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PropTech and BuildTech – Embracing the Future

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A recent RICS seminar entitled “AI in the Built Environment” raised a number of thought-provoking questions on technology´s future within the property development / investment industry.  Particularly amongst SMEs, the slower take-up across the residential supply-chain is often attributed to the untested and prohibitively expensive nature of many of the solutions fed into the marketplace.  Yet, in spite of the financial hurdles, more developers have begun to appreciate technologies that can genuinely streamline workflows and counterbalance the costly inefficiencies that often plague project timelines.  What follows is a broad outline some of the interesting concepts, tools and machinery slowly but surely filtering into the industry.

Land Finding, Remediation and Speeding up the Planning Process

Achieving a feasible, and ultimately profitable, development scheme relies on a myriad of factors relating to the choice, location and physical characteristics of a given site.  A number of technologies are seeking to remove the common obstacles encountered during the site finding and investigative processes, aspiring to facilitate better planning decisions and a wider understanding of project fundamentals.  During initial site analysis, for example, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can create visualised mapping and geo-locational data tools to accurately pinpoint traffic management, population densities and a range of other influential information.  Existing conditions can be surveyed by means of laser scanning and Ground Penetration Radars (GPRs); the “Max” robot (produced by AtSite), for example, collates environmental data on pressure, light, humidity, temperature, sound, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), land stability, and CO² emissions enabling development teams to more accurately anticipate remediation and other pre-construction expenses.  For more hands-on perspectives, Sanborn Platform for Indoor Mapping (SPIN) is a semi-autonomous mobile robotic platform that uses laser scanning, photogrammetry and computer vision to produce indoor mapping applications.

Other notable software include: Land Insight (an interactive tool with direct links to Ordnance Survey mapping, the Land Registry and Local Planning Authority historical application records); PlaceMake (data gathering, clustering and mapping system still in its Beta phase that identifies up-and-coming areas based not only on price and future developments but also factors such as healthcare, check-ins at bars and restaurants, social media demographic patterns and cash machine activity); Realyse (due diligence metrics by means of  some 160 datasets including prices, rents, yields, demographics, market activity, economics, debt) and Urban Intelligence (also undergoing Beta testing, the service adopts innovative technological solutions and research tools for use in the preparation of planning applications).

Building Information Modelling (BIM)

Established for some years now, Building Information Modelling (BIM) enables development teams to move beyond geometric (computer-aided design) representations and gain a more immersed experience by means of fascinatingly innovative tools such as detailed renderings, practical animations and, more recently, augmented / virtual reality walkthroughs.

Advocated by the UK government for infrastructure and larger construction projects (through independent bodies such as the BIM Task Group), project designers can effectively “digitally build” and test ideas for particular schemes, simulate design, structural and other engineering concepts.  The technology has been categorised into subdivisions: 3D (parametric real time data, vendor manufacturing data, performance specification values, clash detection); 4D (scheduling, construction site planning related activities, logistical management, MEP configuration testing, health & safety risk mitigation, coordination of building materials and staff allocation to ensure optimum work flow, visual validation for payment approval); 5D (budget tracking and cost analysis); 6D (optimise energy consumption, carbon emission reduction, overheating, air circulation, LEED tracking) and 7D (operation and maintenance of buildings throughout its post-completion life cycle, improving performance, transitioning from reactive to predictive servicing).

Project planners, in turn, will have better access to information and data exchange capacity across timelines to produce more transparent “shovel ready” projects.  Such advances will undoubtedly mean that architects, engineers, structural engineers, MEP engineers and other industry professionals would need to become astute programmers to stay ahead of the curve – and be fully versed with a range of software packages including Autodesk Revit, Navisworks, Graphisoft Archicad, Bentley Microstation or Tekla BIMSight.

Gross Development Cost Estimations and Appraisal Models

Conceptual modelling, schematic design and cost planning tools such as DProfiler in addition Excel-based financial-economic software such as Argus, Estates Master, SDS and REFM can extract quantified data and granularly analyse projects, simultaneously applying a range of advanced stress and scenario testing methods (such as Monte Carlo and other “what-if” simulations).  The over-arching objective is to facilitate detailed contingency planning, low margins or error and more certainty over keeping projects on-time and on-budget.

Property Transactional Processes

Whilst it would take a monumental piece of software to keep track of the legislative changes, complex planning history, historical covenants and easements – the growth of artificially intelligent legal services has been an interesting technological development aimed at enhancing the profession´s capacity to execute workloads more efficiently.  ROSS, for instance – built upon IBM´s cognitive computer “Watson” – is assisting US lawyers by means of machine learning and natural language processing / speech systems; contractual drafting / reviewing contracts (using special imaging techniques to analyse legal documents) and even with crafting and practicing oral arguments.  Some of the immediate benefits to the property industry of such technology may well include faster / frictionless exchange and completion processes; wider access to legal precedents and up-to-the minute legislation; simplification of complex legal arguments; removing red tape during the planning process and streamlined arbitration of contractual disputes.  ROSS is indeed just one example of how the property legal industry looks set to be substantially disrupted – especially as decentralising technologies such as Blockchain come to the fore. Expect to see similar advances in other interdisciplinary fields such accountancy / tax advice, insurance, mortgage and property finance industries (readers interested in this topic should subscribe to James Dearsley´s and Rayhan Omar´s PropTech blogs).

Pre-Fabricated Housing

The industrialisation of housebuilding – broadly referred to as Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) – adopts more of an assembly line approach, stemming from theoretical concepts such as “lean production”, “Kaizen”, “Last Planner” and “Just in Time (JIT)”.   In the UK, the government´s goal of building 100,000 offsite manufactured homes by 2020 has represented a clear commitment to utilising these methodologies.

Effectively constructing entire structural elements and delivering “as built” to site, the technologists argue that developments can be delivered much faster with better precision, lower costs and less harm to the environment.  Confronting the commonly cited challenges of low productivity and skills shortages, project pathways effectively become smooth and “emotionless”.  Some notable examples include the “flying factories” implemented by Skanska and Costain for the first phase of the Battersea Power Station´s redevelopment which resulted in a 44 percent cost reduction and 60 percent reduced construction period.  Legal & General have announced plans to construct a 550,000ft² modular housebuilding facility in Leeds (costing approximately £61 million) to service expansion into the PRS and retirement home sectors.  Laing O´Rourke has also reported that 80 percent of the Leadenhall Building was built offsite, cutting deliveries by 50 percent (see an interesting report in the Engineering Excellence Journal by the construction company here).

Below are some examples of cognitive robot technology (performing repetitive and non-repetitive tasks) being tested on building sites across the world:

SAM100, the bricklaying robot developed by Construction Robotics which can be configured to lay a brick every 14 seconds:

Automatic sand and cement plaster rendering machinery:

Onsite drone technology (for ongoing monitoring) with sensor and thermal imaging capacity:

Flight Assembled Architecture (50 flying robots that successfully built a six foot, structurally stable tower using 1,500 Styrofoam blocks. Algorithms determined how to most efficiently dispatch the drones, avoid collisions, and determine best-case paths for fastest payload pickup and release):

If successful, implementing such technologies could mean that housing is produced all day, every day – rapidly changing supply dynamics. It´s a given, however, that massive expanses of industrial space will be necessary and there will be a range of associated costs including maintenance, logistics, transportation and the effects of obsolescence not to mention the high levels of capex early in development timelines.  Such models are therefore likely to remain exclusively within the domain of larger developers for the foreseeable future.  The long-term economies of scale relative to on-site construction will also be of interest, particularly if the next technology gains momentum.

3D Printed Housing

Seemingly hard to fathom conceptually, digital construction / fabrication was shown to be well within the realms of possibility when Chinese company WinSun showcased the multi-storey building below:


Whilst little information has been released relating to specific building methodology and controversial legal questions surrounding intellectual property have already begun to emerge, terms such as “contour crafting”, “additive manufacturing”, “sequential layering technology”, “3D drone printing” are already becoming part of the forward-thinking developer´s parlance.  The TED talk below excellently explores the potential impact of 3D property technology to the industry:

Where Now?

As with anything untested over the medium-long term timeframe, for many of the above technologies to gain real traction, a certain degree of risk taking will be involved – probably by larger development companies with deeper pockets.  It is also worth mentioning the commonly cited fear of the social impact of technological advancement, such as the reduction of employment as more construction processes become automated.  Proponents argue, however, that prop- and build-tech will have more of an augmentative role and are not intended to substitute business intuition, drive and experience.  Whether the wider social benefits of housing accessibility and new forms employment will eventually offset such concerns remains to be seen.  Yet, regardless of where readers may stand on this and other emerging debates in this space, mitigating the inherent risks within housing development by means of cost-effective  and scaled modernisation is something that certainly should be encouraged moving forward.

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