The Hub’s Platform Design Lead, Jaimie Johnston, sets out a vision for the construction industry of the future. The Hub’s programme is the start of a journey that will fundamentally change the sector. But what might an end destination look like, and how will we get there?
We focus a lot on the near future. In the context of construction Platforms, that means articulating the immediate and considerable benefits this approach will bring to the industry. But if we look further ahead, the potential of modern methods of construction to bring about wider change is genuinely inspiring. It’s worth thinking big.
Where are we now?
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, construction was facing global challenges that are widely recognised and well documented. In the meantime, the UN predicts 2.5 billion more people will live in cities by 2050 and the overall global population is likely to reach 11.5 billion by the same year.
So how do we create a world which sustainably – in every sense of the word – provides 11.5 billion people with the best possible housing, education, healthcare, mobility, etc.?
Construction is a multi-trillion-dollar market (estimated by McKinsey at $10 trillion annually, or 13% of global GDP). As we emerge from the pandemic and the financial impact becomes clearer, the sector clearly has a key role to play; there will be even more need to optimise the use of materials and resources, with lean construction and DfMA presenting a path forward. The pandemic has shown very positively how quickly governments, companies and society as a whole can react to dramatic change. We have the opportunity to harness this momentum and, before the world returns to ‘business as usual’ (if that’s even possible), to catalyse and accelerate a change that was long overdue.
Design to Value
The solution won’t be simply to take the existing design-procure-construct-operate process and apply technology to it. The solution will be intelligent construction. The future of our industry will revolve around the creation of a new, data- and technology-driven process that is much more concerned with creating value than simply doing the same thing more quickly and cheaply.
The Hub’s four key themes are: Value, Manufacturing, Assurance and Digital. While all four are strongly linked, I believe the latter three will be most informed by the quest to deliver value – to clients, to end users and to society as whole. While in retail, for instance, ‘value’ is often associated with ‘low cost’, it is a term that has yet to be fully explored in the construction sector and we have an opportunity to claim it for innovative, high impact outcomes.
That’s why my colleague Ron Lang, Impact Director for Value, framed the debate so articulately in April. And it’s why this month saw the launch of the Value Toolkit, designed to help clients and policy makers define a value profile across a wide range of variables (capital cost, for example, is just one) and then shape delivery models and commercial strategy accordingly.
Value is diluted through the traditional design-to-operate lifecycle, typified by multiple handovers between a huge array of sector, discipline and trade specialists with narrow but deep expertise. One way to make sure that value is baked in, is to create a more transparent, rational process using all of the digital technology at our disposal.
To facilitate this, the Hub’s Platform Design Programme is objectively analysing and identifying commonality between sectors (rather than focusing on differences and reinforcing artificial sector ‘boundaries’) and using this evidence base to define a common kit of parts. Creating a highly rationalised suite of components that we can use to deliver a range of assets is an approach that underpins the ‘Manufacturing’ and ‘Assurance’ themes.
We are also starting to unlock other benefits, particularly the application of automation in construction. In the design phase, configuring libraries of standard digital components allow us to develop solutions much more quickly, and simulate multiple iterations to optimise design. Bryden Wood’s ‘PRiSM to Platforms’ workflow or SEISMIC app, for example, are already revealing the power of a more advanced computational design process.
In the construction phase, our work with Landsec and Easi Space – in a project funded by UKRI / Transforming Construction – shows how we can dramatically reduce programme while halving the number of site operatives, by applying readily available automation from the logistics and warehousing sector.
All of this shows the great progress we’ve already made. So let’s take a bold look further into the future; the following is my vision of what the future could look like if we choose…
Evidence-based individuality in design
As computational and generative design become more common, the term ‘creativity’ in the built environment will be considered at least as much in the development of algorithms and writing code as it is in sketching and modelling today. If, say, the results of a generative design process aren’t beautiful and elegant, we won’t fix the designs, we’ll put more effort into the rule set that generated them. Something similar already happens on Rapid Engineering Model for Highways England and Rail: Automated Infrastructure Design for Network Rail – if the solution that’s generated doesn’t comply with some technical standard, it’s the code that gets corrected, not the model.
As the capability of technology in construction improves, more and more design will be evidence-based, deriving from analysis and simulation and eventually machine learning. This will start with those assets that are already relatively rules-based: schools, offices, data centres and certain housing typologies.
The placement of new developments, the location of transport nodes (everything from hyperloops to pedestrian routes) and routes within them (prioritising and promoting health and sustainability), the zoning of major functions (including public and green space) and the boundaries of sites… All these will be derived through many thousands of iterations of simulation and analysis using real-world data from increasingly smart homes and cities to inform increasingly sophisticated models of how cities function.
At site level, we will develop the massing and orientation of buildings and optimise the functional content through consideration of context and simulation, including energy balance, overshadowing and overlooking, people and traffic flows and movement, and so on. This is the future of construction technology.
The result will be more architectural variation, not less. Deploying modern methods of construction will mean that every building will be a unique response to its particular context and purpose. There will be no need to compromise on individuality since we will design the components and manufacturing processes to accommodate variety. Manufacturing has been through a cycle of standardisation to mass customisation to personalisation – let’s make sure the manufacture of assets does the same.
The ‘human’ design resource will be able to focus on the creatively challenging work for which we can’t write an algorithm:
- Deciding which criteria we should optimise for (which is why the Value Toolkit is such a powerful resource). What do we value as a society and what should the design process prioritise? Something similar is happening with autonomous vehicles and the challenge of ‘the trolley problem’;
- Developing new versions of existing building types, for example; what should the airport of the future look like when biometric recognition replaces the need for tickets and passports, and there is no luggage as clothes are 3D printed at point of use?
- Developing new typologies when, say, housing becomes for some a transient part of ‘lifestyle as a service’;
- Designing new building types for which no data exist – process facilities for emerging pharmaceutical technologies, new energy conversion and storage technologies, etc.;
- Developing and refining better and more flexible construction systems.
Global procurement for local benefit
Given that built assets will be unique configurations of manufactured products and components, there will be a global digital marketplace. As a design is being generated, the supply chain, price and delivery timescale will automatically be incorporated.
Through a digitally enabled procurement team or AI, manufacturers will have the capability to constantly publish costs for components based on capability, future pipeline, conversion cost, etc. or to bid in real time.
Orders for components will be distributed across the supply chain (like a more advanced version of Xometry) by matching demand with the most appropriate suppliers based on price, proximity, or whatever else we value – perhaps the health and welfare of the workforce.
Payment will be instant and automatic.
Logistics to site will be automated and optimised. Since deliveries will be by autonomous vehicles, deliveries will be scheduled to minimise disruption to local infrastructure while being just in time for installation.
Designers of components, tools, algorithms, workflows, etc. will get nano payments every time their work is used – this will incentivise those that publish their solutions. This model has been deployed very successfully by Google, with online advertising being matched to related content, which benefits advertiser and content publisher alike.
Automation in assembly and construction
We are at the start of the automation in construction journey with our work to date on Platforms (P-DfMA), but we can assume we will go through the same journey that automotive has, using increasingly sophisticated forms of automation (but never to the same degree that automotive has – since cost density and scale will mean construction will have its own version).
It’s not hard to imagine the reach stackers we are already using autonomously picking up and placing superstructure elements. Eventually they also place and tighten the bolts to a given torque?
There will no doubt remain tasks that are hard to automate for a long time. Where fine detail work is required, all of the current work we’re doing – colour-coded components, assembly instructions accessed at point of use via QR codes etc. – will be enhanced as AR/MR technology gets better and better. Labour will be directed to carry out exactly those tasks that need doing and given the right information and guidance to carry them out.
Checking of installation, accuracy etc. will happen on the fly through automatic point cloud scanning telemetry and errors will be eliminated.
The financial sector has experienced some disastrous years and a loss of confidence following the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the Libor rate fixing scandal etc.
In the future, high performing social and transport infrastructure will be reliable and therefore highly investable. The end state of Design to Value will create a market whereby ‘clean’ investors, including pension funds and clean tech funds, will want to invest as they will be able to see a decent and sustainable rate of return.
Money will flood into developing high-quality infrastructure, since not only will this provide financial returns, it will itself stimulate further economic growth. Better transport and more social infrastructure will require more office, commercial and manufacturing space. We’ll supercharge the adage that investing in bricks and mortar is a safe way to create wealth, but rather than bricks and mortar, it will be manufacturing and data.
R&D funding in construction is currently very low but if creating infrastructure become a highly investable proposition then, as in the tech and manufacturing sectors, there will be an influx of R&D investment to develop new materials, science, methods of manufacture, ‘as a service’ solutions, etc. DfMA will play an important role.
Operation and the internet of things
There has been much written about a future of increasingly smart cities; where people and infrastructure are digitally interconnected to optimise operational efficiency and the delivery of services.
By some estimates, the number of devices connected to the internet will rise to 75 billion by 2025, up from 25 billion today. The additions will largely be operational, IoT-connected devices such as thermostats, lights, locks and vehicles, not phones and laptops.
This kind of technology will make buildings self-optimising. Devices will change temperature and change rates, lighting levels and colour, to create the perfect living and working conditions throughout the day. In time, machine learning will make assets increasingly proactive. More connectivity will give them more data, which they’ll harness to pre-empt and create the conditions we need.
Changes like this are already happening. WeWork uses an artificial neural network to predict meeting room utilisation, and it’s already around 40% more accurate than humans. Other companies are going further by using ‘people analytics’, which combine sociometric, internal communication and IoT data, to find how the highest performing teams work together so they can replicate these conditions and increase wider productivity and employee satisfaction. It points to a future where workplaces will learn how to create the best working environments, highly tailored to specific companies and individuals.
End of life and re-use
Materials provenance will be tracked through every stage of manufacture from raw material to installed product.
We have already demonstrated the carbon savings for Platforms 2 and 3. For example, Landsec’s use of Platforms for their current Sumner Street project has resulted in a 20% overall reduction in embodied carbon. And this will continue as steel production becomes more sustainable (decarbonisation of the grid means steel produced on electric arc furnaces will be very low embodied carbon) and cement is replaced by geopolymers (this technology has been available for decades but cost is currently an issue; as market demand for more sustainable materials rises the price point will plummet) we expect the and bio masonry.
At end of life, materials will have a complete passport of likely loading capacity, potential for re-use, recycling etc.
Superstructures will be designed to be long-life, loose-fit carrier frames onto which façades will be hung and replaced on, say, a 20-year cycle as building function changes and material performance improves. Fit out ‘kits’ will be adaptable and flexible, being re-used or recycled on a five-to-ten-year cycle.
Existing assets and infrastructure
While there is a need to build vast amounts of new infrastructure, the majority of what we already have will be here for a long time yet. However, improvements can be made to existing infrastructure through:
- IoT sensors joining it digitally to the overall ‘digital twin’;
- Sensor data becoming better at predicting the need to carry out maintenance, replacement etc.;
- Initiatives such as Smart Motorways making technological interventions to unlock capacity in existing networks;
- Use of construction platforms and automation in construction making it safer and easier to build new assets in close proximity to, over or under existing infrastructure, e.g. creating development opportunities in urban centres.
Everything available and open source
Lack of sharing and interoperability is one of the key cultural characteristics of construction. Everyone wants to do things in secret, and to gain a commercial advantage from the innovation they create. This really holds the sector back, since everyone moves at their own pace rather than collectively moving the sector forwards.
Open sourcing allows the industry to get behind, and accelerate the adoption of, best practice. Rather than taking place in isolated pockets, innovation will be shared and built on. Everyone should have access to the same best practice – whether building in evolving economies or in the most advanced urban areas.
In the future that we foresee, companies that can will invest in R&D for the benefit of those that can’t. For example, a Platform developed by a private sector energy company for their construction camps for could be used to house displaced populations, currently at 70.8 million worldwide and counting. The displaced benefit from having reasonable accommodation for the few months they’ll have to wait until new permanent settlements are created, and the private sector client will benefit from there being a wider market and, therefore, a better supply chain for a system they developed.
There will be a culture of sharing everything; recognition and kudos will come with not what you built, but the process you used and the thinking you published. Incentivisation will come via micropayments for things that are adopted and used by others.
People will compete on their capability to exploit existing and develop new IP, not on their ability to work to their own commercial advantage. For example, the automotive industry works collaboratively to solve the big challenges – their differentiator is in how they then individually exploit the solutions they collectively created.
Shared data will accelerate the longer-term adoption of machine learning and AI to further accelerate every aspect of the process.
The Future of construction: Raising the standard
The impact of all of this will be to create high-quality infrastructure for ‘the next 4 billion’ and create a construction sector which is finally fit for purpose. A sector which prizes innovation and applies it at scale, and which underpins a more sustainable economy.
In a nutshell, the opportunity available to – and achievable by – us, is to raise the average standard of living across a more equitable world.
Can construction Platforms deliver this? With shared vision, commitment and endeavour then yes, I absolutely believe so.
Jaimie Johnston is the Design Lead for the Construction Innovation Hub.
Jaimie is also Director & Head of Global Systems at Bryden Wood. He was the author of the strategy documents ‘Delivery Platforms for Government Assets: Creating a Marketplace for Manufactured Spaces’, ‘Platforms: Bridging the gap between construction + manufacturing’ and ‘Data Driven Infrastructure: From digital tools to manufactured components’. These were adopted as a key articulation of the government’s aspiration to adopt a more manufacturing-led approach to construction, reflected in the Infrastructure and Project Authority’s – proposed adoption of a Platform approach to Design for Manufacture and Assembly.