Construction future

 Professor David Carmichael (left) and Dr Johnson Shen (right)The construction industry is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and is one of the biggest consumers of planetary materials. In Australia our large construction industry (in 2016 the industry accounted for 7.64% of GDP) is struggling to deal with an ever-increasing number of constraints, affecting costs and performance. There are some good reasons for this: secure safety requirements, rigorous environmental legislation and regulated wages are just three of a raft of contributing factors. We can be proud of these laws and would not want to see them weakened. But a widespread industry view is that Australia is an expensive place to deliver infrastructure.

So what are the solutions? How can we improve industry productivity while extending real benefits to society? If sustainability is truly important, what does it actually mean and how can it be achieved while improving construction productivity? How can we reduce inefficiency and waste? How can we adopt new technologies without losing sight of relationships and people?

The widely quoted Brundtland Report tells us that sustainable construction is: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” CVEN Professor, David Carmichael, believes sustainable infrastructure is based on the three pillars of economic, social and environmental considerations. In the past, economic considerations have dominated and, in some areas, continue to do so, but the balance is improving and environmental concerns, especially, are having an increased importance.

One of the great challenges for the future of the Australian construction industry is how to align productivity and sustainability as complementary concepts and ambitions. How do we make genuine environmental and social statements rather than just window dressing? 

Off-site manufacturing is one solution that can help change construction. Modular building components, created in controlled workshop conditions, can reduce building costs while also reducing in-situ problems such as noise, pollution and traffic disruption. These components can be made safely, reducing the everyday dangers of construction work, while simultaneously increasing control over price, quality and timing without sacrificing creativity, individuality or design flexibility.

Some believe this is the future of construction. Innovative financiers across the globe are supporting this business model. Recently the New York Times reported about the astoundingly rapid growth of Katerra which “over just three years, has grown from a start-up with an unusual approach to the construction industry into a company with $1.3 billion in bookings.” In Australia, companies such as Strongbuild are promoting sustainable offsite manufacture of hybrid timber structures.

CVEN Associate Professor Hamid Vali Pour is working in partnership with industry to research these new composites and develop the expertise that will drive this business forward. CVEN introduced, in 2017, a new fourth year course: Sustainable Timber Engineering. With direct industry input from CVEN alumnus Lisa Thom, this course has stimulated interest among students who can see the benefits of building with timber. As Professor Vali Pour says “Timber is the only truly sustainable construction material because it can sequester carbon during its service life. No other construction material will do that.”

How do we align productivity and sustainability as complementary concepts and ambitions?

Professor David Carmichael

In a streamlined construction cycle, manufacturing sites are integrated with work sites through digital solutions. Buildings are becoming data gathering devices with in-built smart sensors, robotics are becoming more and more common for jobsite applications and developments in artificial intelligence (AI) make ‘robots’ more and more ‘thoughtful’. Every onsite worker can be positioned with geospatial technologies and can be connected to every other worker. The Internet of Things (IoT) makes every device with an on/off button connected into a grand web of data.

These digital technologies are a trend or maybe even a revolution. Dr Johnson Shen, from CVEN, believes that these innovations are a great driver for efficiency and sustainability. “Maybe construction has been lagging behind other industries in productivity but it is these digital innovations that will solve this problem.”

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is a ‘hot topic’. It is the process through which all data, for the whole life of an asset, is managed to provide detailed information and visualisation. It often involves 3D digital modelling that was not possible before the introduction of laser scanning (Lidar). Now Lidar has been linked with un-manned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to create a new horizon that slashes surveying time and removes humans from dangerous surveying tasks. It also helps ameliorate the shortage of registered surveyors, who can now spend their time and use their expertise analysing and interpreting data instead of gathering it.

With all these changes in technology and materials, construction needs to look at the bigger picture of how these innovations create real benefit. How can the service life of the built environment be increased, thereby reducing obsolescence and the need for demolition in the future? Sometimes engineers need to speak up and make some noise in a world driven by profit.

Professor Carmichael believes that to ensure a more sustainable construction future, the industry must adopt built-in adaptability. “With ingenuity we can inject adaptability into houses, apartment blocks, factories, offices, roads, seawalls, bridges ….. Adaptability may incur an extra initial cost and while this might be a barrier, it is a sustainability necessity. The added social and environmental benefits increase whole value, and how engineers negotiate this is a skill which needs to be taught at the undergraduate level.”