Dec 02

Worlds Collide: Proptech & Contech

The latest NBS report shows that while BIM is not 100% adopted across the board in the UK, awareness has arguably reached every corner of the industry. Despite the many hurdles projects still go through to deliver digitally, this new way of working is being evermore embraced as the way moving forward.

A fair share of designers acknowledge the benefits for multi-discipline collaboration and expediting design, contractors have jumped on opportunities to plan and de-risk construction, and savvy client organisations are now starting to seek meaningful deliverables to be used after handover. The latter is perhaps the catalyst to an emerging crossover between the property and construction.

These two sectors deal with the same product but have very few interface points, with property developer organisations being one of the few clear examples. Both ends of the property/construction sectors have been digitising themselves, but it is only very recently that meaningful opportunities for integration have sprung.

Despite all the inherent difficulties and resistance to change, construction has been following in the footsteps of aerospace and other manufacturing industries, who achieved digital maturity some time ago.

Whenever I have to explain what BIM is, I always find it useful to draw parallels to Digital Prototyping, a term very much mainstream in manufacturing. There are five key stages to digital prototyping, and construction technology (Contech) covers mainly three of these:

• Conceptual Design – Ditto in construction with the early RIBA stages up to 2 or maybe 3. Although it can be argued building designs are nowhere near as iterative and collaborative as other manufacturing products. There are reasons for this but let us focus on the solutions.

• Engineering – Detailed Design Tendering / Pre-Construction Level of Detail. This is not as clearly drawn in construction as it is in manufacturing, the process is still very linear and contractually fragmented. I will not dare to give my opinion further as this is a very hot topic and not my alleged area of expertise!

• Manufacturing – Construction / Off-site fabrication and site assembly – Here we have very good examples of efficiency, although the nature of the product still demands us to build bespoke parts to then assemble on site, not much different than hypothetical geographically bound and custom-built commercial aircraft though is it?

When considering all the above, there are still two areas not covered by Contech, these are namely Customer Involvement and Marketing Communications.

Property professionals, on the other hand, are all about the two above and have been gearing up digitally to increase their efficiencies in doing so. The similarities with manufacturing stop there though, as there is very little interface between property and construction professionals (virtually none if these do not fall under the same client/ developer umbrella). Take interactive virtual apartment tours as an example, which rely on 3D scans of the built asset and rarely (if ever) make use of an As-Built model of some sorts. This is not the case in manufacturing, where early customer and user feedback is deeply connected to design development and drives different iterations of the same product.

How do we solve this? I wish I knew the answer and it is most likely there will be many different answers that will slowly converge. However, one emerging buzzword does seem to hold a lot of potential: The Digital Twin. It consists in both an output and input solution for continuous collaboration between all 5 areas of digital prototyping (in fact, it is already used in other industries), which has received a lot of attention during the past year within the construction industry.

Property technology companies are also demanding more reliable and cost-effective information. Why have a very expensive and duplicated set of material that has already been produced over months on end in the design and construction stages? Need up-to-date floorplans, visualisation, an accurate model for an interactive walkthrough perhaps?

Then why not use the actual design information without the need to remodel as it is often done. Same with user manuals, specifications, asset data and the possibility to have a real-time interactive 3D interface with your building for management and operation. The technology has all been figured out and hundreds of professionals have spent weeks on end to produce a tightly knit set of information, it is wasteful to lock it away in a hard drive or server somewhere (the 21st century`s file drawer) and not use it.

Again, I understand there is a myriad of ownership and legal complications to this, but we should work to eliminate these and not use them as excuses. Technology has gotten there already; we just need to catch-up in the way we produce and manage information in the built environment. If we choose to reluctantly resist change, perhaps external factors will collectively force the goodwill out of us?

As is often the case with property and construction, it takes critical events and new legislation to really expedite meaningful change. In fact, two very likely scenarios loom on the horizon and have the potential to force property and construction to unite and give birth to its future mid-21st century counterpart.

The first will probably be related to the actions taken from the Hackitt Report consultation once it has ended. The “Golden Thread” of information will be enforced to ensure statutory compliance and accountability with the introduction of duty holders. These in turn will need efficient tools to gather and oversee such information throughout the asset`s lifecycle. The second scenario follows with the UK being the first G7 nation with the commitment to be a Net Zero Carbon nation by 2050.

Transport will be the first to face the crosshairs of energy efficiency and lifecycle carbon regulations, but buildings will not be far off as they are the second-largest culprits with just under 40% of the energy demand associated to them in the UK. We will then be forced to design, build and maintain efficient buildings, retrofit the existing inefficient stock and, most importantly, have appropriate technology-driven tools that allow us to certify, monitor and understand trends in the built environment.

This will push the newly combined CONTECH + PROPTECH sector to heavily adopt data analytics solutions to make sense of the vast amounts of information that will come from our monitored buildings and infrastructure. These are exciting times to work in property and construction. I could be wrong, but I truly believe profound change is upon us. The groundwork has been happening for some time and the challenges of our time will give us the much-needed push in the right direction.