You may have heard about PropTech, but ConTech? While the first term describes modern solutions to the economy of real estate, the latter focuses on the entire process of actually creating a building in the first place.
Majority of construction projects go through the following RIBA stages:
- 0 — Strategic Definition
- 1 — Preparation and Brief
- 2 — Concept Design
- 3 — Spatial Coordination
- 4 — Technical Design
- 5 — Manufacturing and Construction
- 6 — Handover
- 7 — Use
While the economics plays an important role all the time, we can easily see which stages are more focused on the design and the actual construction.
ConTech focuses mainly on RIBA stages 2–5
Buildings are probably the best example for big data use cases. They take years to design and once built, they are occupied by all kinds of people throughout decades.
During the design phase, majority of large schemes utilise Building Information Modelling (BIM) to ensure data of each element is properly recorded and spatially coordinated. This can include things such as:
- Architectural 3D model: total number of doors, windows, etc.
- Structural 3D model: column coordinates are aligned with the architect’s information of column cladding
- Building Services 3D model: total number of power outlets, luminaires, maintenance zones for plant equipment, etc.
Autodesk is the industry leader in providing BIM software suites, which include: Revit, Navisworks and BIM360.
Spending resources at the beginning of a project, to develop a detailed building model, can pay off big dividends during the operational stage. Facility Managers (FMs) are able to quickly see manufacturer’s information of each component installed allowing for accurate maintenance scheduling and ordering spare parts. When refurbishment works must take place in the future, consultants can easily understand the current state of a building without major surveys required.
Harnessing data from operational buildings, to make even better designs in the future, completes a successful BIM cycle.
Modern commercial buildings are fitted with a large number of sensors feeding information to a Building Management System (BMS). This unique computer is programmed to automatically adjust heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) creating an optimal indoor climate for all occupants. Many systems go further than that and constantly monitor systems such as:
- Power generation from solar panels
- Industrial equipment
- Shading devices
Companies like WeWork, which have multiple sites, record information from all Internet of Things (IoT) devices to create accurate analytical models for their office environments. This allows them to optimise a design for each next building increasing Return On Investment (ROI) and tenants’ satisfaction.
Collecting historical design data of buildings and feeding it into an Artificial Intelligence (AI) engine is beginning to result in early stage design automation tools. A Swedish startup Finch3D uses a parametric computing engine to assist an architect with simple repetitive tasks so he/she can focus on the creative part.
Another house design automation software is being produced by Higharc, which is targeting new home buyers, who want to be in charge of the design process and then connect with a suitable builder in their area.
The technology, whose roots come from the digital currency world, is finding use cases in many industries with complex supply chains. That is because having a clear picture of where a given object originates from, and how it changed hands to arrive at its final destination, can help with reducing a number of fraudulent trades and missing goods. Apart from accurately recording a journey of materials to site, each delivery can be automatically completed by scanning a QR code on the packaging. This executes a smart contract releasing agreed funds to a supplier, followed by adding a new information block to the digital ownership ledger called Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT).
If we say a BIM model acts as a digital twin for a physical building, all information stored in the model can be combined with IoT and Blockchain technologies to make the construction process comparable to sophisticated production lines in the automotive industry.
Speed of Delivery
Off-site manufacturing has already proved to be a great accelerator for major construction projects. Producing building pieces in a factory, which has sophisticated production lines and plenty of space to store parts, is a no brainer. Quality assurance is guaranteed to be spot on while maintaining low cost.
A 155 bedroom Hilton hotel in Aberdeen would normally take 56–60 weeks, if built using traditional methods. However this construction site was opened for only 4 weeks. Before that, pods were manufactured in a factory in China and then shipped to the UK.
Modular is a big business projected to reach 175 billion US dollars globally by 2025.
With international shipping lanes well established, cost-effective manufacture of entire buildings can be achieved in developing economies, so the time spend at the actual building site is reduced to a minimum (an average day-rate in 2019 for a UK construction worker was £271).
Printing Homes & Bridges
When talking about efficiency and cost savings we must not forget about 3D printing tech. Ernst & Young expects this sector to grow by over 245% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for the forecasted period
A 2-week job can be completed in 3–4 days when bringing a right printing rig to site.
Could 3D printing help solve the UK housing crisis?
3D printing opens up new opportunities for architects and engineers to be more creative with their designs. In 2018 a Dutch startup MX3D, specialising in metal printing, revealed to the world their first stainless steel pedestrian bridge, which was printed entirely by robotic arms. This piece shows how urban infrastructure meets art to create something extraordinary.
Health & Safety
HSE UK reports that 38% of handling injuries at building sites resulted in over 3 days lost in productivity. Since 2011 a company called suitX has been developing exoskeleton hardware, which provides an operator with much needed support around the key body parts.
Out of all industries, not surprisingly, the construction tops the number of recorded Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), which are caused by intensive manual handling. SuitX provides workers with the following types of muscle-assisting gear:
Building sites can be very hazardous environments. Ensuring all potential risks are identified ahead of time has become Smartvid’s top mission.
“AI Engine Vinnie is trained to find indicators of project risk in the areas of safety, productivity and quality.”
The company integrates with client’s BIM360 model, monitors the latest project management data from Procore and taps into on-site cameras to produce a holistic predictive analysis for a scheme in real-time.
Another emerging trend, aiming to keep everyone safe and reduce downtime, is a connected workforce. Large sites can be a dangerous maze of hazardous objects and there are companies which are adapting wearable tech to this unforgiving environment. By using a combination of sensors, the position of each person can be tracked allowing site managers to always know how many people are working, and what on. Combining this IoT approach with Blockchain will allow for faster payments to tradesmen, as well as keep people more accountable for their outputs.
Time is a very precious asset, which can never be recovered. As wages for construction management keep rising, finding ways for utilising people’s time more efficiently becomes highly necessary. COVID-19 has played a big role in accelerating remote site monitoring solutions. Now project stakeholders can view the progress of multiple schemes in a single day, as they do not need to spend hours on commuting to each of them. All heavy duty machinery can report their wear and tear data automating a maintenance regime. The supply chain can be constantly monitored ensuring an adequate stock of materials on site. When all of this data is correctly fed to a centralised cloud system, projects can be successfully managed from any location giving teams more flexibility.
If you enjoy a good podcast, and want to stay up to date with the latest advancements in the built environment, I highly recommend tunning in to The ConTech Crew. They interview startup founders and produce really engaging content.
Innovation in the construction industry is ramping up. There are Venture Capital funds specifically interested in this sector, so if you have ideas for improving the design workflows, making building sites safer for operators, or using more sustainable processes in the built environment, these are firms to follow: