The Trends Shaping the Construction Industry in 2020

By Thomas Bigagli, Leonor Alarcon, Simon Abboud

Today’s world is set to push the construction industry to a redefinition of its own standards through a final acknowledgment of the existing challenges and the exploitation of flourishing opportunities. 



With the world population set to grow, and reach 8.5 billion by the end of the decade, more than 13,000 buildings must be constructed at a daily pace, along with the supporting infrastructure. 


To meet the need of our growing population and the sharp rise in demand which will follow, proactive actions will be the cornerstone of the sparking a new chapter. Bold short to long-term strategies will have to be defined, keeping in mind our present realities around skilled labor shortage, resources scarcity, and environmental impacts. The historical legacy of the construction ecosystem has barely changed over the centuries. Nevertheless, there may be a way to scale the industry responsibly and, finally, take advantage of the occasion by the adoption of design-to-make production principles alongside rising digital technologies


Industrialized construction (IC) can bring a much needed certainty of costs, schedules, and scopes to the broader AEC (Architecture, Engineering and Construction) community. Along that path, IC’s objective is to radically transform industry’s processes into more sustainable and resilient ones, while providing efficient solutions to labor shortages, waste management, diversity inclusiveness, and worker safety.

A few facts to keep in mind: 

In this article, we have analyzed 7 tech trends that are shaping the construction industry. Ready for them? Here we go:

Robotics and Automation

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A clear trend in the construction industry (and in practically every industry out there). Don’t believe us, believe these figures:

The construction industry is one of the main economic sectors where robotics and automated systems have the potential to address inefficiencies and low productivity. 



Although their adoption in the construction industry is really low, robotics and automated systems have the potential to disrupt and provide many benefits to the AEC industry as a whole. 

The types of automation and robotic technologies for construction can be grouped into four general categories:

  • On-site automated and robotic systems
  • Drones and autonomous vehicles
  • Exoskeletons
  • Off-site prefabrication systems

The development of robotics in construction turns out to be a win-win collaboration between employee and employer. On the one hand, "semi-automated workers" become two to three times more productive than a usual construction worker. On the other hand, automation reduces tedious, tiring, risky or repetitive tasks of the construction workers and thus optimizes their outcomes: this is what we call collaborative robotics, or cobotics. 



Moreover, standard, prefabricated, modular concepts will enhance compatibility among building and infrastructure projects, improve economies of scale, enhance productivity, and accelerate the industrialization of the construction industry. 10% of companies use 3D printing in the construction of walls and even full buildings, which speeds up construction, reduces accidents, costs, wastes, and facilitates the creation of more complicated designs. 

Digitization and Uses of Data

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Adopting digital solutions to optimize operations has proven to be the answer to many challenges in several industries. 

Companies in the construction industry become more efficient, productive and profitable by not only implementing continuous communication and collaboration but also providing digital workflows dedicated to project management.

  • Data Sharing: In order to streamline the workflow and improve the collaboration between the different stakeholders of the construction projects, new digital tools are used to properly store project information files (planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance) in a central office and share / synchronize them in real-time. 
  • Collaboration Tools: Site delays and cost overruns are the main concerns of this industry. Digitization offers ways to integrate solutions into a project in order to reduce these issues and thus increase efficiency through better work, time and resource management.
  • Data Analytics: the available data, mainly from past construction projects, is essential for predictive analysis in order to better define and manage the risks and effectiveness of future projects. Use cases are boundless, from the accurate simulation of the whole project to tracking construction assets.
  • Design Technologies: Besides their centralized archiving and analytics tools, interactive visual representations and models that can be easily annotated and modified will bring together the physical and dematerialized construction worlds.
  • Financial Management: The potential of fintech applications in the construction industry extends beyond just financial management solutions. In fact, new solutions offer specific and beneficial assistance such as receivables, tracking, and payment management.
  • Marketplaces: The emergence of marketplaces is improving the slow, labor-intensive and heavy procurement processes of the construction industry in terms of standardization, interoperability, product identification and sharing economy.

New Materials

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The construction industry alone consumes more raw materials than any other economic activity. Research on construction materials used to be focused on their mechanical properties with minor concerns regarding environmental considerations, leaving the construction industry as one of the main sources of waste.



The AEC sphere is in need of innovative building materials in order to meet the complex ecological and economic requirements of our current era. High-performance and durable building materials that conserve resources and at the same time, increase productivity are in demand, particularly with the rise of parametric design and 3D Printing, which requires materials to acquire new mechanical properties.



Given the high degree of specialization in the use of materials, a large number of different ones will probably be used even in the smallest building projects, each aimed at solving particular pain points, for both structural finishings as well as for more specific use cases, through the use of aerogels and next-generation materials, such as graphene.



In addition, we have seen new types of materials implementing inherent experiential features such as touch, turning them into smart surfaces and data sources. Through recent years, we have seen also a change in interest from the demand side, promoting a more healthy and eco-friendly environment, with the development of more sustainable and circular properties.

Sustainability

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The World Building Council for Sustainable Development says buildings account for 40% of worldwide energy use – which is more than transportation. This is why sustainable construction is one of the pillars of the society of the future. Within one year, 60% of construction companies will have doubled their number of sustainable projects (going from the current 18% to a significant 37%), according to studies by Endesa. At the level of the European Union, the European Green Deal is focusing on areas such as clean and circular economy, resource-efficient buildings, zero-pollution environment, to embrace this movement.

There are some essential features a sustainable building should have: 

  • Rise of Eco-Friendly Materials: The use of natural, recycled, or recyclable materials allows us to reduce expenses, save on resources and reduce our environmental footprint by minimizing CO2 emissions.
  • Energy Consumptions and Storage: Establishing how energy will be used and conserved and aiming at carbon neutrality is crucial nowadays, as well as designing the buildings to be intelligent in its use of resources and complement natural mechanisms. For this reason, it’s necessary to implement control systems to balance heating, cooling, water, airflow and lighting.
  • Passive Design: Using architectural design layouts, forms and orientation to reduce or remove mechanical cooling, heating, ventilation and lighting demand. It also means to optimize energy conservation with roof overhangs for shading, natural ventilation, use of glass walls to let natural light get in…
  • Renewable Energy: Using sun, wind, and water power for all or most of the energy needs, to rely less on supplementary non-renewable energy sources. 
  • Water Reuse: Reuse wastewater, greywater and rainwater for example, through a proper collecting and treatment system and use low-flush or waterless toilets. 
  • Health: Sustainable buildings can promote higher living and aesthetic standards if furnished with plants and local flora, for instance. Also, it is important to avoid materials emitting indoor pollutants and monitor the air quality and surface cleanliness to provide occupants with a virus-free environment. 

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Sustainable Development Goals

The construction industry is responsible for 30% of the total global resources and 40% of the global energy consumptions. However, it is also considered to be the industry that could potentially decrease its energy consumption at the lowest cost. 

Construction companies could profoundly influence the below Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations through the entire value chain including, design, construction, operation and maintenance. A great example would be the Bouygues Construction Project in Zurich providing 100% renewable energy within a district. 

Human Capital

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Driven by technology and by the need to enhance efficiency, the AEC companies are set to create new types of teams and roles within their organizations, with existing functions to be revised to incorporate the usage of digitization and robotics. 

Safety on site has been one of the top preoccupations on construction companies mind in an industry which is still ranked high in the work-related accidents and deaths. With leading safety issues on construction sites including falls, being caught between objects, electrocutions, and being struck by objects, it is essential to inform the workforce on how to operate in an ever more automated field. 

Health is one of the most critical aspects to improve, mainly due to the inhalation of harmful materials. The current pandemic has incited the sanitization of construction sites as it is one of the utmost vital elements to keep a construction site running. Aspects such as staff illnesses monitoring, physical distancing monitoring, and work rescheduling are some of the topics in discussion around the world to keep the construction industry safe from another shutdown. 

The construction industry has a narrative that is, by nature, unfriendly to social minorities, and influenced the underrepresentation of women, the LGBT+ community, ethnic minorities and impaired groups. This reality is profoundly affecting the narrowing of the talent pipeline for the industry, which should be reverted to create a more inclusive AEC ecosystem. 

In a world in which technology adoption increases, workers will need a new set of skills, knowledge, and capabilities, which will require to be more frequently updated. As secondary and higher education institutions are not equipped to close this skills gap in terms of technology training and volume, AEC companies will play a key role in accompanying their workforce to achieve these new theoretical learnings and put them into practice. 

Post Construction Services

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For both new construction and refurbished buildings, regardless of the type of property, the building with a Smart-capable communications system backbone can act as a platform that can meet their particular and societal needs. 

This will be key in constructing the city of the future. Once Smart Buildings can consistently offer Smart services integrated with their surrounding cities, the possibilities for a Smart City expand as well. 

  • Smart Buildings: The trend towards smart commercial buildings demands the integration of building automation systems with ICT systems and other building-related information over the complete building lifecycle. 

  • Resilient & Inclusive Buildings: Designing a building with a modular and integrated approach to infrastructure delivery and interior systems allows the building to support multiple uses. Additionally, it is essential to make the building inclusive for everyone (wheelchairs) since the initial design phase.
  • Communication: Community involvement, as well as smart controls of technologies, broadband services and security. The approach is based on a whole systems design philosophy, respectively the appropriate use of technology and the inclusion of the users of the buildings from the design or re-design process. 
  • Eco-Friendly Environment: For low carbon buildings, as a general guideline, 50% of the success can be attributed to architecture, 25% to good and efficient systems and equipment and 25% to the attitude of the occupants. Therefore, residents need to understand the features of their houses, know how to operate them appropriately and be motivated to do so. 
  • Safety, Cleanliness and Maintenance Practices: Consideration of a building's operating and maintenance issues during the preliminary design phase of a facility will contribute to improve working environments, higher productivity, hygiene, and prevention of system failures. 

New Business Models

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Energy efficiency, building automation, and connected homes already generate global annual revenue of about $250 billion altogether. As they converge, that figure will continue to rise sharply, reaching about $339 billion by 2022, divided fairly evenly among the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world according to research form BCG. 

This market offers a wide variety of business opportunities: from engagement/communication platforms that leverage real-time data to empower landlords and operators to more effectively manage and monetize their square footage, to upselling services thanks to an ICT infrastructure.

According to the latest report from Memoori, value-added services such as space utilization, indoor positioning, connected lighting and asset tracking are helping to drive the adoption of as-a-Service business models. 

The most popular ones are Building as a Service and Space as a Service. 

  • Building as a Service: It supports the development and deployment of novel valued added services and applications that take advantage of an integrated model of novel and legacy building systems and the data provided and consumed by them. Examples of these services are advanced benchmarking and profiling of resource utilizations, goal-oriented reconfiguration of building systems and comprehensive maintenance services that help reducing the TCO and increasing the satisfaction of building occupants. We can include here: facility maintenance as a service, lighting as a service, energy efficiency as a service, sensing as a service, modular construction as a service…
  • Space as a Service: It is triggered by an aging workforce and digitization. The model, especially now with the current pandemic, will force companies to adopt “flex” space solutions for coliving, coworking, micro logistics…

One of the urbanization problems is the reconciling of space and resources with a standard of living. Construction firms that integrate smart technology like IoT into new urban builds can help provide that. Creating mini-cities within cities, these developments converge living, shopping, work and more. In doing, mixed-use “provides city inhabitants with neighborhoods that integrate work, home, shopping, transportation, and even green spaces. The concept also allows planners to flexibly adapt building uses as times change.

Conclusion

Throughout this article, we have analyzed the redefinition of the construction industry and the different trends shaping it, ranging from emerging technologies (robotics, 3D printing, VR...) to societal factors (sustainable awareness, digitized society, current pandemic..) These will impact not only the future of construction, but also our approach and relationship with new buildings. 

Even though the construction industry is one of the least automated and digitized, we see a clear tendency towards these practices as new technologies adapt and the right use cases implement for the so-called ConTech/ConstruTech revolution. Not only the automation of the tasks will shorten and optimize the course of the works done, but it will also positively affect the health of its workers and of the environment. Moreover, the extraction and use of data over the entire construction process allows companies to enhance the level of efficiency in the workplace and allocate the necessary human and material resources to each task. 

Therefore, as seen in many other industries, the use of deep and high tech in the construction site improves the job to be done and the well being of employees, as well as companies’ footprint during the process. This together, with the use of new materials, well established sustainable practices and public guidelines help the construction industry to continue its activity, as the return on investment benefits both its profit and loss account as well as our planet. 

Regardless of the industry’s skilled labor shortage, we have also noticed that one big challenge for the construction industry is talent acquisition and retention. Fortunately, many companies have started initiatives to enhance employee well being, training, packages, and also, to make the industry more attractive to women as they are a minority in this industry. 

Last but not least, apart from the above-mentioned evolutions, we should add to the factors impacting the future of construction the urge of generations taking comfortability, immediateness, and of course, digitalization, for granted. Companies in the construction industry need to rethink the range and scale of their services with post-construction services, and even leverage on new technologies and emerging companies to expand their business lines, as seen in the as-a-service section.


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