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Centre for Digital Built Britain

 

Construction must adopt digital tools to prepare the way for information and automation technologies that deliver value. Professor Rafael Sacks, Visiting Professor at CDBB, and Ashtrom Engineering Company Chair in Civil Engineering at the  TechnionIsrael Institute of Technology, sets out the House of Construction Tech framework and tool to help innovators and investors better evaluate start-up technology and business strategies. As the construction sector resets to recover from the effects of a global pandemic, Professor Sacks calls for collaboration between industry, academia and policy with construction tech start-ups to overcome challenges and invite valuable opportunities. 

The past five years have seen a spike in interest from venture capital in an array of new and innovative companies specialising in the application of information and automation technologies – developed in other industries – to construction. These start-upare supported by venture capitalists, academic research and public and private incubator programmes, and together form an ecosystem commonly known as Construction Tech. The figures speak for themselves: in the US, investment in this field is reported to have grown from approximately $250m in 2013 to more than $1000m in 2018. 

It’s been a long road in terms of R&D to reach this pivotal point. The potential prize of applying information technology and robotics to design and construction has been in the sights of researchers in architecture, engineering and construction for decades. However, earlier success was thwarted by the disconnect between the conceptual understanding and vision of the future of construction, and the practical, technical, commercial, cultural and organisational constraints that had to be overcome in order to claim the prize. 

Such focused interest from venture capital indicates this landscape has changed. The maturation of core technologies in addition to the comprehensive building information available in a BIM environment – including BIM tools, platforms, servers, libraries and workflows within a project or organisation – provide the foundation on which the new Construction Tech applications build and deliver value. BIM is a process that provides an information backbone able to transcend organisational boundaries within projects, effectively mediating the gap between the information-intensive technology innovations, and the traditionally information-poor and fragmented construction project organisations. This opens the field to opportunity, but not before specific challenges are addressed. 

The opportunity and challenge 

While some information and data processing barriers to Construction Tech (including BIM and Artificial Intelligence (AI)) remain, the key to full commercial development could be secured through targeted research. R&D for automated code checking, construction layout, construction robotics and automated project performance monitoring and control has been ongoing for the past half century. But the past five years has seen the growth of Construction Tech based on BIM, field monitoring, robotics, AI and other technologies. This trend is significant, inviting a potential ‘House of Construction Tech’ framework to better explain the different theoretical, technical, commercial and conceptual foundations underpinning the growth of innovative Construction Tech companies – a framework which could help both investors and innovators better evaluate their start-ups’ technology and business strategies.  

A number of Construction Tech innovations (software tools for design and planning within BIM environments, BIM-to-field and field-to-BIM tools which are beginning to enable digital twins for construction) have a common thread running through them: dependence on the readiness of digital building information freely available across BIM platforms with both syntactic and semantic interoperability. It is this lack of direct access which inhibits the full application of AI commercially, and the associated sector benefits of improvements in safety, productivity and sustainability, cost savings and enhanced efficiency. 

The House of Construction Tech 

In theory, BIM models of buildings and infrastructure are ideally suited to manipulation by smart software tools that incorporate computer vision, rule-inferencing, machine learning, case-based reasoning, and other AI strategies, and the range of potential applications is wide – from design support and automation to facility operations and management using digital twins. That said, early attempts to apply expert systems and case-based reasoning to such tasks stumbled when it became clear that CAD technology was not suited to these applications due to its representation of building information being graphic and symbolic rather than object-oriented. This led to intense effort to solve the representation challenge, resulting in BIM model authoring platforms that are now ubiquitous across the industry.  

The stage was set for commercial implementation of innovations but resulted in most of the financing going to start-up companies rather than traditional construction organisations. This move bypassed corporate fragmentation within the construction industry and met the need for expert knowledge and experience with technologies adapted from other industrial settings. Faced with such barriers, many Construction Tech innovators adopt an incremental approach to change in construction as the industry culture tends to prioritise achieving maximum profit from a minimal viable product. In short, the wide adoption of BIM environments in the construction industry is an insufficient condition to enable effective exploitation of the information contained or to leverage the potential of AI.  

To succeed, Construction Tech innovators require at least three staples: a real process need in the industry; an application of a new technology that fulfils the need; and a workable business model. These also provide the pillars of the House of Construction Tech framework which can be applied to explain the components essential for success in the sectorThe framework is underpinned by a comprehensive understanding of the theoretical aspects of design, information and data science, and of production in construction. In this framework the BIM environment (technology, processes and people) sits at the base of the house, Construction Tech (technologies, business model and business process need) provides the columns, Innovation (ideas, investment, implementation) resides in the beams, and Adoption sits on the roof. When complete, the House of Construction Tech provides a checklist for construction start-up companies and a tool to predict success or failure by considering whether a company has incorporated all the components required to build the house. <<add Figure 4 at this point>> 

Facilitating smart BIM and AI for design and construction 

While the outlook for Construction Tech is definitely promisingthere still remains a number of foundational challenges to be overcome. If academic research could bring focus and solutions to two specific fields: the combined optimal use of topological rule inferencing and machine learning for semantic enrichment; and encoding representations of building information in forms that are amenable to machine learning; then development of a wide range of smart BIM and AI tools for design and construction would be within reach.  

Close collaboration among traditional construction industry companies (design firms, general contractors and subcontractors), researchers, and government policy makers, and also close collaboration with Construction Tech start-up companies will be key to successStart-ups have the advantages of agility, expertise in advanced technology skills from other industries, sharp focus on innovations, and the ability to carry significant risk of failure – qualities which are lacking in most traditional, established firms. Transformation of construction to greater use of technology and less labour can be achieved most effectively through the introduction of new ways of working by  tech start-ups – if they are given the backing from traditional construction industry companies in driving demand in the right direction and with academics providing the fundamental research on which start-ups can build implementations. Surely this prize is worth collaborating for? 

  • This blog originates from the article: Building Information Modelling, artificial intelligence and Construction Tech by Rafael Sacks, Mark Girolami, Sir Kirby Laing Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Cambridge, Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair in Data Centric Engineering, Academic Director for CDBB, Programme Director for Data-Centric Engineering at The Alan Turing Institute and Ioannis BrilakisLaing O’Rourke Reader in Construction Engineering, University of Cambridge, Academic Lead for CDBB, Director of the Construction Information Technology Laboratory, published in the journal Developments in the Built Environment, May 2020. 

  • See: Sacks, R.et al., Building Information Modelling, Artificial Intelligence and Construction Tech, Developments in the Built Environment, https://doi.org/10.1016