The U.S. construction industry often boxes itself in when facing obstacles or uncovering the newest emerging trends, while similar situations are occurring in nations across the globe. That international perspective can offer unique solutions and a sense of camaraderie as industry professionals attempt to solve problems and improve efficiencies. A prime example of this exchange of international perspectives occurred last week during the RICS Summit of the Americas and World Built Environment Forum in Washington, DC.
Experts from construction, real estate and financing companies from various countries focused on the industry's future as they discussed the major trends and movements affecting construction. These three concepts were singled out as having the greatest potential to impact the future of the building industry.
Big data — which involves the collection and analysis of massive amounts of information to improve efficiency — has emerged in recent years as a source of valuable information with the potential to transform the construction process, according to Terry Bennett, senior industry strategist of civil infrastructure at Autodesk.
"Big data allows us to start with a problem at the beginning and let the information and big data figure out what the solution is," he said during a panel. "You tell it what it needs to solve, and it does the horsepower."
He noted that data, especially cloud computing technology and information collected from drones, can create opportunities for improved models, fluid dynamic tests and up-to-date site conditions.
"(Big data) allows us to do things that haven't been done before with the assurance that it will happen," he said. "That changes that concept of how we design to how we make. It's amazing production-wise what we can accomplish with the technology that exists. This has been rehearsed, virtualized, choreographed, then executed. Just like a football play."
However, despite these capabilities, Bennett said, "There's a big gap between the state of capability of software and the state of practice."
He attributed this delay in adopting the newest technologies to contractors' tendency to "get nervous" about new ways of conducting business. Bennett cautioned that even if construction professionals' are wary of new technology, they soon won't have a choice in adoption. "Firms have to be wanting to walk through that door and change their processes," he said. "Or some other firm will come in and do it for you."
Bennett added that the analysis component of big data is crucial, as "the question is figuring out how to use the big data to get to those answers, and ignoring everything else. It's so easy to get lost in the data."
That factor makes it imperative that people remain a part of the process, he noted, as they can analyze the right data to come up with vital information for construction. "In today's era, you can't just have computers going without human input," he said. "You're trying to do something very complex. When you combine the two, you can have big things solved."
High-performing buildings can be defined in terms of sustainability/environmental impact, effect on the occupants, life-cycle asset value, or resiliency, according to Henry Green, president of the National Institute of Building Sciences. Focus on these elements of buildings is growing, especially in the public sector, and all segments of the industry are taking note not just for sustainability concerns, but for cost savings.
"It's important to recognize that the initial construction cost is a small proportion of the total life of the building," Dominic Leadsom, director of Turner and Townsend in Canada, said during a panel. "The cost of maintaining a building over 30 years is a multiple of the construction cost. A high performance building is more efficient to operate and use. It reduces that impact of ongoing maintenance and rehabilitation costs."
Awareness of a building's impact not just on its surrounding environment, but on its occupants, has become a growing trend among builders and owners.
"At the end of the day, we're housing people. The idea here is to make sure that our buildings are optimally performing so the people who work in them can optimally perform as well," said Stuart Burns, assistant commissioner of the Office of Real Property Asset Management, Public Buildings Service for the U.S. General Services Administration. "Maintaining a healthful environment is a major part of this. This notion of a high performing building traditionally had been around green issues. Now I think we're seeing a lot of other facets coming in here because green aspects have paved the way."
Another important factor to consider is a building's resiliency, as "acts of God" can come and demolish a valuable building in a matter of minutes, according to Leadsom. "Public buildings need to be able to withstand those events," he said.
Dorothy Robyn, former commissioner of GSA Public Buildings Service, said governments have — and should use — the ability to spur change in the building industry. "One of the things the federal government does really well is be an engine of technological innovation," she said. "It's an early adopter and early customer."
Leadsom stressed that overall, when making the decision whether to invest in building a high-performing structure, owners should consider its "long-term nature."
"Golfers have to play the full 18. High-performance buildings cannot be judged on week one. It's a long-term play," he said. "It's important for us to promote that message to government funding this and end users using the buildings. There’s a long-term picture."
Collaborative contract approach
Collaborative contracts, especially the growing public-private partnership (P3) model — which involves funding and construction collaboration between private and public entities — have picked up steam in the industry.
Bruce McAra, chief executive at Turner and Townsend, said that, in general, the construction contract process is in the midst of a change, as multiparty contracts gain traction in an industry that "requires collaboration."
"I can foresee that's what likely to happen is actually these contracts, by necessity, will become collaborative," he said during a panel.
Naren Chande, senior executive vice president of construction for the Altus Group, said that despite the technological innovation in the construction industry, "One thing that has not changed fundamentally in the process is the formal contract." He added, "Do we have to go through these 50-year old contracts? If you can start to amend that concept and embrace technology, you might find a much simpler way of dealing with a whole bunch of issues. The fundamentals of the contract need to be changed."
Douglas Koelemay, director of the Office of Transportation Public-Private Partnerships for the Commonwealth of Virginia, acknowledged that despite the benefits that come with the P3 approach, there are still obstacles hindering wider implementation.
"P3s do require new skills. It takes a collaborative team. Anything new takes time to develop," he told Construction Dive. "We don't find as much opposition as we do lack of confidence, misunderstandings and fear of something new. We can take those away. It's important to find good private partners."
One of those private partners who has worked with Virginia in the past on P3 projects is Chris Guthkelch, project director for Skanska USA. Guthkelch said that in order for a P3 to be successful, "it's important people understand how complicated this is and manage relationships."
Guthkelch added that it is crucial to recognize that not all projects should use the P3 method. "You have to find the right project. Usually it's big and technically complex," he said.
After all stakeholders can agree to the same objectives, both Guthkelch and Koelemay said the results can be better than anticipated.
"The beauty is, by bringing the private sector in, you get more creativity," Koelemay said. "It frees everyone up to think creatively about how can we make this work, instead of a tug of war. We end up on the same side pulling against the same challenge."