Last edited 06 Feb 2017

Smart construction

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‘Smart’ is an ambiguous word that is increasingly applied to almost anything that is seen as new, innovative, or improved.

The term 'smart buildings' might be used to describe buildings with automated systems or wireless technologies, whilst 'smart cities' are defined in PAS 180: 2014 as '...the effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens.' However, these definitions have been criticised for focussing too much on technology, and it has been suggested that this is because the ‘smart’ agenda is, to a large extent, driven by technology suppliers.

The term ‘smart construction’ is similarly vague.

The fundamentals of construction have not changed significantly since the time of the Romans. We still use concrete, timber, glass and bricks and activities on site are often entirely manual, particularly on small projects. Construction is continually criticised for being inefficient, fragmented and slow to innovate, with two-thirds of contractors not innovating at all. It is suggested that research rarely influences practice and that construction has not kept up with advances in other industries.

However, there is an increasing belief that newly-available technologies and changes in working practices could now bring about real change. This belief has been brought about in particular by; the adoption of Building Information Modelling (BIM), the promotion of more collaborative working practices, and improvements in off-site manufacturing.

In July 2013, the Government published: ‘Construction 2025, Industrial Strategy: government and industry in partnership’, setting out its long-term vision for ‘…how industry and Government will work together to put Britain at the forefront of global construction’. This proposed that by 2025, the industry should be ‘smart’, that is, ‘…an industry that is efficient and technologically advanced’.

The report suggests that in the coming years, technological advances, and the emergence of new capabilities such as the internet of things ‘… will drive a step change in how we build and how our built environment operates. Crucial to this is the emergence of new technologies in sensors and data management that will become embedded in our assets, enabling performance to be constantly monitored and thereby driving substantial efficiency gains in facilities and asset management..’

It argues that live data will give us a better understanding of performance during construction and operation, resulting in ‘…smarter designs, requiring less material, reducing carbon and needing less labour for construction’.

The report proposes that there is a need to ensure UK construction is at the vanguard of what it describes as ‘smart construction and digital design’, by:

  • Working to remove barriers to innovation.
  • Bringing forward more research and innovation.
  • Improve collaboration between industry, academia and research organisations.
  • Capturing lessons learned from successful innovations.
  • Improving access to innovation and R&D incentives.
  • Investing in people and technology and making better use of existing technologies.
  • Using BIM to deliver more sustainable buildings, more quickly and more efficiently.
  • Adopting off-site manufacturing, which has the potential to achieve greater precision and quality and reduced manufacture and assembly time, halving waste and using 25% less energy.
  • Adopting collaborative practices.

NB The Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction at the University of Cambridge, jointly funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), develops and commercialises technologies to promote radical change in the construction and management of infrastructure. It focuses on sensor and data management coupled with emerging best practice in manufacturing and supply chain management.

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