22 August 2019

Architects Zone

The Coming Digital Revolution in Building Design, Construction and Operations


The building and construction industry remains one of the least digitized in the world [Agarwal et al, 2016]. However, numerous efforts are currently underway that are slowly beginning to change the way we design, construct and operate our buildings. These efforts have been made possible by the advent of digital technologies that are set to reinvent much of the way the industry currently functions. This article takes a look at some of current technological trends in building design, construction and operation and how they are driving change. 



Building Information Modeling (BIM)


BIM is an intelligent 3D model-based process that gives architecture, engineering, and construction professionals the insight and tools to more efficiently plan, design, construct, and manage operations of the built infrastructure[Autodesk, 2018].BIM is not just a technology; rather it is a technology and a process. From a technology point of view, BIM can be thought of as the next stage of evolution from traditional CAD drawings that were treated as a collection of points and lines; a BIM model can be considered as a collection of objects that form a virtual representation of their real-world components, with requisite information about its various characteristics.




For example, one component within a BIM model could be window objects, which contains geometry that represents that product’s physical characteristics, as well as the detailed information that defines the product. The promise of BIM is that it can enable greater project collaboration, promote better communication between stakeholders in a project, eliminate inefficiencies and redundancies in the construction process, and act as a tool to manage a facility over its entire lifecycle. Autodesk Revit and TeklaBIMsight are some of the popular BIM software currently available.




• Building Performance Simulation (BPS)


BPS is the process of using modeling software to predict building performance on a variety of aspects such as new building and retrofit energy performance, code compliance, green certifications, requirements for tax credits and utility incentives. BPS programs used for energy use predictions typically take as inputs the description of a building geometry, material specifications, lighting, HVAC, component efficiencies, etc. They then use local weather data to calculate thermal loads and resulting energy use and energy costs. Architects thus use BPS to understand the impacts of material, system and design choices on performance, allowing for architects and designers to optimize these choices to create more high-performance buildings. Modeling software for BPS has grown increasingly powerful and more reliable over the past decade, to the point where they are now commonly used in design and engineering firms.




• Parametric Design


Parametric design is the creation of a digital model of a building based on a series of pre-programmed rules or algorithms known as 'parameters' [Designing Buildings, 2017]. Whereas a traditional building model is a straightforward representation of a building, a parametric model is defined by rules and constraints, which define aspects of the building and their relationships to each other[Katz]. Changing a rule or constraint, or modifying a part of the model itself, often has implications for the entire model. One example could be a parametric model of a staircase, that can automatically adjust tread and riser specifications to meet code when changing width.




The enabling software technologies for parametric design have gotten more powerful and capable in the past few years. Some of the leading parametric design software is, Grasshopper, a graphical algorithm editor integrated with the CAD software Rhino, and Dynamo, which is integrated with Autodesk Revit. Parametric design has been used for form finding, to generate new and unusual designs, such as in the Guangzhou Opera House in Guangzhou, China and the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain. Numerous efforts are currently underway to increase the functionality of parametric design by effectively linking it to BPS technologies.




• Augmented & Virtual Reality


Augmented reality (AR) is a live or a copied view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input [Yoders, 2018]. Virtual Reality (VR), on the other hand, replaces the real world with a simulated one. The use of AR and VR are rapidly gaining traction within building design and construction for a number of applications. Prof. Ramaswamy at the Faculty of Architecture, Manipal Academy of Higher Education has established a VR facility for the students to visualize how the addition of element would look within a space and to experience what a building design would feel like, as opposed to using static images or animations viewed on a computer screen. Dr. Deepika Shetty, Director at Faculty of Architecture, Manipal has provided a platform for extensive use of digital technologies like above and also latest green building technologies to be included in the design studios and syllabus to prepare strong professionals in the design and construction Industry. The use of AR & VR goes beyond just visualizations, for example, efforts are underway to use BIM data in VR applications to improve collaboration and coordination between different stakeholders in a project.





• Robotics


While the construction industry is still heavily driven by human labor, numerous efforts are underway to automate many of the on-site tasks to primarily improve productivity or make job sites safer for human labor. Two commercially available examples of robots on site are the Semi-Automated Mason or SAM, a brick laying robot designed and engineered by Construction Robotics; and the Husqvarna DXR remote controlled demolition robot. It is likely that the use of robotic technologies will make inroads in the near future for a limited range of tasks on construction sites. More widespread use will however likely require rethinking and reimagining of the entire construction process itself.




• 3D Printing


3D printing (also called additive manufacturing) is the process of creating a three-dimensional object using additive material laying processes. Typically, this process involves inputting a digital file of the object into the printing machine, which lays down successive layers of material until the desired shape is created. The interest in 3D printing lies around its primary benefits of speed and cost effectiveness. However, the use of 3D printing in construction is still very nascent. Numerous efforts are underway in formulating the right materials that are amenable to the printing process and provide desired functionality for use in a building application. Robotic 3D printers are slowly starting to emerge as the technology of choice for enabling 3D printed construction for large scale projects.




• 3D Laser Scanning


3D laser scanning is a technology that digitally captures the shape of physical objects using lines of laser light. It allows for the easy and rapid capture of the shape and dimensions of a room or even an entire building, removing to a large degree human error from the surveying process and enabling significantly large amounts of data to be collected over a short period of time. 3D laser scanning creates ‘point clouds’ of data that can form a digital representation of an object. This data can be fed into a BIM software to create a full-fledged model of the space or the building that was scanned.




• Prefabricated Construction 


Prefabricated construction (also referred to as offsite construction or modular construction) involves the assembly of building components within a controlled environment, and then shipping these components to the job site where they are pieced together to create the building. The concept of prefabricated construction has existed over many decades but has experienced a growing interest in the past couple of years with a number of startup companies entering this arena. The degree of prefabrication can range from a wall assembly to complete room modules, with built-in finishes. Prefabricated buildings can overcome challenges of accuracy and error, as they are largely assembled within a factory setting. Prefabricated construction approach minimizes weather related delays in construction. Digital technologies such as BIM are proving to be a key enabler of the new wave of prefabricated buildings that are emerging.




• Construction Management Software


Sequencing and managing construction processes can be a significant challenge, which is why there has been a growing interest on the part of construction companies on the use of construction management software. Construction management software, are project management tools designed specifically for construction professionals [Finances Online]. Software capabilities can range from cost estimating to project tracking. Benefits of using construction management software include better document control, and more efficient service delivery, among others.



• Drones


A drone essentially is an unmanned aircraft, which can be remotely controlled or able to operate autonomously. Using drone technology allows for the aerial capture of data on a construction site. This allows for easier generation of maps, tracking construction progress, and for gathering other measurements to support better project planning. Drones have also been used to perform inspections on existing buildings, speeding up the process, and reducing the need for manual labor. Drones can be outfitted with a variety of data capture devices, to quickly collect, aggregate, analyze and deliver highly accurate and highly detailed data.




• Wearables


Wearables refer to technologies that can be incorporated into items of clothing and accessories which can comfortably be worn on the body. These can range from sensors that track worker safety to Augmented Reality (AR) devices. Depending upon the specific capabilities of the wearable device being used, they are being utilized for a number of purposes. For example, ‘smart vests’ with inbuilt tracking and health monitoring devices are being used to improve worker safety. ‘Smart Glasses’ with inbuilt AR capabilities are being used for worker training and troubleshooting. 




• Exoskeletons


Exoskeletons are devices that are worn on the human body to help augment or reinforce performance. They can be entirely passive (requiring no power input to provide augmentation) to active (having motors or other devices for augmentation that would require continuous power inputs). Exoskeletons can also be outfitted with sensors and controllers, allowing them to receive and process data, similar to how a human body operates. They are making inroads into construction sites to helps ease the physical burden on workers and improve worker safety.






• Smart Buildings


A ‘Smart Building’ is a catch all term used to describe that incorporates the use of different hardware and software technologies to achieve response and automation. For example, a smart building could better modulate the conditioning of spaces to ensure increased thermal comfort for the occupants, while minimizing energy use. It could track occupants as they enter and exit the building, and also move through the interior spaces, to achieve better security and safety. The concept of smart buildings is being increasingly embraced by numerous owners and developers as a means to drive operational value through these benefits. The grand vision for smart buildings is

ultimately to become more aware of the humans that inhabit them, which will shape the way we live, work and play [Stratton, 2017]



• Artificial Intelligence (AI)& Machine Learning (ML)


AI and ML are often used interchangeably, however, they are not the same. AI refers to a broad concept of imbibing machines with the capability to mimic ‘intelligent’ behavior. ML is a subset of AI that uses different types of algorithms that are capable of parsing data, learning from it, and then making a determination or prediction [McClelland, 2017]. ML is being increasingly deployed for a variety of buildings-related applications- fault detection and fault prediction in large HVAC systems is one such example. As building control software get more advanced, they will increasingly use ML to learn from data and be able to predict scenarios in order to make decisions autonomously, without the need for constant human intervention. The use of AI and ML is not restricted to building operations; efforts are underway to integrate AI into robotic equipment and drones, allowing them to process data and make decisions autonomously.




• Internet of Things (IoT)


Broadly speaking, IoT is used to describe the idea of connecting everyday physical objects to the internet, and enabling them to identify themselves, and also communicate with other devices. One buildings related example is that of a ‘smart lock’ that communicates to a user via a smart phone app and can be locked or unlocked through this means. The use of IoT devices is expected to explode in the coming years. The use of these devices is going to have tremendous impact on how we operate buildings. For examples, buildings can be outfitted with hundreds of wireless sensors that could continuously gather data on conditions within a space (e.g. temperature, relative humidity, lighting, occupancy, etc.). This data can be relayed to control software on a real time basis, allowing for making quicker decisions that would improve operational efficiency.






Digital technologies will change how buildings are designed, constructed and operated within the coming decade. However, due to the fragmented and risk averse nature of the construction industry, this change will likely happen in a piecemeal manner. The use of these technologies is going to improve many of our existing processes, which have been long seen as inefficient and messy. Despite this, the technologies themselves should not be thought of as panacea. Their use will require a new set of skills on the part of the construction industry workforce and will usher in new kinds of challenges. So, what should design and construction professionals need to do to understand this change and prepare for the new future?




Firstly, there will be many lessons learnt through early adopters of these technologies, so their experiences need to be studied and analyzed for learning. New breeds of construction professionals will need to arise- architects who are trained in the use and application of computational design techniques, contractors who are able to operate robotic machinery, etc. Data privacy and cyber security, two issues that have not historically touched the construction industry will now need to take center stage with the adoption of these technologies.




Despite all of the inherent risks and challenges, we face the inevitable march towards greater adoption of digital technologies, and the more that construction professionals are actively engaged in understanding them during these early phases, the more we stand a chance of shaping a positive and a sustainable future for the design and construction industry.






Dr. Ajith Rao is a Senior Researcher with the Building Science & Technology Commercialization group at USG Corporation, a leading North American building materials manufacturer, located in Chicago.  Dr.Pradeep Kini is a Professor at Faculty of Architecture, MAHE. He is an architect with more than 16 years of experience on a wide variety of architectural design and construction projects in India and USA.

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