10 innovations that have revolutionised construction
We’ve come a long way as a species since the days when we inhabited the caves built for us by nature. Now we’re the builders, and in the last 40 years alone, we’ve come up with technological innovations that have revolutionised construction in the most spectacular ways.
OK, so we’re starting off slightly further back than 40 years, but the radical impact of mechanisation on construction cannot be underestimated. The advent of hydraulic and pneumatic devices in the mid to late-19th century led to the earth-moving equipment and other apparatus now commonplace in the industry, massively reducing the time and labour substantial projects required.
By the early-20th century, the impact of mechanisation increased with the development of equipment capable of more complex functions, such as cherry pickers, concrete mixers, cranes and power tools. This period also saw the emergence of the internal-combustion engine, which saw hand shovels, wheelbarrows and working animals replaced by the likes of forklifts, tractors and bulldozers.
In Europe in the Middle Ages, architects, draughtsmen, master stonemasons and builders created some of the world’s most magnificent buildings using methods of design and construction that were astonishing for their time.
For several centuries, these methods remained largely unchanged. In the latter part of the 20th century, however, computer-aided design (CAD) emerged, changing construction irrevocably - for the first time, clashes during the design phase were rendered visible.
Previously, issues such as separate systems, electrical conduits and high-voltage alternating current ducting for example, competing for the same physical space bedevilled architects and builders, with their two-dimensional plans and section drawings.
While CAD has assisted designers enormously, Building Information Management (BIM) has proven stunningly versatile, allowing architects, engineers, contractors and subcontractors to collaborate on the fine details of design and construction by using the same database and computer model.
As mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) professionals will be aware, BIM involves all project stakeholders working collaboratively on a detailed 3D model that includes all the functional systems of a building, such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and electrical installations, as well as the aesthetics of walls, windows and roofs.
Because it’s a collaborative process from beginning to end, it allows all parties working on a project to visualise and analyse design decisions, and pinpoint interferences and other errors, before work begins on site.
For MEP contractors, working collaboratively saves innumerable resources, as construction doesn’t begin until every party has submitted their designs, ensuring clashes are detected and rectified quickly, easily and ahead of ground being broken on site.
4. Off-site fabrication
Assembling large complex components piece by piece on-site, exposed to the elements, can be difficult. The rise of off-site fabrication has hugely increased the efficiency of this process.
For example, a massive heat exchanger fabricated in a vendor’s shop, will not only arrive on site ready to be plugged in, but also benefit from better management of parts and material inventories, as well as improved efficiency and productivity. Return on investment increases, waste and inefficiency falls.
Huge savings in schedule time are gained when components like heat exchangers, pump units, compressors and instrument panels are fabricated in-shop rather than on-site, arriving at the latter ready to be linked up.
5. Modular construction
It’s not only components like those mentioned above that can now be fabricated off-site - whole buildings can be too, thanks to the rise of modular construction.
Modules are made with the same materials and designed to the same standards as buildings constructed on-site, but they produce far less environmental disruption. Components arrive on-site as and when they’re needed.
Since 70 per cent of building today is done in the form of components, it takes us into the realm of ‘just in time’ manufacturing and delivery, which slashes on-site schedules and reduces transit and waste.
6. Mobile devices
Mobile technology has transformed the construction industry in several ways. For MEP contractors, one of the biggest is the improvement in project management. Using smartphones and tablets, all parties involved can work together using the same consolidated information sources, ensuring no one is left out of the loop, no matter where they are.
Mobile devices have also enabled real-time analytics in construction. Foremen can now keep track of performance, conditions and costs during the day using reporting tools, rather than having to create a report at the end of it. Project managers can use mobile business intelligence to predict required corrections, allowing them to act straightaway to keep things on schedule and within budget. And reporting apps mean all parties can access analytic insights, whether on site or in the office.
The traditional way of setting out building services on a site involves a team using building drawings and a tape measure, spirit level and theodolite - a precision instrument for measuring angles - to identify attachment points for the likes of cable trays and pipework.
However, this method doesn’t work well with more sophisticated buildings, is time-consuming and arduous, and has a huge margin for error, which can lead to serious consequences, such as clashes with other building services and pre-fabricated systems that don’t fit, leading to time, money and materials being wasted.
Enter Robotic Total Stations (RTS) - an electronic theodolite integrated with an electronic distance measurement that can be remote controlled from distance. Using a tablet equipped with the relevant software, the setting out can be completed by a single person, with RTS ensuring greater efficiency, improved accuracy, fewer mistakes and less paperwork, as well as reduced labour costs.
8. Self-repairing concrete
To say that concrete is ubiquitous in construction is an understatement, but it brings significant problems with it. Principally, it’s prone to cracking, usually because of exposure to chemicals and water. That’s bad news, because cracks grow, and when they grow they allow the ingress of more water, which starts to corrode reinforced steel inside the concrete. However, a solution is in the pipeline.
OK, so it’s a prospective revolution at this stage, but it’s coming - self-healing concrete with bacteria and microcapsules in the mix. When water infiltrates, these ingenious extra ingredients germinate and produce limestone, plugging the gap before corrosion of steel reinforcements has a chance to take place.
While personal protective equipment (PPE) is far less technologically advanced than the other entries in this list, there is no doubting it has contributed to revolutionising the construction industry over the last 40 years in terms of health and safety.
Regulations placing a duty on employers in the UK to ensure employees exposed to health and safety risks are provided with appropriate PPE were introduced in 1992 under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, which commenced in 1974.
A performance review of the latter act in 2008 found that, between 1974 and 2007, the number of fatal injuries to employees in the UK fell by 73 per cent, while reported non-fatal injuries fell by 70 per cent, while the number of fatalities in the construction industry fell to a record low in 2005-06.
Now that’s what you call a velvet revolution.
10. The internet
This list would be incomplete without paying homage to the telecommunications network that has revolutionised construction. Those European architects of the Middle Ages mentioned earlier could never have countenanced the extent to which the internet has transformed how we design, build and monitor construction projects.
From construction management software to remote-controlled, laser-based survey equipment like RTS, and 3D laser scanners to cloud-based collaboration tools that allow engineering contractors and architects to communicate and exchange ideas before construction begins, the digital age has changed construction inestimably.
There are some jaw-dropping technologies in development that promise to further revolutionise the construction sector. These range from kinetic flooring that generates electricity by harnessing the energy from footfall to cement capable of absorbing and irradiating light energy to bricks capable of absorbing pollution by filtering the air, dropping contaminating particles into a removable hopper at the base of the wall.
So, watch this space - the next revolution will be blogged.