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

District Heating and Cooling and Heat Interface Units are still closely tied markets

Socrates Christidis
BSRIA Research Manager – Heating and Renewables

District Heating and Cooling networks have witnessed significant growth in many European countries in the last five years and this is set to continue in the coming decade. Significant European policy initiatives, such as the Green Deal, country government promotions, alongside increased public and private investment are supporting new business models such as utilities selling heat as a service and not as a commodity, which will drive the market forward.

BSRIA research indicates that the share of heat pumps and Energy-from-Waste in district heating and cooling systems is increasing. This trend is in line with the development of the concept of 5th generation heat networks. These are demand driven and low-temperature networks, using locally available low-grade waste heat (A/C, datacentres, underground stations, etc.), low temperature renewable energy in bodies of water and solar energy instead of a central energy centre. In principle, such systems favour the use of substations at building level, but no heat interface units at the dwelling level, as these are likely to be replaced by heat pumps.

Currently industrial boilers and CHPs remain the main source of heating in District Heating networks. For instance, 85% of planned heat networks in the UK, will have a CHP as the primary source of heating and 50% will have a gas boiler as a backup. The remaining 15% will use geothermal, ground source or water source heat pumps.

Thus, in the short-term Heat Interface Units (HIUs) will remain the link between the apartment and the network.

Going forward, reducing demand for heating and increasing need for hot water and cooling imply that the market will see the uptake of:

  • All-in-one units (heating or cooling and hot water)
  • Cooling units
  • Hybrid units, with integrated electric water heating
Graph showing European HIUs market growth

The main threats for HIUs market progress are the currently lack of consistent quality of installation and COVID-19.

Heat interface units have a major impact on the overall performance of a heat network and successful operation and performance both depend on correct system design and specification, followed by competent installation and maintenance. This has been problematic, with systems inadequately designed and quite often oversized. We see some signs of improvements as the industry becomes more sensitised towards good quality district heating. Documentation is improving as well as codes of practice, testing of HIUs, and further testing on site; however, under tight budgets the emphasis is often for the lowest cost, specification compliant technology. Testing the unit in a lab and then onsite is optional but critical to ensure performance.

Closing of construction sites was the main impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, including lack of cash flow, as the invoicing is done when products are delivered onsite. The industry has also witnessed a lack of new orders from April to June, with some signs of recovery observed just after. Overall, the European sales in the first 6 months of 2020 were between 15% and 30% down, depending on country, when compared to the 6 first months of 2019.

Going forwards, new construction presents a slightly positive picture. During COVID-19 there has been delays but not cancellations in planning permissions; delays as sites operate under social distancing guidelines and some delays for new investment to come through. However, governments and authorities are still eager to go ahead with programs and incentives, with renewed emphasis on the environmental agenda.

Looking at estimations for completions of flats before and after the outbreak, the recovery is likely to accelerate in 2022, and the market is unlikely to recover before. The end of financial support schemes by governments (VAT deferral, loan schemes or furlough) is likely to have a negative impact on many businesses, including contractors. Indications are, that new build and residential sales will be hit harder than commercial ones. Southern Europe is also likely to struggle more, although recession is expected across most of European countries.

Taking all this into account, BSRIA sees the numbers of heat interface units growing steadily but at a single digit compound annual growth rate of just over 4% on a Pan-European basis. The market will become more diverse and will look for more flexible options to cater for high-end, electricity-only heating, mixed-used and communal areas.

To find out more about BSRIA’s District Energy and Heat Interface unit market studies contact us at:

Betting on the general election? Think again

This post was written by Julia Evans, BSRIA Chief Executive

This post was written by Julia Evans, BSRIA Chief Executive

There are number of ways of predicting the outcome of the general election and an equal number of ways of being wildly incorrect. Bookmakers across the land are considering the 7th May to be a field day equal only to the Grand National in terms of punter cash finding its way through the betting shop door and not finding its way out again.

The one thing that seems sure is that the outcome is likely to be uncertain with both a three way coalition and a rerun of the election in the Autumn both being seen as possibilities.  So, where does that leave construction and building services?

Just as education and the health service are perennials in political manifestos so construction has some constant themes. Although construction rarely makes front page news there are a number of issues that seem likely to make the political headlines. Maybe for reasons of one-upmanship, as in who is promising to build the most houses? It’s the Liberal Democrats, since you ask; who are promising 300,000 new houses a year and an assurance that they’ll all be energy efficient. Or the startling alignment and collaboration between the three main political parties who are promising to work together on climate change, which in itself is surely not a bad thing?

But what of the perennials that effect construction?

Representation at senior levels seemed threatened at one point by questions being asked about the continuation of the role of Chief Construction Advisor, this is now resolved at least for the next two years. However other things are less easy to solve – the impending skills shortage, the delivery of low carbon retrofit and the lurking influence of increasing devolution will all play their part. As will continuing pressure on late payment practices, poor treatment of supply chain and the weakening of centrally funded research programmes.

The uncertainty caused by the impending election has been felt in the slackening of demand for construction since the turn of the year, the recent results of our quarterly consultants survey suggested that there has been a halt in new work as we wait for a new government. This has also been seen in a reduction in the immediate pre-election period of house building starts just at a time when we need to be addressing the national shortfall.

So back to my punt at the bookies, I think I will put my money back in my pocket and find something more predictable to spend it on, maybe something in preparation for the barbeque summer?

Response to the Chancellor’s Spending Review

The Chancellor’s statement yesterday was well trailed beforehand so there were few surprises. It seems that the “greenest government ever” is in fact true blue in tooth and claw with a continuing policy of reducing leadership in central government (by decreasing funding of staff) and increasing the expectation of self-reliance by industry.

Buried in the lengthy statement that dwelt very largely on the “back to work” theme was the commissioning of HST1, the prospect of a new North South Crossrail and additional funds for flood defences. All good news for the concrete farmers.

As far as greenness was concerned, there was little said but it is clear that the message concerning the long term availability of secure energy is now well embedded. A number of key issues were put forward:

  • Firstly there was the promise of a strike price for electricity that may bring the construction of new nuclear a little nearer. Without this underpinning of future revenues the private sector is always going to be shy of the massive investments needed with very long term recovery periods.
  • Secondly there was the promise of additional investment incentive for shale gas exploration. Shale gas has the potential to fill a difficult hole in energy supply whilst the nuclear builds take place. Hardly green but a pragmatic response badly needed.

One of the difficult issues our industry is going to face is the additional loss of leadership/sponsorship and infrastructure that civil servants have given us through departments such as DCLG, BIS and DECC. As their resources have been pared to the bone, it is unsurprising that delays associated with regulation, planning reform, energy reduction programmes (Green Deal for example) are becoming ever more visible. The question is do we have the energy will and resource to fill that void? The Chancellor specifically identified other industries as the future – “synthetic biology to grapheme” but did not repeat his earlier commitment to a zero carbon built environment.

In a nutshell my take-away from this statement is one of the need for self-reliance and the need to build better “regulation” from within our community rather than expect government to lead. Either that or don a cowboy hat.

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