16 December 2016

Smart Construction and the move to Autonomous Buildings

Technology has disrupted many traditional industries, creating new business models, bringing higher productivity and efficiency and improving quality and customer experience. Industries such as travel booking, music and film, transportation and communication have been completely transformed. One of the sectors that has, to date seen relatively little digital disruption is the construction and building sector.

Accounting for 6% of global GDP and $10 trillion in annual revenues the construction industry is truly enormous. It also has a very significant environmental impact with 50% of global steel production annual used in construction, 25-40% of the World’s total carbon emissions and 3 billion tonnes of raw materials. This is one of the oldest and most traditional industries and in the past 40 years, unlike most industries, labour productivity has dropped. Digital technology can improve productivity, reduce project delays, enhance the quality of buildings and improve safety, working conditions and reduce environmental impact but to date the gains have not been seen.

All along the value chain, change is afoot and new companies and technologies are emerging that are finally delivering the promised gains. Of fundamental importance is that a holistic view of the entire building lifecycle is taken from construction through to building management and maintenance. The most significant development in this regard is the adoption of Building Information Modelling (BIM) systems that mean a building and its constituent parts is defined as a relational database rather than a collection of unconnected abstractions for various functions. BIM for the first time allows a single system of record for a building that can be used by all those in the construction and building value chain.

More and more in large projects, adherence to BIM standards is being included as part of the tendering process with owners now realising the benefits that can be derived from taking a total lifecycle view of a building. BIM creates new ways of collaborating and sharing information between stakeholders. The industry is currently extremely fragmented and BIM enables the creation of an API connected industry with all the benefits inherent in that.

During construction BIM enables other technologies that meld the real world with the digital. Drones can be sued to survey construction sites and measure progress against digital plans. Autonomous vehicles can be used on site and are already widely deployed on mining sites. Augmented and virtual reality allow the completed project to be viewed on site long before construction ever begins. Ultimately these technologies can lead to construction sites that are fully automated using 3D print technology and autonomous robots to complete the buildings with little or no human intervention.

The emergence of smart and autonomous buildings is closely linked to “The Internet of things” which BIM underpins. Connected sensors and building services such as light, heat, access and air quality allow artificial intelligence technology to be brought to bear in the building environment. The first driver in many of these applications is cost efficiencies but longer term this fundamentally changes how we use and interact with buildings. The ergonomics and user experience is turned on its head and a building is no longer a fixed monolithic structure but one that is malleable and adaptable to our changing needs. Lighting can be adjusted depending on what rooms are being used for, indoor air quality continuously monitored and controlled for number of occupants or even outdoor air quality and weather.

Atlantic Bridge has already made many investments that overlap the construction sector; 3D Robotics Sitescan software suite allows drones to be deployed on building sites and onsite progress and measurement made against BIM or CAD designs. CivicConnect has been deployed for the citizen engagement phase for high speed roll out in Texas utilising virtual reality to showcase how future construction will look. Striim’s real time streaming platform can process signals from millions of connected sensors and devices in real time and Novaerus’ air purification system can both measure and eradicate airbourne infections whilst providing real time reporting to health care facility managers. The construction industry may in some respects be a laggard in terms of digitisation but given its pervasiveness and the opportunities for improved efficiencies and new business models it is certainly one we will be watching closely for the future.