The digital shift: Taking building design to the next virtual level

Increasingly sophisticated technology is facilitating the planning and construction phases of new developments

June 19, 2019

With building design getting more complex and construction budgets tight, increasingly sophisticated digital tools are helping to deliver projects in line with exacting investor requirements.

New technology is supplementing – if not replacing - traditional planning methods, with virtual design and construction (VDC) tools allowing architects, planners and surveyors to work together in a 3D environment to fully visualize projects before the heavy machinery moves in.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is making strides forward and integrating more with the likes of virtual and augmented reality and  Geographic Information Science (GIS), which allows planners to assess the land, environment and demographics surrounding a scheme.

Such developments can improve accuracy, enhance risk management and mean potential issues can be spotted at an early stage to minimize expensive and time-consuming changes further down the line.

 “We’re seeing a big shift to utilizing digital technologies in delivering buildings and it’s a viable, serious alternative to classic methods, physical site visits and visual inspections,” says Ben Jackson, head of project and development services, JLL MENA.

And the role of new technology continues as the building takes shape.  “A construction progresses, laser scanners and drones can capture and identify any discrepancy and deviation from the initial design,” says Jackson

New artificial intelligence systems using robotics, computer vision and machine learning algorithms then track construction progress. Construction firm Kier is one of several in the industry trialing a four-wheeled robot developed by start-up Scaled Robotics for progress tracking and health and safety checks.

Tech start-up Disperse last year began piloting a similar system at a 327-unit residential tower in London and a 120-room hotel in Reading, with the system analyzing the projects using 360-degree imagery.

Encouraging collaboration

As technology platforms advance, it’s driving the industry to look at more consistent ways to move information through the different stages of the development life cycle.

Typically, the design, tender and build process has been quite fragmented. With the emergence of BIM and the progression of the technology, BIM models will be handed through the development process from designer to developer to contractor and then to the operations team to be integrated into CAFM (computer aided facilities management) system.

It means all parties will work in the same model all the way through the project life cycle, forcing the industry to standardize the model components and encourage collaboration, says Jackson.

“The immediate and longer-term benefits of all parties using tech at the early stage of construction cannot be underestimated,” he explains. “The value generated from clash detection software, risk mitigation management, supply chain and logistics analytics is considerable.”

Divulging data

Yet more improvements could still be made. “The next challenge for the global construction market is to standardise the building information model; how the data is moved, stored, named and developed,” says Jackson.

A greater commitment to sharing data – a valuable and closely guarded secret - is also key to set higher standards within the industry.

“In an ideal world, if there were a platform where all parties could both contribute to and access delivery and operational data, it would drive innovation, progression, efficiency and sustainability for the built environment,” says Jackson.

“But that really requires a big change of mindset among all parties but if it were possible then digital technologies could really move to the next level of their development.”

For occupiers and investors this would speed up the delivery of projects, reduce the delivery cost and make the assets more sustainable and cost effective to run.

Meeting investor demands

The need to deliver on time is more pertinent than ever, explains Gavin Quantick, solutions architecture director at JLL.

“Investors are demanding more complex schemes in a shorter space of time,” he says. “In achieving that, accuracy cannot be put at risk – another compelling reason for further investment, be that by the industry or by start-ups, in proptech tools.”

So far, some companies have taken a wait and see approach amid the high costs associated with implementing new technology and processes. Yet change is coming: globally, it’s estimated that the construction industry’s use of artificial intelligence will grow annually by 38 percent between now and 2025.

Quantick says the path to wider adoption of new technology could lie in the public sector, where BIM is now mandatory, with the likes of Transport for London implementing it for infrastructure.

“Public sector use could lead the way to not only greater adoption across the construction sector, but also, in time, to higher quality levels in delivery,” he says. “Regulation could also drive things forward.”

With technology advancing rapidly, the prospect of a digital first approach to construction may require a change in attitudes but it could become the norm in the not-too-distant future.