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

Smart Building Conference – The Human Factor

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

On 7th October I attended the SmartBuilding Conference in central London, in the course of which we were treated to the views of a range of industry-experts including BSRIA’s own Jeremy Towler.  Like all worthwhile conferences, it presented a mixture of familiar messages being elaborated and reinforced – such as the all too frequent gap between the vision and the delivery of smart buildings, and the vital role of retrofit in a world where 80% of the buildings we will be using in 2050 have already been built, and some less familiar insights. These are some of the main points that I took away.

While we often talk, rather platitudinously about, buildings, or businesses being “all about people”, we spend less time thinking about what this really means in practice.  An often overlooked fact is that people’s statements of what they want is often a poor guide to how they will actually take to new technology. This is not just because we often lack the understanding and vision of what is possible (as in the famous Henry Ford quote that “What people ‘really wanted’ was not cars, but faster horses.”), but also because (as every psychologist knows) we are much less rational and consistent in our judgements than we like to think we are. This places a premium on observing how people actually use buildings and adapting them and, even more so, future buildings.

Effectively observing and responding to the way people use buildings has wider implications.  One speaker suggested that the general move from a product-based to a serviced-based approach (as exemplified by cloud based solutions and the increasing tendency to lease equipment and facilities) is likely to penetrate from the “easy hits” to the more general areas of building services and smart technology, even potentially to the concept of a “building as a service”, where those who design and construct and configure the building are also those responsible for running it, helping to combat a problem where a building is designed supposedly to be smart, by people who then walk away having handed it to a completely different group, resulting in a loss of understanding, continuity and accountability.

Having buildings that genuinely learn and evolve in response to users’ changing needs over time calls for flexible and adaptable approach to design and construction so that they can cope better with changing needs. One way of achieving this is by using more modular construction techniques, which can at the same time reduce construction costs. Project Frog which has been responsible for a number of modular buildings in the USA was cited as an example of this.

Where an end-to-end approach is lacking, smart technology is too often a late add-on which means that it is not fundamentally designed into the building, and that those implementing it lack a connection with the original concept.

With IT increasingly at the heart of buildings, IT departments need to be involved from the early stages, and if engaged correctly they can help identify and address problems, including some of the most potentially serious challenges such as building cyber security.  Too many organisations still see IT and Facilities Management as separate disciplines to be kept siloed.  This can lead to failures of communication, and worst case, to actual conflicts.
There was also a lot of discussion of the role of more specific types of technology. For example, wireless technology is recognised as a useful backup, and for fixes to problems where the building can’t easily be rewired (historic buildings come to mind here) or where a ‘cheap and cheerful’ solution is sought, but is unlikely to become reliable enough for critical services, owing to fundamental problems of potential interference and obstructions which can arise unpredictably. This reminds us that “You cannae change the laws of physics” is a maxim that extends well beyond grainy back-editions of Star Trek.

There was much discussion of the way in which companies that have not traditionally been thought of as buildings- related, even in the most technological way. BSRIA research has already identified how IT companies like IBM and Microsoft are starting to make an impact in the world of smart buildings, now joined by Google and Apple, especially at the residential end of the market. This raises intriguing questions. On the one hand these companies bring not only deep knowledge of key areas of IT, especially in processing ‘big data’, on the other they  also have massive financial resources and proven commercial acumen, which could help to spearhead and open up  new markets.

However there are also fears that the delivery model typically deployed by companies like Google and Apple may not lend themselves to the more complex demands of building management. Simply buying a “smart home kit” from an Apple or DIY store is unlikely in itself to give you the hoped-for results in terms of improved energy efficiency, comfort and security. This could even lead to a consumer backlash that sets back the technology. There was a consensus that consumers will need experts who can provide advice and also ensure that systems are properly implemented. This in turn requires a range of skills broader than the “traditional” electrician, plumber, heating engineer or security engineer.

We were reminded that major disruptive technologies are normally led by new entrants into the field, posing a challenge to the major established players. Indeed it seems quite likely to me that the companies that are leading the field in 20 years’ time could well be ones that most of us haven’t heard of, or which don’t yet exist.

I left the conference slightly haunted by one further thought: We heard a lot about how buildings must learn and adapt to their users’ actual needs and behaviour. This led me to wonder how far this change, if it emerges and it surely will, will in turn change actual human behaviour.

Since our ancestors emerged from the forests and savannah thousands of years ago, humans have gradually been losing the need to be acutely aware of the physical world around them. First there was the loss of contact with the wilderness, and nature “red in tooth and claw”. Then the industrial revolution alienated us increasingly from the basic processes of producing food and the physical manipulation of nature.

Smart conferenceThe electronic revolutions mean that we need to understand less and less about the way that for example, our cars or heating systems or computers operate and indeed we meddle with them at our peril.

If even buildings and cities come to observe, know and “understand” us and anticipate our actions, will humans then become, physically at least, almost wholly reliant on outside intelligence, and end up, in effect almost leading an artificially controlled ‘virtual’ existence, and what role will human intelligence then play as opposed to artificial intelligence?

This might seem far-fetched, but big changes often tend to occur much faster than anticipated, and often, far from being incremental, can depend on sudden tipping points. There are also of course  formidable barriers, not least the public reaction to the prodigious level of data sharing that would be needed to make all of this even remotely possible.

Nonetheless, I for one find it intriguing that the development of the smart building could just be part of the gradual emergence of a new “breed” of human, in terms of what they think and more importantly how they interact with the world.  Could we be seeing the emergence of a kind of “virtual man” where the boundaries between the human and the buildings, vehicles and cities we use and inhabit are hopelessly blurred?

Building services now look more exciting today and indeed  look closer to science fiction than could have been imagined when BSRIA started out 59 years ago.

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