Last edited 11 Dec 2017

Smart construction

The term ‘smart’ is increasingly applied to a wide range of things that are seen as new, intelligent, integrated, innovative, or improved. For example:

  • The term 'smart buildings' (sometimes referred to as 'automated buildings', or 'intelligent buildings') might be used to describe buildings with automated systems or wireless technologies.
  • 'Smart' design has been described as design that includes a broader understanding of property portfolios, local areas, regions and cities.
  • '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, some of 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’ also has a wide range of interpretations and applications.

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 made 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.

Transforming Infrastructure Performance, published by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) in December 2017, offered a slightly different perspective, suggested that smart construction is synonymous with modern methods of construction (MMC) proposing that it '...offers the opportunity to transition from traditional construction to manufacturing, and unlock the benefits from standard, repeatable processes with components manufactured offsite.... with greater levels of activity taking place off site and increased levels of standardisation, underpinned by digital design and engineering.'

Smart construction.png

[Image from Transforming Infrastructure Performance. Original source Bryden Wood.]

It suggested that 'manufactured' smart construction ' not widely used, but offers the greatest opportunities to improve delivery efficiency and boost productivity. This approach enables high levels of customisation by developing and using standard components and assemblies, but follows production processes, embedding best practice from the manufacturing and automotive sectors into construction delivery.'

NB The Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction at the University of Cambridge, 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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