From raising large blocks of stone using pulleys to having powerful cranes lifting massive steel girders onto skyscrapers, construction technology has indeed come a long way. In particular, the rapid advancement of immersive and assistive construction technologies within the last decade has been a watershed moment. It has made the construction process more efficient, interactive, and ingrained with real world data, as never imagined before. Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and advanced data analytics can help build smarter cities driven by real-time data, functioning almost like a living organism. Buildings can then communicate with each other, with the user, as well as its surroundings, to improve livability, increase safety, and protect the natural environment. I will next, consider in detail how some of these technologies have enabled the industry to build with improved visualization and increased reliability.
The power of real-time collaboration
Increased complexity of buildings has led to progressively more specialized systems. Collaboration, more than ever before, has become a key component for success of any construction project. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) have enabled us to design and build in an immersive digital environment with instant visualization. VR is a powerful tool that offers a life-like experience by delving into virtual models using headsets. Design and construction teams can access the same computer-generated model simultaneously and conduct group charrettes. The VR experience today has been simplified toan extent that models can be viewed on smartphones while on the go. Its use as a collaboration tool can improve communication and accelerate the decision-making process.
Like VR, AR has revolutionized collaboration processes by allowing an overlay of 3D models or 2D plans onto construction sites. The software can identify missing components as well as inaccurate dimensions, which enables construction teams to detect errors earlier in the process and avoid future ramifications. Building Information Modelling (BIM) can provide a single source of coordinated and computable information in a model-based framework. Sharing real-time data with the project team allows for real time clash-detection and reduces scope for miscoordination. Contractors can use these computer-generated models for fabrication and installation as well.
Digital twins and Internet of Things
Digital twin, a digital replica of the physical building, gathers data through smart sensors to better analyze a physical structure. There has been a swift progress in our ability to use this technology during pre-construction for constructability assessments, inventory management and trial-and-error evaluations among others; all of which greatly benefit the outcome. Internet of Things (IoT) can control real world objects digitally and make our living environment more responsive. Use of drones can provide real-time imagery and supercharge the construction process by allowing for faster surveying, inspection, and surveillance of construction sites.
Time is money
It is known that reduction in construction time can reduce the overall project cost. Use of pre-fabrication has been particularly impactful in amplifying our ability to reduce construction time by digitally manufacturing portions of buildings. While it may have been commonplace to 3D-print, laser-cut or CNC-mill hardware or interior millwork, technology today is precise enough to digitally compute and manufacture portions of facades, building cores and structural systems off-site, in a fraction of time as compared to on-site construction. Taking this a notch further, modularization and standardization of components can allow for reduced installation time, material usage and waste. Complex projects are not so daunting anymore.
Accidents at construction sites are an interminable problem that the construction industry must deal with, especially now as we build towers and skyscrapers one after another. Here too, technology can help.
Wearables are transforming the ways we can maintain site safety, through use of connected hard hats (with cameras, microphones, and GPS), smart jackets and boots that alert workers of hazardous conditions. These devices allow workers to request help with just a tap and can be automatically triggered by impact.
Self-driving heavy equipment with perimeter sensor detection can reduce chances of mishaps due to overturning equipment. Drones can automate buildings’ exterior inspections, thus eliminating human trips and falls from unsecured perimeters. Chemical hazards such as discharged toxins, pipe leaks and presence of asbestos are other site-safety concerns. Frequently, workers are unable to see these and are forced to inhale them unknowingly. Just as smart sensors with built-in alarms can protect occupied buildings, they must be commissioned during the construction process as well to augment various site safety procedures.
Any planned alteration of the built environment requires well defined goals and keen foresight. The way we manage the process throughout the project’s lifecycle is critical to ensure success in the long term. In that regard, large advancements in tech-enabled solutions have empowered this process to be more efficient. BIM for instance, is useful not only in project design and construction, but also in management and operations. AI based management platforms can determine energy usage patterns to conserve energy and improve thermal comfort, while also monitoring leaks or malfunctions. These systems may come at a higher initial cost, but that must be evaluated against the long-term advantages of better quality, increased reliability, and reduced risks.
Saurabh Goenka is an AIA Licensed Architect and a LEED Accredited Professional. Currently practicing in New York as a Senior Associate at S9 Architecture, Saurabh has over a decade of experience leading prominent projects in complex urban environments. He is equally adept at using advanced digital technologies and has often leveraged their power not only to create beautiful buildings but also to ensure efficient construction and operations.
S9 Architecture (S9) is a New York-based architecture firm dedicated to designing spaces, buildings, and neighborhoods with a unique design approach rooted in ‘modern contextualism’ and inspired by urban narratives.