The pace at which new digital tools become available to architects, designers, engineers and other professionals in the built environment continues to increase at a rapid pace. Tighter deadlines and budgets combined with more demanding clients and increasingly complex projects means that using the appropriate technology is what continues to set successful companies apart. From artificial intelligence and virtual reality to 3D printing, online specification tools and other performance-based design tools, the only thing holding built environment professionals back is the speed at which they can adopt new solutions.

According to Mike Aldous, an associate at Mott MacDonald and African BIM champion scouting emerging tools and technologies to drive efficiency and optimisation, the construction industry is still lagging behind in terms of adopting new technologies. Productivity in manufacturing has almost doubled over the past 20 years in the US and the UK, according to an HIS study, but the construction curve remains flat.

“Large capital projects typically take 20% longer to finish than planned, are up to 80% over budget (considering the average percentage of revenues), and research and development spend in construction is very little compared to other industries,” says Mike.

The way architects design and present new projects over the next few years will change in a few ways, he continues. These are some of the top digital disruptors that you should take note of:

1. The Internet of Things and advanced analytics
Most of the infrastructure that the world needs has already been built. In South Africa, infrastructure funding mechanisms like the Division of Revenue Act, published annually by the National Treasury Department, have started to highlight the need to better maintain infrastructure instead of opting to build more, which is why cities are forced to become more intelligent about how they manage their assets.

The Internet of Things and advanced analytics are becoming “smart”, and the backbone of smart infrastructure is to connect everything and in doing so, collect useful data. Collecting data and applying intelligent analytics enables municipalities to create smarter infrastructure and ensure their existing infrastructure is functioning optimally.

An example where this has been successfully applied is Germany, which has aging water infrastructure challenges. In conventional water systems, the pressure in pipes at about two- or three-a-clock in the morning, when nobody is using any water, is incredibly high, causing pipes to burst. Telemetry links with pressure reducing-valves have been installed to reduce the pressure on the water systems during low-usage conditions. The reduced water losses and maintenance costs are helping the country extend the lifespan of these systems.

New precincts such as Menlyn Maine and Waterfall Estate are examples of developments that are focusing on creating smart-city environments from the inside out. Most of these new developments have been designed to allow for new technologies, such as full fibre systems connecting everything from security to communications, from the outset.

2. Digital collaboration tools
Why employ a team of niche specialists for a project when you can cherry pick your A-team from anywhere in the world? Software providers are offering built environment professionals access to the same cloud computing platforms so that cross-border teams and remote workers can work on the same Revit models, make changes to the same project and see their colleagues’ changes in real time. From a mechanical and structural engineering perspective, as well as for architects and designers, this assists with coordination and clash detection, which can greatly speed up the design process.

3. 3D surveying technology
Advances in photogrammetry, the process of using surveying photos to map and measure geolocations between objects, means that people can build a meshed 3D model using their smart phones. Some engineering firms have even started to use drones to create 3D models of large greenfield project sites from drone photographs. This contextual and visual information enables designers to shape a better solution without having to wait for costly surveying work to be completed.

Revit models can be imported into 3D models from the photos, which create a very realistic environment that defines the interconnection between new buildings and their surroundings. It can also assist in defining aspects such as traffic planning, overshadowing, sun angles and more.

4. 5D BIM solutions
Project management aspects are incorporated into 4D and 5D Building Information Modelling (BIM) solutions. 4D typically relates the actual construction programming to the 3D model, while 5D parametrically links the BIM design models with the project cost plan.

As the Revit model is being built, 4D and 5D tools can calculate what the concrete of a project, for example, will cost. Decisions regarding design changes and material options can be determined as the project progresses, which greatly reduces the risk of costs overrunning on projects.

5D BIM is not only complex, it also expensive, which is why its use isn’t yet mainstream but still largely limited to megaprojects such as stadiums and airports. Yet another step forward is 6D BIM, where the facilities management requirements are attributed to 3D elements to optimise the operational cycle of the building.

Incorporating innovation into a business is rarely a seamless transition. The learning curves are not only steep but can be disruptive, which is why the adoption of new technology has to come from the top. Staying on the forefront of tools that can make your business more competitive is what will help architectural firms, construction companies and designers deliver projects more efficiently and sustainably.

Full thanks and acknowledgement are given to Mike Aldous from Mott MacDonald for providing the information to write this article.

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