safety Inspectors to be physically present on site.

Whether enabling remote working, improving the health and safety of commercial buildings or aiding on-site processes, technology has become a necessary tool for construction in the last 6 months. The companies that had embraced digitisation long before 2020 were undoubtedly the ones able to continue thriving in the tough lockdown period. The next step is for many companies is to streamline their management processes or workplace systems to ensure technology works for them as efficiently as possible. Breaking out of its inertia, construction’s ‘glacial evolution’ is firmly in the past and technological advances are here to stay.

This post was authored by Amy Butler of JB Associates – building consultancy specialists. The views expressed are those of the author.

BSRIA Members wishing to make a guest contribution to the BSRIA Blog should please contact marketing@bsria.co.uk

BSRIA Diamond Group Forum – A glimpse of the future?

How buildings can improve productivity and wellbeing will continue to be one of the most researched questions over the next decade. This touches all aspects of building design, construction, use, and maintenance. It also relates to the relationship of buildings with their immediate environment as well as their connection to the wider world. There is a lot changing in this industry and the players need to be aware of this and decide how they will respond. They need to evolve, move up the value chain, embrace new technologies, develop the necessary processes, and build the necessary skills.

60th anniversary finalsmallResponding to this, BSRIA held a 60th anniversary “Diamond Group Forum” with senior executives at the AHR Expo in Chicago in January to discuss and debate the changing landscape around the design and use of buildings, their evolution, and to uncover how the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and building controls industry should be shaped in future in order to best respond to client needs and prepare for the positive and profitable development of the businesses that support it.

The event brought together approximately 30 senior executives from major players representing a mix of manufacturers, specifiers and end users in the industry. The forum, which was opened by BSRIA CEO, Julia Evans facilitated active debate and networking.

Following three summary presentations on HVAC and smart control technology by experts from BSRIA World Market Intelligence, the participants broke out into several workshop groups to address the following key questions:

  1. What do you think are the biggest, most relevant changes in buildings now and over the next 10 years?
  2. What will be the impact on our industry?
  3. What products and services will be required in the future?

The majority of participants were from North American organisations, with a small number from Europe and Asia. So it may be assumed that the many insightful conclusions had a North American focus, even though many relate to issues of international relevance. Amongst the many topics discussed, some of the main conclusions are summarised below.

Participants concluded that the march of green construction and sustainability will continue, aided by regulation and integrated building design. Increasingly, buildings will need to adapt to people – up to now it has been the other way around! The Internet of Things is already seen as a reality and combined with analytics and big data, has the potential to deliver radically improved value for building owners and occupants, whilst spawning a host of new value streams for suppliers.

The team still see some barriers, such as how best to finance projects and there is continued concern around grid stability and energy prices.

New challenges will undoubtedly appear, not least the need to understand how new building designs work and to understand the challenge of more complex building systems. There is often a disconnect between building use and how control systems are applied and this needs to be addressed. At the same time there is a need for smarter, integrated construction practices.

One of the most important challenges facing the industry is the shortage of people educated to understand the new types of technology. This needs to be tackled and new ways need to be found for engaging the younger generation with our industry.

New competitors will enter the market, not least from the IT and software fields and industry needs to develop new partnerships, for example to bridge the gap between the HVAC and the IT world.

Smart technology, in the form of smart, self-learning and self-diagnosing products is emerging as well as building data capture, software based analytics and an increasing proportion of applications going to the “cloud”.

There is a growing need for devices to be interconnected and converged on to common platforms and networks, with increased adoption of standards for open connectivity. Cybersecurity for building systems is currently a major weakness and consequently has moved rapidly up the agenda.  It represents a threat to development of the building controls industry but can be turned into a new business opportunity.

Suppliers need to sell solutions and focus more on life cycle costing. A migration of controls onto the HVAC equipment, delivered as a single package, with a simple man machine interface, is expected to become more prolific. In the next stage, these packaged solutions will be connected to the cloud and the service business model may have to change in the future.

Above all, the products of the future should be designed with the small and medium building retrofit market in mind. These represent the vast majority of buildings and floor space.

A second Diamond Group Forum will be held at the ISH exhibition in Frankfurt on Tuesday 10th March for senior executives of top BSRIA clients. For more information contact Jeremy.towler@bsria.co.uk

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