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

Proving the future – how to keep up with Building Regulations

"From a standing start in 2006 to today, the builders have grasped the importance of air tightness testing as a proxy for quality of construction and the contribution good airtightness makes to energy efficiency" Mike Smith, Engineering Director

“From a standing start in 2006 to today, the builders have grasped the importance of air tightness testing as a proxy for quality of construction and the contribution good airtightness makes to energy efficiency” Mike Smith, Engineering Director

The rapid adoption of airtightness testing and the ability of the industry to achieve the right result first time in 89% of tests is one of the success stories of the UK construction industry over the past decade. The BSRIA Compliance team tested over 10,000 dwellings and 720 non-dwellings in 2012 and found the average dwelling airtightness value was 4.89 m3/(hr.m2) envelope area at 50 Pa (against a maximum regulatory value of 10 m3/(hr.m2)).

From a standing start in 2006 to today, the builders have grasped the importance of airtightness testing as a proxy for quality of construction and the contribution good airtightness makes to energy efficiency. The testing itself is rigorous, robust and, arguably, now at a very low economic price. It has respectability provided by UKAS accreditation for non-dwellings testing, the training of testers and, in the case of dwelling testing, registered testers through the Airtightness Testing and Measurement Association (part of the British Institute for Non-Destructive Testing).

The mantra should be “Build tight, ventilate right”. As fabric standards improve, driven on further by the 2013 Building Regulations, the role of passive and mechanical ventilation systems increases in importance. Unfortunately in the world of unintended consequences, we are seeing dwellings achieving better airtightness values than the designer intended which of course means less air leakage (and associated energy waste), but this is only useful if the designed-in ventilation systems can cope with these outcomes. In a nutshell the infrastructure supporting domestic ventilation engineering has not developed at the same pace as the improvement in building airtightness.

There is of course significant current activity to help remedy this problem but, as is so often the case, we are now on the back foot with increasing numbers of examples of poor installations and the inevitable questioning of the value of mechanical ventilation solutions.

The systems we are talking about are not complex but they are sensitive to errors. What is missing is not so much the technology or science but the widespread creation and adoption of proper codes of practice. Mechanical ventilation (MV) systems and the more complex MV heat recovery (MVHR) systems have to be site tested to ensure they are extracting and supplying appropriate amounts of ventilation. In the course of its compliance testing BSRIA is seeing two main kinds of problems.

The first is the performance of the specified equipment in a given situation, i.e. that the fan is correctly selected to match both the actual application and the inherent system losses that the system components will introduce. In simple terms this comes down to understanding the resistance characteristics of ductwork and its routing and the resistance of terminal units both inside and out. There is a widespread misunderstanding that ventilation fan outputs are usually quoted with outputs measured in “free air”. In reality they have to overcome backpressures from fittings. Even where kits are bought we see alternative terminal units used, usually to meet architects demands for aesthetics.

The second is the actual installation of the associated ductwork where there is a very poor understanding of the dramatic effect on performance that can arise from bad workmanship.

In a recent case BSRIA found approximately one metre of flexible ductwork that had been stuffed into the cavity wall for a straight through the wall installation that is approximately 300 mm thick. An additional 100 mm dogleg had been introduced on site to match the actual positioning of a porch structure. The result was a lot of fan noise with almost zero movement. The fan, when bench tested with zero back pressure, had a performance of 22 l/s, the designed performance including the ducting was 20 l/s however the actual performance was 5 l/s.

As part of the “catch up” in dealing with the rapid rise in the use of domestic ventilation we have identified that the act of measuring MVHR performance using published guidelines will give false results if the correct equipment or correction factors are not used. There is an easy remedy but not widely used at present. The automatic volume flow meter with pressure compensation – more commonly known as a “powered diff” will provide an instantaneous and accurate value. A more common hooded anemometer will impose a back pressure on the terminal, ducting and fan under test and the readings must be corrected (post use) specifically for both the anemometer model and the actual fan under test. More detail on this can be found in BSRIA’s “Domestic Ventilation Systems – a guide to measuring airflow rates – BG46/2013”.

And all of this is compounded by a lack of thinking regarding operational needs, limited controls, and poor instructions to the user, especially on what maintenance is required to keep performance at its peak.

So, airtightness demands have led to unforeseen consequences and something of a reaction against the use of mechanical ventilation. What then can be done to avoid making the same mistakes on other systems and concepts?

With fabric issues now largely dealt with in the Building Regulations it is likely that new focus will fall on the efficiency and operation of the MEP services in dwellings. If modelling and measuring the thermodynamics of a brick wall is difficult imagine how complex a multivalent heating system is going to be! And before being put into use, these complex integrated systems will need commissioning and possibly proving as well.

The Zero Carbon Hub has recognised that we will need to devise new test methods and regimes that, for example, will evaluate how the solar thermal collector performance meets expectations when linked with the ground source heat pump system that serves hot water generation, underfloor heating and thermal storage, in concert with a biomass boiler or room heater. Before regulation stimulates the market we need to have good practice guidance and proven on-site commissioning and test processes in place. This work is urgent and needs significant central support. With the next revision of Part L expected for 2016 – this time aimed at achieving zero (or nearly) carbon homes, time is not available to embark on a protracted negotiation with innumerable and varied industrial interests. Certainly industry’s support will be available but only for a properly directed and centrally funded programme.

If we fail to put into place a mechanism to improve the on-site verification of performance of new systems we will only have ourselves to blame for the next set of well publicised “failures to launch” and the consequent set back of achieving national aims.

BSRIA provides a range of Compliance Testing services for stress-free compliance to Building Regulations including airtightness (Part L), sound insulation (Part E) and ventilation testing (Part F).

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