A range of technologies have emerged in recent years that offer potential benefits for commercial construction projects, such as shorter project timelines, reduced labor requirements and increased safety. While some technologies are rapidly gaining market share, others are still on the horizon, with technologists projecting that another generation of innovation will reshape the industry over the next decade.
Andrew McCoy, Ph.D., associate director of the Myers-Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech, is currently drafting a research paper on emergent construction technologies for the NAIOP Research Foundation. McCoy discussed several of these technologies and their applications with a panel of experts in design and construction at CRE.Converge Virtual 2020.
The Current Market
McCoy observed that several technologies are already on the market, and some are widely used today. These include off-site and modular construction; geospatial technologies like global positioning systems, geographic information systems and satellite remote sensing; wearables; business management systems; and building information modeling (BIM). Modular construction, where components are manufactured offsite before on-site installation, has seen a rapid growth in adoption in recent years in response to rising costs and labor shortages. Wearable technologies are best known for their safety applications, but are also being used to improve project management and assist with design.
BIM has had perhaps the most significant effect on how firms design and execute projects. Derek Davis, president at davisREED Construction, noted that BIM has substantially reduced the time that his firm used to spend re-drawing elements of an architect’s design when creating cost estimates, and has also been helpful in clash detection. He also indicated that BIM has become an effective tool that allows construction firms to track and visualize a project’s progress in real time. Davis showed screenshots of software that blends project scheduling with BIM functionality, using the example of a partially completed building for a school district. The software allows his firm to visualize the current state of the project and evaluate its progress against the project schedule and a model of the completed building.
Technology on the Horizon
Several other construction technologies already exist, but are less widely used by construction firms. These include mass-customized manufacturing, mass timber (such as cross-laminated timber or CLT), additive manufacturing (such as 3D printing), unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), robotics, and virtual or augmented reality. McCoy pointed to CLT as a technology that is gaining industry attention and being used in projects more often. Compared to traditional construction materials, CLT is lighter and more fire-resistant, and can increase project efficiency by lowering construction times. Drones are also becoming more common. They excel at preconstruction information gathering and can also be used for project management applications. McCoy noted they are particularly useful on greenfield and brownfield sites.
Angela Palmer, associate at Gensler, observed that design firms have been experimenting with virtual reality for years, but that the computing power needed to render realistic environments has only recently become available. Now, she sees augmented reality technologies like Microsoft HoloLens as key to the future of design. These technologies “help us understand the space before we create it,” and explore design concepts that may not have been possible before. Palmer noted that design firms are increasingly moving away from renderings that emphasize realistic visuals toward models that provide more information about a space.
Palmer points to augmented reality as an example of a technology that will facilitate changes in how buildings are designed and constructed. Instead of an architect designing a building and then handing the design to a contractor who sources materials and then constructs the building, Palmer predicts that augmented reality and related technologies like BIM will allow designers to work closely with materials fabricators and contractors, from a building’s initial design through a project’s completion.
Palmer noted that the effective use of these technologies requires “people who understand the technology and understand the architecture and design.” Preparing architects for these roles is not always easy, as they may not be comfortable with newer technologies. It can be “difficult to find enough people who know what is going on to manage the technology.” However, Palmer is optimistic that this will become less of a challenge in the future, as younger workers grow up in a digital environment.
As NAIOP Research Director, Shawn Moura manages the NAIOP Research Foundation research committee and day-to-day operations of the Foundation’s research projects.