AU Focus: The Future of Construction

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With the global population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, we’re facing a growing need for new buildings and infrastructure.  

You can look at the numbers from many angles: You could say that we’ll need to build 13,000 buildings a day every year and enough roads and rail to wrap around the earth 30 times. You could say that we’ll need to construct 2.5 trillion square feet of new architecture—the equivalent of building a new New York City every month. Or you could say that if we continue building the way we do today, we’ll need 1.7 Earths to provide all the required resources and space.  

Compounding these issues is the reality that construction productivity has lagged other industries. Since 1970, manufacturing productivity increased 800%, while one study showed that construction productivity fell by 40%. To add to the challenge, the construction workforce is aging—an estimated 33% of the labor force, many of whom are among the most highly skilled workers, will retire over the next five years. 

There’s little debate that we need to build better. But what does that mean? It means connecting construction processes—the data, people, and workflows—taking building information that’s generated upstream in design and ensuring that it’s more consumable downstream for construction, then operations. That requires a unified platform and a Common Data Environment (CDE).  

And it means applying manufacturing principles to the built environment—in other words, industrializing construction, because when we produce building components in the factory, we can optimize processes and apply Lean principles. It means productizing those building components, so that defined products and assemblies can be used across multiple projects, enabling building designers to design with those products in mind. That in turn allows us to design with certainty—improving predictability and reducing waste and rework through the entire process.  

Multiple industry leaders stepped into the Theater at AU 2023 to share their ideas and their innovations that can help us develop the construction practices of the future.  

Generating a Digital Kit-of-Parts for Housing in the U.K. 

Construction is fragmented in the UK—there's no common language that's being used between manufacturers of building components and architectural designers. With manufacturers having no clarity on performance or the geometry of components needed and designers not knowing the limitations of the various industrialized construction systems that are out there, the construction sector is at odds a lot of the time. 

Building on previous research, Katie Rudin and the team from Akerlof are creating a digital kit-of-parts for housing at the request of the UK government. This digital kit-of-parts will create a clear and consistent language for the specifications, performance, and geometries of home components, including the walls, floors, windows, roofs, and doors. And having this shared language will mean that they can reduce miscommunication and costly mistakes. 

The digital kit-of-parts will be open-access, so that the whole industry is sharing and communicating in the same way. The standard data templates that will sit within it mean that metadata and standard data classifications can be used alongside the digital kit-of-parts, allowing it to plug into current and future technologies. Ultimately, it means designers will spend less time on costly design changes and will use the specifications of manufactured solutions from the earliest parts of the design process. Manufacturers will be able to invest in their factories because there'll be more certainty in what they need to produce. 

Our Common Data Environment Journey 

As manager for project information on the Lofton Link project, a new railway line construction project with five stations in Hong Kong, Hanson Chan was responsible for implementation of a Common Data Environment (CDE) for the project. In fact, the adoption of a CDE is mandatory for all project team members working on new projects for his company, Hong Kong-based MTR. Everyone on an MTR project has to commit to work in the CDE, and since 2021, more than 2,000 users have joined.  

Implementing the technology was only part of the challenge—it quickly became clear that they needed to create a culture of collaboration and sharing information to adapt. That meant encouraging open communication and setting common goals. They organized workshops, training sessions, and discussion forums to build a collaborative culture. 

It's made the work smoother, allowed them to capture data in real time, and made it easier to share information with everyone in the project. They can see how each state of the project is progressing, track project issues, and can approve submissions, all in one platform. By building the CDE, Chan’s team has empowered collaboration and streamlined workflows, which has led to more successful projects. 

Raising Construction’s Collective “TQ” (Technology Quotient) 

You’ve heard of IQ (“intelligence quotient”), but what about TQ (“technology quotient”)? Shelly Brown, CIO of Burns & McDonnell, defines TQ as the ability to use technology to make a difference. And in the construction sector, she says, TQ is lower than ever, with 80% of construction businesses having only a beginning level of data maturity. Today, the average construction manager still spends over a day and a half each week just looking for data necessary to do their job. 

People have the capacity and willingness to improve and increase their TQ, but they often need a trigger or the desire to do so. Raising TQ requires everyone to make better technology decisions that are driven by the business outcomes that they're trying to achieve. With a low TQ, people lack the digital judgment around the life cycle of technology and the necessary human interaction support and financial investment that it requires to actually get the ROI that your business case requires.  

One of the problems, Brown points out, is that no one wants to or has time anymore to go sit in multi-day classes to learn a whole new platform. Instead, the idea is to be able to learn in the moment at that point in time. Most people just need a question answered or a feature explained, not necessarily an entire week or month of training. So, ultimately, this will help us raise our collective TQ. It means that “learning is the job” for all of us—especially those who work in construction.  


Building Our Future ​with Industrialized Construction 

Industrialized construction techniques have existed for decades but have yet to be widely adopted. The challenge? Finding the right balance between standardization and customization. Essentially, it's a balancing act between specificity and scalability. Add to that a maze of ever-changing regulations and standards that require meticulous attention to ensure safety and code compliance in every project and the slow rate of adoption makes sense.  

Fope Bademosi and Magda Kowalczyk share their prototype for a modular wooden floor cassette section with an embedded HVAC system, helping to show us a path forward where buildings and infrastructure can be constructed more quickly at lower cost. That's the promise of industrialized construction. 


Learn more about the possibilities for connected construction and industrialized construction anytime with AU year-round learning.