Convention Meets Invention: Change, Technology, and the A/E/C Industries
by Julian Anderson
Change does not come easy to the A/E/C industries, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge our thinking about the best ways to do business. The needs of the present (and the future) are unlike any we have previously faced.
But it’s not so much that we should be doing different things when designing and building buildings but that we should be doing the important things better. Innovation without insight is wasted effort. The popular term “disruption” is a dramatic misnomer that I suspect serves more as marketing bait for venture capitalists; what’s actually happening is the antithesis of disruption. In the A/E/C world, technology is not interrupting the workflow; it is making workflow seamless.
Underlying all the technological advances we’re seeing in software, hardware, and equipment, these changes boil down to making connections: between the designers, the engineers and the jobsite supervisors, labor, and the owners. It’s enhanced communication that can make project planning, project management, and project execution less susceptible to interruption.
God Is (in) the Data
To be clear, that communication is not verbal in nature; it is digital. And the main participants in the conversation are the tech titans. Information collected from our homes, workplaces, and public spaces via a host of devices is converted into algorithms focused on efficiencies, a driving concern of the A/E/C world.
In the residential sector, Amazon has a deal with Lenar, one of the country’s largest homebuilders, to equip its new housing stock with an array of Alexa-controlled products, including built-in WiFi, smart locks and doorbells, thermostats, and lights. To analyze uses and patterns in the office, WeWork has instituted extensive monitoring programs. An example of the granularity of its studies: To ascertain the occupancy rate of meeting rooms, battery-powered thermal sensors were placed under conference room tables to measure how many pairs of legs were present and for how long. Crunching the resultant numbers, the company concluded that conference rooms should be smaller in size since they’re rarely full.
Going outside, we’re about to get a ground-up look at how this kind of approach plays out at scale. Sidewalk Labs (which is owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google) is a consortium of urban designers and technologists who are dedicated to exploring how new technologies can solve big urban challenges and improve the quality of life in cities. In 2017, it became a partner in a major development in Toronto called Quayside, which seeks to revitalize 800 acres of underutilized waterfront land with a slew of fresh thinking about affordable housing, resiliency and flood protection, retail, and transportation systems.
In Toronto, Sidewalk Labs is planning to contribute innovations that are overtly oriented to the built environment, such as canopies that automatically retract in advance of severe weather. But as the architect of the data infrastructure, the applications—and the implications—of Quayside’s digital domain will be significant beyond the immediate community. As with all R & D, it will take time to evaluate its success.
Spreading the Digital Word
A fundamental factor in transmitting this information is the telecommunications system. The advent of the 5G wireless network (rolling out in 30 U.S. cities by the end of 2019) will open up new bandwidth spectrum for IoT use and small-cell deployment in urban areas, both of which are central to construction applications. The faster rate of data transfer—upon its release, 5G downloads are initially estimated to be about 20 times as fast as the current 4G capability, and will accelerate to more than 100 times as fast—will support the reception and streaming of videos captured by drones, as well as enhance virtual-, augmented-, or mixed-reality tools.
Based in Realities
Those reality visualization programs are significantly growing in usage. Worldwide spending on augmented reality and virtual reality is expected to reach nearly $20.4 billion this year, according to market intelligence firm International Data Corp. That’s up from an estimated $12.1 billion in 2018.
On the construction site, the rise of reality-capture technology has opened the door to true, real-time analysis of projects. Drones, rovers, laser scanners, and 360-degree cameras can more effectively track progress and productivity as well as identify risks for potential delays. Drone-based visual inspections not only provide up-close, accurate images but can easily produce pictures from vantage points that were previously inaccessible to human photographers, such as inside wall cavities or over bridges. All this can help streamline the design process (and timeline) by eliminating unnecessary design iterations.
Trimble recently introduced a viewing device that clips to standard hardhats and enables workers to access holographic information directly from the jobsite. Featuring a wider field-of-view than earlier generations of the hardware and a flip-up viewscreen, the XR10 with Microsoft HoloLens 2 combines state-of-the-art mixed reality and safe operation in restricted-access work areas. Unlike immersive headsets, whose opaque displays conceal the physical environment and replace it with a fully digital experience, this transparent display allows users to see the physical world while digital content is superimposed into the view in real-time.
From the Ground Up
There’s been lots of discussion about the viability of 3D printing as a construction method. Historically, the construction industry is slow to change and risk-averse, for obvious reasons. Until a process is tried and true, developers will not embrace it. The large printers that are required for additive manufacturing—for onsite concrete pours, for example—rely significantly on the reliability of the print head. If a problem develops there, the entire process can grind to a halt. The enormous size of these printers makes them expensive and difficult to transport as well.
The future of modular construction, where building components are manufactured in a factory-controlled environment instead of on a construction site, looks more promising. Big Data is ever-deeper involved in this facet of the industry. Through its Alexa Fund, Amazon has invested millions in Plant Prefab, a Rialto, California-based company that builds prefabricated, custom single-family and multifamily residences using sustainable materials and processes. For its modular homes, Plant Prefab has developed a proprietary technology which the company claims can reduce time by 50% while also achieving a savings in overall costs of between 10% and 25%, depending on the geographic market.
Disruption has its place; without it, there could be no progress, and we’d be stuck in an endless status quo. By the same token, continuity is critical; we can’t go back to square one every time an innovative step is taken. It’s worth bearing in mind that the A/E/C fields are composed of both creative forces and conservative thinkers, and their needs are sometimes divergent. By applying these new technologies to the design and construction process, we are reducing risk, cost and time and enhancing the process, which then empowers the parties to use it and adds value across the board.
Julian Anderson is president and a founding shareholder of the Rider Levett Bucknall’s North American region where he is responsible for overall management of the practice. He is also chairman of RLB global board of directors.