Construction Meets Coronavirus: A New Normal in Post-Pandemic Building
The coronavirus has caused tremendous upheaval to the architecture and construction industries. Richard Hyams, founder and director of astudio, discusses the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead
All sectors of the UK economy have been deeply impacted by Covid-19 and the construction industry is among the most seriously affected.
The IHS/ Cips index for UK construction dropped from 39.3 in March to 8.2 at the height of the pandemic, the lowest measure since the index began in 1997, whilst social distancing and broader distribution prompted approximately 4,800 sites (estimated by Barbour ABI as equivalent to half of the live UK construction projects) to down tools.
Simultaneously, Covid-19 has shown just how crucial the sector is to economic output and how important it will be to Britain’s recovery. Yet, to adapt in the wake of pandemic and beyond, the industry will have to embrace new technologies to drive efficiency, ensure safety and power greater sustainability for Britain’s future buildings.
Covid-19 accelerates digital innovation
Few among us working remotely during lockdown have coped without the support of digital platforms and tools, which have allowed us to continue to collaborate and communicate with our colleagues and clients. So, it should come as no surprise that design and construction have been no exception.
In fact, amidst the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, Building Information Modelling (BIM) has become increasingly crucial to collaboration, project transparency and productivity.
Largely developed alongside the gaming industry, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality software are making once paper-based processes more accessible and sophisticated than ever before for the design team, clients and contractors. For example, virtual reality seen through headsets and even our mobile phones, enables users to feel the parameters of spaces and realistically experience it, before the foundations have even been laid.
“ These tools are an opportunity to capture large quantities of ideas and information, taking into account both measurements and technicalities, as well as the full context of a project, in detailed and experiential ways. ”
For architectural visualisation, these tools are an opportunity to capture large quantities of ideas and information, taking into account both measurements and technicalities, as well as the full context of a project, in detailed and experiential ways.
These capabilities can make a crucial difference at all stages of a project. As a design tool this technology contributes to accelerating workflows and providing opportunities to incorporate sustainability.
For instance, natural day lighting can be assessed, providing insight into the environmental qualities of a design in situ and enable us as designers to respond in adapting design accordingly to maximise sustainable benefits. This can help to manage projects against budget and design specifications, as well as delivering a more comprehensive insight into its environmental impacts.
Safety first in the age of social distancing
While these innovations were being adopted in advance of Covid-19, the role that such technology can play in an age of social distancing will be all the more critical. On construction sites, where health and safety precautions must be maintained, this is only set to increase.
For example, augmented reality headsets that overlay construction plans and design information can aid efficiency and workflow, without teams crowding onsite. Another example is the adoption of wristbands that vibrate when too close to others, which are already emerging as tools to help construction teams to maintain social distancing.
Emerging technologies such as heat or motion sensors and movement tracking apps can also monitor density on sites to support safe distancing in the immediate term.
“ With social distancing remaining in place for an indeterminate period, even at a reduced ‘one meter plus’, there is a clear need to examine alternative methods of construction. ”
While such capabilities go some way to addressing safety challenges, conventional construction methods have been difficult to sustain while social distancing. Estimates from the Construction Products Association have suggested that, as the number of people onsite declined, productivity has additional fallen by around 30 to 40%.
With social distancing remaining in place for an indeterminate period, even at a reduced ‘one meter plus’, there is a clear need to examine alternative methods of construction.
Modern Methods of Construction can play an important role in this. Offsite construction can allow projects to more easily and safely continue in a period of social distancing, which can be far more easily maintained in a highly controlled factory environment. With smaller teams onsite for shorter periods of time, projects can be delivered with greatly diminished risk to staff.
A watershed moment for sustainability
As the construction industry adapts to these changes and new capabilities, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Covid-19 could also prove to be a watershed moment for sustainability in the construction industry.
In fact, MMC is just one example of a method that is accelerating this shift, with increasing recognition that offsite construction can help to eradicate the cost and efficiency challenges associated with traditional methods.
Adaptive reuse, such as the recent conversion of a 19th century gas holder into a public park in Kings Cross, London, or the conversation of warehouses across global cities into residential, community and performance spaces, is just one further way of improving carbon efficient practice across the industry, protecting historically-significant design and delivering projects more quickly by adapting existing structures.
“ It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Covid-19 could also prove to be a watershed moment for sustainability in the construction industry. ”
For instance, 70 Wilson, a recent project by astudio, saw a 1980s office block refurbished and extended to create a highly efficient, future-proof building with BREEAM Excellent rating based on low carbon standards.
An adaptive approach to reusing existing buildings can play a huge role in improving the sustainability not only of the construction industry, but also in reducing the 40% of UK emissions currently generated by our built environment.
Innovative solutions, such as re-skinning buildings with algae compounds that absorb carbon emissions and can also produce biofuels, which could play a crucial role in improving the environmental impact of existing structures.
Taking opportunities to innovate
The construction industry will be crucial in our economic recovery, with significant infrastructure investment on the horizon and Covid-19 demonstrating the critical role that technology, and new methods of construction can play in delivering vital projects at pace.
But with significant disruption to the sector, the need to rethink processes to best prioritise sustainability and safety is clear. Construction will move past the coronavirus pandemic. But to do so successfully, it will need to incorporate new technology solutions that prioritise people and sustainability.
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Images courtesy of 2N