Innovation and efficiency post Covid-19

17 December 2020
The unprecedented uptake of digital solutions during the pandemic lockdown could open the door to wider use of technology in construction

This article is extracted from the report 'UAE Construction After Covid-19'

Covid-19 could be an event that “tips the industry over to increased productivity and better project outcomes driven by technology”, says Richard Humphrey, vice-president of construction product management at US-headquartered Bentley Systems.

Already under pressure to deliver projects at a low cost, the Covid-19 pandemic is forcing contractors and consultants to find efficiencies both at the construction phase of a development and in running costs for the end-user.

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But despite the availability of technological solutions to many of the efficiency issues facing the sector, such as incomplete, badly specified designs, poor communication and a lack of collaboration, the construction industry in the region has shown resistance to innovation. 

“There needs to be a catalyst for change,” says Humphrey, “for the industry to realise that the value of changing the way we work is done via technology adoption.” 

With the unprecedented uptake of digital solutions for remote working and online education during the lockdown, the Covid-19 crisis could be the event that drives this change.

One common contributing factor to project overruns is starting construction with incomplete and poorly-specified designs.

This practice, typically demanded by real estate clients wanting to open their properties as early as possible, leads to errors and costly design changes during construction. Estimates for the cost of rework on projects range from 6 to 15 per cent of the total budget. 

BIM technology

In recent years, the region’s construction industry has seen a rapid increase in the use of building information modelling (BIM) technology on projects, and many people say BIM is the key to eliminating some of the problems in the industry.       

BIM provides a central design platform that can be accessed by stakeholders throughout the lifecycle of a project to improve communication and collaboration, minimise clashes, highlight errors at an early stage and streamline scheduling and procurement. But BIM technology does not just deliver better efficiency. 

With ongoing social distancing measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, contractors may have to reduce the number of workers on site. Using 3D modelling along with drones and sensors to enable virtual inspection, progress tracking and site monitoring along with collaboration platforms can allow more staff to work remotely. 

“This practice will drive efficiencies,” says Humphrey, “as the cost of maintaining a large staff on the job site is reduced and activities are instead coordinated with the use of live feeds from the field linked to digital models, providing real-time data in the context of the project with site maps and 4D models.”

In conjunction with 3D building models, software can be used to simulate crowd movement, analyse foot traffic and optimise space utilisation to create an environment that minimises overcrowding and limits the spread of infection. 

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Manufactured solutions

Another major cause of inefficiency in construction is the use of overcomplicated, bespoke designs. This can lead to errors, over-ordering and additional man-hours on site.

The solution is to be found in modular construction. The concept of prefabricating repeat elements taps in to the efficient, streamlined processes of the manufacturing industry and can see the off-site production of key construction components such as structural columns, services pods or completely fitted-out building units, which can be then be transported to site and assembled quickly, using less manpower and with less material waste.

Modular construction processes are increasingly being used across the region as a quick and efficient way to provide the housing, schools, medical facilities and infrastructure urgently required by the region’s rapidly growing population. The Covid-19 crisis could accelerate the use of this cost and labour-saving building method.

As the region emerges from the Covid-19 crisis, health and welfare concerns for construction workers and for building occupants will become a competing priority. Social distancing measures, air quality concerns and remote working will test the construction industry’s capacity to adapt and evolve.

“Climate change forced us to start adopting sustainable design. And now Covid-19 has highlighted the vital importance of health,” says Ghassan Nimry, director at local engineering advisory firm Eco-Structures International. 

The disruptive influence of climate change and now Covid-19, is increasing demand for new technology, particularly in the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) sector, where manufacturers have been quick
to innovate. 

Sweden’s TermoDeck, for example, has developed an HVAC design that uses the thermal mass of hollow-core concrete slabs that it says can reduce the AC chiller requirement of a building by 50 per cent. 

Not only does this makes a building more efficient to run, says TermoDeck, but it increases the fresh air component in a building’s air mix. The concrete core interior is alkaline, which inhibits microbe growth and a filtration unit can purify the entire air volume.

“We see this crisis as a perfect opportunity to rethink old practices and employ efficient and creative ways to improve how we build so that we can live better and healthier,” says Nimry. “We see this market absorbing the shock but emerging stronger and leaner. A few conservative developers and their architects and engineers will take a wait-and-see approach. 

“But the innovative developers will take the first-mover advantage and build for this new paradigm combining sustainability and health.”

This report is produced under the MEED Mashreq Construction Partnership. To learn more about the report or the partnership, log on to: www.meedmashreqindustryinsight.com

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