How computer wizardry could save Britain’s real estate industry. By Marco Abdallah

Construction sits at a crossroads between the old world and a new digital frontier.

The sector is completely reliant on boots on the ground — workers to get the job done. They are so important that, for years now, the industry has agonised over Brexit and the threat that a sudden exodus of mainly eastern European workers would have on our collective ability to carry on building.

Britain’s lack of home-grown workers also compounds the problem; the industry has remained a largely unattractive sector for young British people to engage in, which is why we are so dependent on looking beyond our shores.

Even with the enormous technological advancements made over the past century, construction is still reliant on people. In other industries – car manufacturing, for example – mechanisation, automation and robotics have made many jobs redundant; their roles easily fulfillable by a robotic arm on an assembly line.

Although the sight of hi-vis-clad workers toiling away on-sites will remain a common one, for now, the advent of new technology, including artificial intelligence, will gradually make its dent on those numbers.

In terms of how engineers plan and design buildings, things are beginning to move at a faster pace. In the 90s, we were designing buildings on paper, then we moved to digital 2D drawings using CAD, later 3D models and now we work with BIM.

Soon, artificial intelligence (AI) will become a powerful and necessary tool in designing buildings. To keep pace with the demand for such software and technology, a host of new and well-paid jobs will be in demand. Many will be software engineers specialising in code for the construction industry, while others will be AI experts working with smart buildings and advanced simulation programs.

Energy plus
The Energy Design team of Drees & Sommer were pioneers in the early days of building simulation back in 1986, using simple mathematical models to assess energy demand. Today, we are using advanced building simulation models in which a virtual building is exposed to different weather conditions and use scenarios. The resulting information can be used to predict future room climate and occupant comfort – as well as the future energy demand of the building.

Such tools allow us to develop high performance buildings, such as the Townhall in Freiburg. The building was designed as a plus-energy building, producing more energy than it consumes. The key to achieving this was using a dynamic building simulation to analyse performance throughout the design phase. Upon completion of Town Hall Freiburg, the first energy meter reading confirmed the accuracy of our modelling.

However, an even higher degree of precision could be provided through the use of artificial intelligence, whereby user behaviour and special environmental scenarios can be addressed more accurately; how many times will a particular person boil the kettle to make a cup of tea? How many times do they use a conference room? AI in building operation can also help predict these actions and redirect energy, sending it to where it is needed and switching off appliances, lighting, ventilation and equipment where it is not. This is already a reality at ‘cube berlin’, one of Europe’s most technologically advanced buildings, which Drees & Sommer consulted on. Operational carbon emissions, as in those emissions created after a building is constructed and while it is in use, can be greatly minimised when an AI ‘brain’ is in control.

Most buildings are designed for ‘worst-case’ scenarios; for example, the amount of air that is required to be supplied into a room is based on the maximum possible number of users inside a particular room at any one time. Heat sensors connected to an AI ‘brain’, however, can detect the overall user density within a room and adjust the air flow accordingly – pumping more air when there are more people and reducing airflow when there are fewer. To go further, AI could even help in the prevention of disease spread. This could be possible through heat sensors detecting whether there are too many people in a room at any one time and the AI ‘brain’ sending push notifications to some requesting that they move to a less busy area.

New roles
AI and new digital technology’s implications for working life on building sites themselves are slightly further away for now, but profound changes are afoot. Blueprints and schematics that are ubiquitous in the hands of foremen and site managers will become a relic of the past and give way to the enormous potential of Augmented Reality (AR). Today, we are already employing the technology for quality assurance purposes by using iPads to depict in real-time where pipes or other building components should be, compared to where they actually are installed. In the future, it’s easy to predict this technology being used in the construction process itself, taking the form of AR goggles worn by workers to demonstrate precisely where building materials need to go — down to the last brick.

But with the proliferation of modular construction, bricks themselves may too become a thing of the past. Modular construction allows for huge sections of buildings to be manufactured off-site and simply slotted into place – a streamlined process that ultimately requires fewer workers on-site.

Fewer labourers on-site doesn’t necessarily mean fewer jobs to go around — though it might mean fewer lower-skilled positions form part of the mix. Instead, new technologies like Artificial Intelligence will generate swathes of new roles that hitherto had little overlap with the construction industry. Perhaps, then, with Britain struggling to cobble together the manpower it needs on-site as it is, reducing our reliance on boots on the ground is no bad thing as we instead embrace welcoming new professionals into the sector.

Marco Abdallah is Head of Engineering at Drees & Sommer UK. The leading European consulting, planning and project management enterprise, Drees & Sommer has supported private and public clients and investors for 50 years in all aspects of real estate and infrastructure – both analogue and digital. The company’s 3700 employees in 43 locations around the world work in interdisciplinary teams to provide support for clients from a wide variety of sectors.

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