A digitized, resource-efficient and resilient built environment

Author: Dr Seyed Ghaffar, PhD, CEng, MICE, MICT, FHEA

Digitalization of processes and products to improve efficiency and sustainability within the built environment is at forefront of every stakeholder’s agenda involved in the sector. The built environment sector has much less research and development (R&D) for implementing innovation compared to other parts of the economy due to many construction projects being bespoke, not repeated and having very tight margins. Nevertheless, this sector has been innovating to try and differentiate itself though individual projects, rather than strategic innovation for the market.

Further R&D, on how contemporary digital production and process digitization can be driven forward, in a way that can make the built environment sector more sustainable, low carbon and near zero waste could be the key to realizing its transformation. Government funding to enable the relevant stakeholders to come together and investigate the longer-term strategic transformations required is extremely important, such as the Construction Innovation Hub and Active Building Centre , funded by UK Research and Innovation.

We still need to encourage stakeholders to develop innovative solutions that can be deployed across multiple projects and multiple parts of the sector. Moving from project-based innovations to strategic market-based innovations is where success can be achieved in a digitized, resource-efficient, and resilient built environment.

Some examples of what future solutions should provide

Stakeholders should join forces and form consortiums to propose and define projects with targets and milestones based on a transformative mind-set, backed up by appropriate investments. To push sustainability, for instance, the focus should be on developing new concepts, methods, and digital tools to realize higher levels of reuse, recycling, refurbishing, as well as the recovery of secondary raw materials. However, deciding which approach will deliver the best return on investment is not always easy. Innovation management could help to reduce the time spent on trial and error to find the most optimised solution.

New solutions could enable reuse and high-quality recycling by introducing traceability through the digitalization of product and component information throughout the whole product life cycle. Additionally, supportive solutions and tools for engineers, technicians, and operators on the factory floor can help with a sustainable and responsive production environment. Such an environment focuses on areas such as material saving and reuse of products and components. The support tools needed to work with the user: training, knowledge transfer, cognitive interfaces, as well as acceptance and uptake are essential in the successful adoption of such solutions.

Another attractive concept which can contribute to improved efficiency in the built environment is the development of a digital map of the supply chain, combined with the use of advanced analytics, and simulations that enables organizations to better understand and manage their risks and opportunities. Effective resource selection and management throughout the entire supply chain requires mutually aggregated situational awareness among the different stakeholders.

Collaborative business relationships can help in such a fragmented environment where different resources at different phases are being stimulated simultaneously. Information needs to be leveraged to create the best option in terms of capital cost, material resilience, circularity, Green House Gas (GHG) emissions and operational costs for any given construction project. The fragmentation process in traditional contracting practices hinders the integration of construction knowledge among contractors, which in turn limits the opportunity for them to influence design decisions.

To eliminate fragmentation, the use of information management processes, such as those within the ISO 19650 series, can be a solution where various stakeholders and chain members have access to a shared repository of information. Digitalized materials and component inventory can be used to establish a proactive building impact assessment platform. This will assist the supply chain to access useful information and validate practical and technical feasibility across the entire asset life cycle. <br />

One of the biggest challenges for the newly developed technologies and solutions is their mass adoption in practice. Breakthrough technologies face the reluctance of designers and planners in their implementation in projects. Better information flow will surely lead to larger and faster adoption of newly developed solutions.
The built environment sector was already experiencing an unprecedented rate of disruption before the COVID-19 pandemic. In the coming years, fundamental transformation is likely to accelerate by changes in the market, such as skilled labour scarcity, constant cost pressure from infrastructure and affordable housing, stricter regulations on work-site sustainability and safety, and evolving complexity and the needs of clients.

Dr. Ghaffar is an Associate Professor of Civil Engineering. He is a Chartered Civil Engineer, a Member of the Institute of Concrete Technology and a Fellow of Higher Education Academy. He has authored more than 50 peer-reviewed journal papers and recently edited a book titled "Innovation in construction". He has been successful in attracting research grants of circa £6 million on 8 projects funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, British Council and the European Commission.

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