Known for the slow adoption of technology, the construction industry is starting to take a long hard look at adopting them due to cost pressure and buyers’ demand.
Text by Benjamin Ken Yong
Organic admixtures that are mushroom-derived or calcium-secreting bacteria that allows buildings to be “grown” or repaired are some of the new technologies that are very promising but are still being tested. The one most enthusiastically embraced by developers however are new software design tools to manage construction work, in particular, the Building Information Modelling (BIM), a 3-D computer modelling system that replaces traditional hardcopy blueprints. BIM, combined with the easy availability of handheld devices such as mobile phones, allows architects and contractors to collaborate more easily and make on-the-fly alterations.
Other products that are gaining acceptance in the construction industry are new construction materials, augmented-reality marketing solutions, robotics, drones and automation enablers.
We list out several innovations that would make a huge impact on the industry:
1. 3-D printed houses (with robots) – the next big thing?
A 3D printer recently built a 406 sq ft house in Russia within 24 hours. Earlier this year, MIT built a dome 12 ft high and 50 ft wide in 14 hours using a 3D printer robot. In 2016, 3 big 3D-printed projects completed in China. Dutch architects are also in the process of printing an entire building using a specially built machine called KamerMaker. It is expected to finish by end of this year, according to reports.
Autonomous 3D printing is faster and more precise than manual construction. It can also maximize building strength and efficiency by placing material only where it’s needed, and it simplifies planning and logistics. Buildings can be printed layer by layer for more complex shapes, an industry expert is quoted to have said.
Certainly, printed buildings which takes up a much shorter construction period could be the next big thing in construction. Although robots building a house is still at an experimental stage, scientists believe we will reach a stage where autonomous machines could assemble entire towns. The best thing is it will significantly bring down costs and reduce construction risks.
2. Drones – ‘Best thing after aeroplanes’
This is perhaps one of the best ever inventions after aeroplanes and is a lifesaver in the construction industry. Equipped with sophisticated cameras, it can be used to survey tall buildings or any tall structures or hard to reach places such as rooftops. This effectively saves lives and time as it does away with the risk of a human climbing up onto the roof, etc. With taller buildings, drones will become more commonly employed. Prices of drones are falling too while its functions are getting more sophisticated.
Regulations aside, drones will become a fixture in the construction industry. Concept drones carrying passengers are already under development and it’s only a matter of time before drones carrying humans are able to do the same thing drones without humans are doing now – only more effectively as the human can undertake more work while flying on a drone.
3. Virtual Reality – A reality now
When integrated into BIM and computer-aided design (CAD), architects, construction experts, contractors and developers will be able to experience more realistic and detailed renderings. Currently, it’s being used more as a marketing tool for luxury properties – eventually, property portals will incorporate it into all listed properties thus enabling immersive remote viewings/experiences.
4. The Cloud and real time data – Integrated
Real time progress at construction sites can now be monitored using Cloud and real-time data via hand-held devices such as mobile phones. Though not something new this year, it has helped to automate some of the work including automatically generating invoices and payments once a particular job is done.
No matter how much cost and time-saving the innovations are, the construction industry worldwide is one of the slowest to adopt new innovations. The reasons are several (according to participants of a recent symposium organised by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and the World Economic Forum):
Resilient buildings – The useful life of a building is extremely resilient. Buildings are built to last a minimum of 50 years and despite the lifts getting old, etc, the building can still be occupied. Hence, there is little incentive to integrate it with a lot of high tech features, nor use the latest technology to build it.
Mindset of the builders – Architects and contractors are still used to the old ways of building and it will take some time before the next generation takes over and starts adopting all the high tech.
Regulations – The over-regulated construction industry will need a mindset overhaul to get rid of bureaucratic red tape and draft new rules to regulate a high-tech building environment. The ULI/WEF symposium noted that “bureaucratic inertia is the invisible hand inhibiting change”. Hong Kong was cited as an example where the laws are not flexible enough to allow customization and alteration on the go unless an occupation permit is issued.
Notwithstanding the obstacles, with Millennials becoming the next generation of property buyers, demand from them for more sophisticated, holistic and more affordable offerings from developers at a speedier pace may well be the hand that forces stakeholders in the industry to adopt high tech. That should probably happen within the next 10 years or earlier.