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Building what's next: Construction innovation could crack 'wicked' city problems

Jon Glasco rounds up the latest innovation from the BBConstrumat trade show and its potential impact on smart city goals.


Smart city leaders are accustomed to a perpetual flow of promising and disruptive technology announcements from innovators in many economic sectors: IT, wireless networks, mobile services, cybersecurity, transportation, energy, public safety. The list goes on.


What about innovative technologies from the construction industry? This global, trillion-dollar industry – essential to the development of cities and a key factor in the quality of urban life – has been relatively quiet about its gradual adoption of smart city technologies. Until now.


Last month, more than 54,000 professional visitors and 420 exhibitors from the architecture and construction sectors gathered at Barcelona Building Construmat (BBConstrumat), a biennial international conference.

Ione Ruete, Director of BBConstrumat, set the stage for this year’s conference when she tweeted: "The construction sector is one of the least digitalised industries. That is the reason why we are focused on innovation and technology."


Change is coming

The evidence from BBConstrumat suggests disruptive changes are on the horizon for construction technologies. In a venue graced with billowing white fabric (a design using geotextiles) and inspired by circular economy principles, exhibitors and presenters revealed the latest research and technology opportunities for those who plan and construct smart cities, buildings, homes and sustainable solutions in the built environment.

In seminars and roundtable discussions, international experts addressed the significance of digital innovation in the construction sector, digital skills for construction design, and the application of data visualisation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, IoT, digital twins and advanced analytics.

Álexandre Dubor, an architect and professor at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IaaC), explained in a presentation how human-machine interactions enable "seamless cooperation between robots and humans" in a construction ecosystem.


"Despite a high degree of industrial automation, robotic solutions are not yet prevalent in construction. Most tasks are performed manually with the help of conventional electro-mechanic and hydraulic tools,” he said.


As an expert in digital and robotic fabrication, Dubor presented examples of the potential to apply robotics in construction projects.



Future houses

The IaaC served as curator of the Future Arena and Future House exhibitions. Future House demonstrated how digital technologies enable designers to create living spaces that interact with inhabitants and the urban environment.


Future House demonstrated how digital technologies enable designers to create living spaces that interact with inhabitants and the urban environment.

Drawing from international projects and research teams, the Future House was organised around the axes of bio and advanced materials, robotics, big data, the circular economy, virtual reality and Building Information Modelling (BIM). Projects exhibited in the Future Arena included:

  • Immersive and remote experience of smart homes and buildings: Highlighting virtual and augmented reality technology from IED Barcelona
  • Innochain FlectoFold: A system of facades made with fibre-reinforced bio-material from the Itke and ICD institutes of the University of Stuttgart
  • Phi energy platform: A tool based on blockchain and citizen control for renewable energy management of homes, designed by researchers from the Strelka Institute

Removing asbestos safely


Eurecat (the Technology Centre of Catalonia) presented the Bots2Rec project, demonstrating how autonomous robots remove asbestos during building rehabilitation and demolition. Although asbestos is banned in more than 60 countries, an estimated 2 million tons are consumed annually.

Globally, 125 million people are at risk of occupational exposure to asbestos, and 90,000 die each year from asbestos-related cancers and other diseases.


Workers at construction sites, manufacturing plants, shipyards, mines, chemical plants and refineries encounter high risk of asbestos exposure.


When asbestos is removed from buildings, the exposure to asbestos fibres is dangerous even when wearing personal protective equipment. The Bots2Rec solution, an EU-funded project, consists of robots with multiple arms and tools designed to perform automatic removal of asbestos contamination.


Eurecat also presented its Built2Spec solution which provides technology tools for smart construction worksites, including 3D modelling and imagery tools, energy efficiency quality checks, smart building components, and a virtual construction management platform. The solution gives building developers the tools they need to meet European energy-efficiency requirements while creating more sustainable outcomes.


Future cities


Throughout the conference, visitors were drawn to exhibits highlighting innovation in smart buildings and smart cities. These included:

  • Internet of Buildings: Exploring the future of cities by defining new methods and benefits of designing smart buildings in the digital era and clarifying how structures communicate
  • 3D Printed Earth-based Circular Architecture: Investigating the methods and opportunities to construct homes and buildings with additive manufacturing
  • Passivhaus Building Platform: Two passive houses were constructed on-site during the conference. They were designed and built in accordance with Passivhaus principles for energy efficiency and sustainability

Building smarter cities


While the development of new construction technologies looks promising, one has to consider when these technologies will be embraced in an industry known for its slow uptake of innovation – how will the technologies deliver solutions in smart cities?

Consider environmental issues, which are among the most urgent challenges confronting city leaders. For smart city strategists and innovators in the built environment, the adoption of new technology offers opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of construction projects and buildings.


Large construction projects typically have an adverse impact on the local environment and nature.


Large construction projects typically have an adverse impact on the local environment and nature.


According to Arup, the impact of hauling, adding and disposing of material in the construction supply chain "accounts for six to twenty per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions." This is a challenge that requires smart city collaboration among diverse stakeholders, including construction companies, research institutes, local government, regulators and transport providers.

Stakeholder collaboration is needed to merge innovation in technologies and policies concerning materials recycling, greener fuel sources, electric vehicles and route planning. Another opportunity concerns the use of green building materials which are synthetically produced.


Through ease of recycling and re-use in other projects, green materials should contribute to circular economy objectives.


Wicked problems


The affordable housing crisis is a wicked problem affecting cities throughout the world. National governments and city leaders should look toward the construction sector for innovations to mitigate this crisis.


"Though the challenge of affordable housing in Europe has turned out to be huge, no single state seems to have been able to tackle it in a structural way," writes Maria Sisternas, CEO of MEDIAURBAN in Barcelona. Sisternas says "the increased cost of living above employment income is a key problem for more than a third of citizens in the European Union."

BBConstrumat provided examples of how 3D-printed homes, robotics. modular construction methods and Passivhaus design principles enable increased efficiency, cost savings and growth in the stock of affordable housing.


Although the Passivhaus concept has been around for decades, it was not considered as a solution for most social housing projects in Europe because of its initial cost-to-build – typically five to ten per cent more expensive than conventional structures.


KLH Sustainability, a UK consultancy, believes the focus on cost-to-build is "short-sighted" and "misses the point of what it truly means to be affordable. Affordable housing is designed for low-income occupants. Therefore, it should not just be efficient to build, it needs to be efficient to run. Passivhaus can help to achieve this."


Accelerating green buildings


In the Passivhaus Building Platform at BBConstrumat, visitors observed the construction of two passive houses – one built by the Spanish company Arquima and another constructed by companies from the Passivhaus Consortium, a non-profit entity with the aim of accelerating the adoption of almost zero-passive consumption buildings. If achieved, this adoption should contribute to industry compliance with an EU Directive on energy efficiency which requires that all new structures must be nearly zero-energy buildings by 2021.


The scalability of Passivhaus methods makes this approach more feasible and adaptable to affordable housing plans in smart cities. "The passive house is part of our DNA and is here to stay," said Jose María García Carrasco, Marketing Manager at BMI Group (an affiliated member of the Passivhaus Consortium).


The future will reveal how the construction industry manages disruptive changes and a transformation from slow uptake to faster adoption of innovation.


The future will reveal how the construction industry manages disruptive changes and a transformation from slow uptake to faster adoption of innovation. A fundamental question is whether government should act as a driver of change and facilitate the adoption of construction technologies and other policies which help solve urban problems.


Laia Ortiz, former deputy mayor of Barcelona, believes it is not only cities but also national governments that must have a role in meeting the housing challenge: "Cities are where the problem is and also where most of the solutions are appearing. Why don’t we have enough tools, enough investment, enough financial resources to face the problems? […] We need support from European funds. We need regulation and a directive that protects the right of housing."




Another possible driver of change is the growth in start-ups pursuing opportunities in construction technologies. "Investors are taking notice" of entrepreneurial activity, as reported in a TechCrunch article, and funding in construction technology start-ups grew from $730 million in 2017 to more than $3 billion in 2018 (including two large funding rounds with a total of $1.96 million).


The construction industry should be optimistic about its technological strengths, according to David Diez, consultant in technology innovation at ITAINNOVA (the Technological Institute of Aragón). "Construction has advanced significantly in recent years and has laid the foundations for a promising future," says Diez.


"We are leaving behind the state of conformism in which the sector has been sleeping for years."


Smart city leaders – working in partnership with construction companies, architects, research institutes and tech start-ups –have opportunities to shape the future of the built environment and facilitate development of smart buildings and smart affordable homes with higher energy efficiency, increased sustainability, less environmental impact and improved safety and security.


For smart city residents: Think high quality of life.


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