Builders used to complain a lot about sustainability. Construction budgets could not afford luxuries like saving the environment. I heard people say, sustainability sounded great but it only worked for the rich or eccentric few and not mainstream customers.
Flash forward many years to the current market though and a shift in thinking is demonstrated by more favourable views on sustainability. In the ultra-competitive housing market, sustainable features give builders a means of differentiating their products. Similarly, new home buyers want to make sure their houses have less negative impacts on the environment. With the convergence of sustainability and construction, the question becomes; what are the best ways forward for builders and home buyers to get what they want?
In short, builders can harness technology, innovation, and building information modelling (BIM) to offer more sustainable houses, create better value for their clients, and at the same time improve profitability.
"...consumers can expect an increasing array of consumer offerings that will do everything from control your heating and lighting, to talking to the power utility, to reducing your power consumption."
First, consider the benefits of technology. Technology is just starting to improve the built environment and promises the advantage of better products, lower prices, and improved efficiency. The internet of things (IOT), or in the case of construction property technology (proptech), means that consumers can expect an increasing array of consumer offerings that will do everything from control your heating and lighting, to talking to the power utility, to reducing your power consumption. Currently, the most common integration of IOT in houses is Nest, a smart thermostat developed by ex-Apple engineers. Maxime Veron, Nest’s director of product marketing says, “It’s (Nest’s smart Thermostat) been proven to save energy through independent studies, which show that you save 10 to 12 percent on your heating bill and 15 percent on your cooling bill .” Over the next few years, products like Nest will come down in price and gradually become ubiquitous in homes. Then as IOT devices proliferate in new homes, architects and engineers will be able to use information from these devices to help optimize design and operation of houses. Think of it as a Money Ball type approach for home owners!
Equally exciting is the possibility of renewable energy in homes. With Tesla entering the home energy market, expect to see a complete ecosystem approach to renewable energy in houses. This will mean Tesla customers could drive a Tesla, get energy from Tesla solar panels, store energy in a Tesla power wall, control all of it from an app on their mobile phone, and finally trade power with neighbours or anyone else on the network. Crucially, with the benefits of lowered manufacturing and installation costs, homeowners might finally be able to afford these kinds of offerings on a large scale. In fact, Elon Musk claims, “It’s looking quite promising that a solar roof may actually cost less than a normal roof before you even take the value of electricity into account .” While I personally remain skeptical that a solar panel integrated roof will cost less than traditional shingles, this is still a promising development. From experience though, I can tell you it is not only a matter of using the right tools for a job but also how you use them.
"In many ways, the maturation of BIM plays the largest role in construction's recent gains and in potential future gains to sustainability and productivity."
Which brings us to innovation! When it comes to how construction sites operate, many problems are well documented. Without going into all the problems, the easiest way to understand the mess construction is caught up in is through a comparison to manufacturing. Since the second world war, factories steadily increased productivity while construction productivity stagnated. Finally it seems, construction is ready to make gains in productivity like manufacturing did. Much like factories, construction is now being moved to offsite facilities where buildings are being prefabricated and then delivered in easily assembled components. Prefabrication uses similar techniques to manufacturing to increase productivity. Chris Williams of Avalon Master Builder explains, “The primary reasons that we chose to build off-site is our ability to reduce the time from sale to move-in. With off-site, you can build concurrently; you build the inside and outside at the same time and you build the home while you’re digging the hole in the ground .” These benefits then pass along to home owners in the form of higher quality and faster construction schedules. For example, more precise building techniques result in a tighter building envelope which reduces air leakage and lowers heating and cooling costs. At the same time, when builders reduce air leakage they minimize the demands on heating, ventilation, and cooling systems (HVAC). Again, this results in saved money because it takes less energy to maintain comfort in a sealed environment, while at the same time keeping out pollutants such as pollen or dust. Whether on or offsite though, lean construction is a comparable revolution that is making gains in the way job sites are run.
Lean construction also offers advances in building philosophies that can trace their roots back to Toyota and Ford’s early manufacturing practices. Rather than a traditional batch and queue system, innovative builders are using just in time delivery and continuous production to reduce construction times and the need to rework damaged production. I recently had the opportunity to ask lean building expert Jason Schroeder  about the advantages of lean practices and he offered this, “If we can get lean cultures built onsite, we can make progress. Also, books and lean training available to Subcontractors for supply chain management is making progress. We are getting more and more subs and craft that think lean.”
Furthermore, with regards to lean construction supporting prefabrication he added that, “Offsite prefabrication allows subs to draw it before we build it. Actually having materials prefabricated is not the best outcome of prefab. Vetting RFIs, design conflicts, coordination issues, etc allows flow and the implementation of lean concepts.”
So, in other words, better management and improved coordination contribute the greatest benefits of prefabrication, from a builder’s perspective. Jason’s comments also provide an illustration of how important it is for stakeholders to buy into lean culture. As another example of improved coordination, BIM can be credited with helping to provide the precision and organization needed to implement new innovations like these.
"Offsite prefabrication allows subs to draw it before we build it. Actually having materials prefabricated is not the best outcome of prefab. Vetting RFIs, design conflicts, coordination issues, etc allows flow and the implementation of lean concepts."
In many ways, the maturation of BIM plays the largest role in construction’s recent gains and in potential future gains to sustainability and productivity. That is right BIM managers, give yourself a pat on the back! Over the last ten years, the rise of BIM helped efficiently and flexibly manage other advances in construction. If IOT devices can give us more useful information about buildings, BIM is where that data can be plugged in and made useful. Designers can use IOT data to improve energy use, occupant comfort, and even the health of occupants. For a society that spends 90% of their lives inside buildings, the potential gains from BIM represent a profound asset. When I asked John Pierson  about the advantages of proptech from a BIM perspective he said, “I see a huge advantage with data collection using IOT devices. The problem is, what to do with the data? I look forward to helping solve that problem one day.” For now, he says BIM can already help with sustainability, “Regarding sustainability, I think everyone should be using an early energy analysis solution to inform design. A great tool available for Revit is Insight 360. Insight 360 provides fast, iterative results for designers. I believe this tool will eventually grow into something that is used for generative design, and it is exciting!”
But BIM represents more than gains to efficiency, it is also shaping the way buildings look. Computational design lets computers suggest a potentially unlimited number of possible forms, based off simple criteria. Like a customer at a paint store looks at colour swatches, designers can now show clients a sheet of computer generated concepts to use as a starting point for a project. Improvements to the conceptual design process allow projects to get moving faster and give owners better control over the creative aspects of their design. When you consider the difficulty owners often experience trying to articulate what they want from a design, the advantages of computational design are enormous. By embracing technology, innovations in construction methods, and by adopting BIM, builders can offer owners increased value. Best of all, these techniques all feed off each other and improve the outcomes of projects, which in the long run makes builders and owners better off. This is truly an exciting time to be involved with construction!
Nolan Strom is a lifelong fan of construction, technology, and sustainability. He owns and operates Whole Construction Solutions LLC and provides BIM consulting and services. He can be found at wholeconstructionsolutions.com
- Maxime Veron: https://www.psfk.com/2017/03/the-responsibility-of-the-connected-home.html
- Elon Musk: https://electrek.co/2016/11/17/tesla-solar-roof-cost-less-than-regular-roof-even-before-energy-production-elon-musk/
- Chris Williams: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/real-estate/why-many-alberta-home-builders-are-embracing-prefabrication/article34714558/
- Jason Schroeder, DPR construction, CM-Lean (from emailed questionnaire)
- John Pierson, EvolveLAB, Computational BIM Specialist (from emailed questionnaire)