Architects don’t make buildings. Architects make drawings of buildings. But of course, someone has to make the building. The construction industry is one of the largest economic sectors and we all interact with the built environment on a daily basis, but the actual work of getting a building from drawing to structure has barely evolved over the decades. While the rest of the world has moved into Industry 4.0, the construction sector has not kept pace. Architecture has begun to embrace some digitalization. After all, not many of us work with mylar on drafting tables anymore. So with the architecture industry’s everlasting link to the construction industry, will the latter pick up some new technological tricks by association? And when it does, how will that change the role of the architect?
Large construction projects can often take 20 percent more time than scheduled and when they are finished, as many as 80 percent end up over-budget. Construction is one of the lowest profit-margin industries in today’s economy. In the past 75 years, productivity has increased by up to 1,500 percent in the manufacturing, retail, and agriculture fields. Over that same time period, productivity in construction remained almost the same. The emerging field of Construction Technology, or ConTech, aims to change that and bring construction into the 21st century.
Remote work began in technology industries, but even before the current global pandemic, the use of remote working had grown by 400 percent over the years. Today, we all have even more incentive to work as digitally as we can. One of the most well-known technological advancements in the architecture and building world is BIM, Building Information Modeling. The remote collaboration capabilities of BIM are a great start toward doing less work on-site, but BIM goes far beyond a collaborative Revit model. BIM can help project managers make better decisions at every stage of construction, even increasing health and safety on the job site.
By using BIM to access and analyze all the relevant data for a project, including documents, regulatory information, and building manuals, the project team can identify critical health and safety hazards on a construction site ahead of time. Although construction work comprises only 10 percent of the workforce, it’s responsible for up to 40 percent of workplace deaths, even in industrialized countries.
Using techniques like visualization, simulation, and virtual prototyping, BIM allows architects to preview a series of potential scenarios before the process of building even starts, with the aim or foreseeing any potential dangers for crews before they are even on site. Further BIM tools like compliance checking, scenario planning, pre-fabrication tools, and clash detection minimize the day-to-day construction site risks. BIM can also be used for emergency preparedness and planning, as well as accident analysis in the event that one does take place. In one study about the use of BIM technology in construction, 37 percent of owners and contractors reported more than a 5 percent reduction in reportable incidents.
Beyond BIM, and in tandem with BIM, other technologies not specifically developed for the building industry can also be applied to construction, such as AR, VR, AI and even blockchain, to make “remote construction” a reality. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) can eliminate the need for architects and owners to make frequent site visits, as well as streamlining the construction process itself. Both AR and VR can help in conducting “virtual site visits,” saving time and money.
When AR capabilities combine with an on-site 3D camera, off-site members of the project team can stream 360 degree video and work through issues in real time, perhaps even including aerial footage with the use of drones. Workers on-site can use AR to send enhanced field notes, videos, and other data to remote colleagues, promoting rapid digital collaboration. The high-quality data and information from the site that can be produced via these technologies can decrease in-person visits, save time and money, and improve knowledge transfer among the team.
Computer-performed analysis of a job site can even identify potential safety risk factors, which has the added benefit of minimizing any delays from dealing with hazards. AR/VR combined with BIM can then allow inspectors to more efficiently identify any remaining worksite danger. AR could also be utilized in the field for job training, for example an overlay that teaches how to use a particular piece of machinery. It could even allow contractors to “see through walls” as they’re working, streamlining coordination between multiple different trades.
Blockchain, which at first glance has little to do with the construction industry, could in fact eliminate paperwork and increase security throughout a project’s completion. The simple definition of blockchain is that it is an incorruptible and decentralized public ledger to store digital information, which could help bring the construction sector into Industry 4.0. The process of bringing a project from concept to building involves a lot of paperwork and documents - bids, contracts, and forms of all types. Project managers could integrate BIM with blockchain technologies to automate and optimize many of these processes, while simultaneously cutting back on paper usage for a sustainable bonus. For example, “smart contracts” could allow a transparent exchange between parties without the need for a lawyer or a notary, simplifying and shortening the process.
To increase job site security, blockchain technology could be used to track all the workers on site each day through an ID card scan, automatically integrating with their payroll system and creating a secure log of who was on site and when. Sustainability measures such as lifecycle analysis of building materials could also be automated, creating a type of “passport” for each material to track information like ethical sourcing and embodied carbon. Each of these possibilities for utilizing blockchain technologies serves to streamline architects’ and project managers’ tasks and remove busy-work, allowing the team to focus on the bigger picture instead.
Even Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been suggested as a possible way to increase efficiency in the architecture and construction fields. Especially in creative fields like architecture, there’s often debate about the real capabilities of AI and whether it could (or should) truly replace human work. In this case, the goal would be to simply automate some of the parts of architecture that don’t require a creative touch. AI could compile building site information for example, such as temperature and weather data, or could automatically keep track of material ratings. Even systems such as smart lighting or smart stormwater management could be integrated from the beginning of design, significantly simplifying coordination efforts.
AI could also perform analyses that architects wouldn’t otherwise have the time or inclination to consider. When integrated with BIM data, AI could analyze trends and inefficiencies from project to project, allowing architects to gain more insight from each building than they’d typically be able to and increasing the life-span and quality of future buildings. In terms of built structures’ maintenance, AI could also be utilized to track any facilities issues and monitor for problems and performance. Perhaps eventually AI could use data from how people interact with spaces to extrapolate entire smart city designs.
In most cases, we’re quite a distance from achieving that, but the technology exists to make it possible. From the beginning of a project, using VR to walk clients through a space, to the end where an AI system performs building commissioning and analysis, the ConTech possibilities are numerous. And whether or not we live to see robot bricklayers become mainstream, certainly there are opportunities to streamline, simplify, and enhance the construction process via digitalization. Architects can save time and money by performing virtual site visits, while the workers on-site can initiate a more productive and efficient discussion about issues via high-quality information capture.
Overall, ConTech advancements would decrease the amount of people on a construction site to the minimum needed to complete the physical work each day, yet not at the expense of seamless collaboration. In fact, technology-enhanced remote communication could improve real-time coordination efforts while embracing the time- and money-savings of remaining digital. Project safety and security would improve, eliminating those worries from the owners, architects, and construction managers. Monotonous, tedious tasks and paperwork could become automated and simplified, taking that off the architect's list of responsibilities as well. In an imagined "remote construction" future, the practice of architecture may be distilled to those tasks at the very heart of the profession, design and collaboration.
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