They say that the only constant in life is change, and this is certainly true in construction. From the simple wooden shelters of old, to the high-tech skyscrapers we see today, the construction industry has had to constantly adapt and evolve. And never has our industry faced such a huge period of rapid change, as it’s seeing now. To succeed, businesses need to embrace digital transformation, adhere to sustainability goals, and adapt to a new post-pandemic world.
Whilst the digital revolution has affected all areas of life, the construction industry is lagging behind many other sectors with regards to its development and adoption of new technologies. If businesses want to increase productivity, reduce costs, lower risk, and drive innovation then they need to embrace the digital age. Key barriers have included lack of funding and investment, regulatory constraints, lack of collaboration and limited exposure to innovation. However, the mood is changing with business leaders now recognising that if they are to grow and survive, they need to adapt. A recent study by Autodesk, The State of Design and Make Report, shows that 79% of respondents believe the future growth of their company depends on digital tools.
The backbone to all this is data. Significant amounts of data are generated over the course of a construction project, but this is typically stored in disparate systems making it unwieldy for business decision making. The result of such an inefficient flow of information can result in last-minute reworks, escalating costs and project delays. The answer lies in cloud computing. Storing and processing data in the cloud enables workers to access their data anytime, anywhere. This is particularly useful for AEC employees who could be in the office one day, and on-site the next, and for teams who need to collaborate on the same project.
Data comes into play in the entire lifecycle of a project, from the initial scan to the design phase, and then onto the build and operational processes. Rather than measuring a space by hand, firms are now adopting reality capture technologies, such as laser scanning. The output of this is a point cloud which can be many gigabytes in size and difficult to work with. Firms are increasingly looking at point cloud software applications, such as PointFuse, to reduce these file sizes, allowing them to share, view and collaborate on their captured information quickly and easily. The data then integrates with, and continues downstream to, other modelling and project management software, transforming the entire scan-to-BIM workflow.
Another innovation that has been made possible from the collection of all this data is the creation of a digital twin. Building owner-operators are increasingly keen to build a digital platform to help with ongoing monitoring and maintenance of the built asset. Previously reliant on 2D drawings and paper-based records, they are now capturing information digitally for handover to the building owner. A digital twin is involved throughout the building’s lifecycle, from the initial reality capture to ongoing asset usage. It is updated as required by sensors in the physical environment, creating a continuous workflow from data collection, to design, to build, to monitoring, to ongoing improvements.
Repurposing and refitting buildings
Whilst we’ve known for a long time that the construction industry needed to catch up with the rest of the world with regards to digital transformation, this next key trend was harder to predict. With the arrival of COVID, workers were required to work from home, and offices were closed. Whilst those restrictions have largely lifted, the working pattern for many has irrevocably changed. Many have continued remote working, or adopted a hybrid model, and companies are scrutinising their real estate costs. This has resulted in empty office spaces in major urbanisations around the globe.
At the same time, we are seeing a huge population growth, with the urban population predicted to more than double in size by 2050. The speed and scale of this is bringing with it an accelerated demand for affordable housing. In light of these two challenges happening in tandem, it makes sense to repurpose existing office buildings into residential accommodation. The opportunity for the construction industry is huge.
“There’s a lot of empty office space out there, and people are trying to figure out which of these buildings are suitable to maybe renovate into apartments or condominiums because the world needs more housing,” says Amy Bunszel, Executive Vice President, Architecture, Engineering and Construction Design Solutions*
Along with the reimagining of office space is the need to refit and build real estate to comply with fire safety regulations. This follows tragedies around the globe, with governments now developing safety standards, such as the Building Safety Act in the UK. The purpose of this Act is to create a clear framework for the design, construction and management of residential properties with owners being required to manage safety risks and to gather a golden thread of information, with safety considered at every stage of a building’s lifetime. Reality capture is an essential tool for achieving this with scans showing the as-built conditions, rather than relying on old plans made before construction. This ensures that the record of the building is accurate enough to pass the new regulations.
As well as being a consideration in both building safety and an expanding population, refitting existing buildings, when done well, is better for the environment. It’s well documented that the construction industry has a major impact on the environment with existing buildings being responsible for 40% of global energy consumption and 33% of greenhouse gas emissions. It is therefore an industry that is going to be heavily scrutinised over the next few years, with firms worldwide having a responsibility to reduce their impact on the planet. Rather than building new, with the heavy amount of resources this needs, companies can focus more on the repair and repurpose of existing buildings. For example, retrofitting spaces with more energy efficient systems and materials, and reducing the amount of embodied carbon in a building. Solutions can include things like these:
Whilst these three trends – digital transformation, repurposing buildings and sustainability – may seem to have totally different objectives, they do in actual fact all co-exist. The need to repurpose existing buildings, as well as creating a unique opportunity to the construction industry, also allows us to retrofit and build in a way that meets sustainability goals. Moreover, digital transformation lies behind everything. Reality capture is critical when retrofitting buildings, IoT and sensors will play a key part in buildings of the future, and cloud computing is changing the face of the how we work – allowing for increased efficiencies and enabling project teams to collaborate wherever they are. Whilst rapid change can be challenging, it brings with it huge opportunities, and no more so than in the construction industry right now.
*From Fortune ‘The conversion of empty offices to apartments is padding Autodesk’s bottom line’- Phil Wahba, 21 April 2023
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