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  • Construction 4.0 - transforming the industry through digitisation

Construction 4.0 - transforming the industry through digitisation

In the next two decades we will witness a massive transformation where buildings will be first built virtually and the use of machine learning applications and autonomous construction equipment might replace most manual work throughout construction value chain, says Hubert Rhomberg. We spoke to the founder of CREE by Rhomberg, regularly referred to as an industry disruptor, about the future of construction and changes in current roles. 

Where do you see the future of construction?

Currently, we are in a transition period given how digitisation and new technologies are shaping various processes on how our industry functions. And, when you look through the trends, it is obvious that a large chunk of our work will be fully automated from technologies that include building information modeling (BIM), prefabrication, wireless sensors, automated and robotic equipment and 3D-printing. Construction will couple itself with the latest technologies in the market on one side and on the other side industry will be more environment responsible for the change it brings across infrastructure, real estate and other built assets.

In the next two decades we will witness a massive transformation where buildings will be first built virtually and the use of machine learning applications and autonomous construction equipment might replace most manual work throughout construction value chain. Moreover, the business will largely move to advanced manufacturing processes to pre-fabricate modules that are later assembled on-site, keeping the industry guarded to meet tough environmental regulations through the use of renewable resources.

You’re being described as one of the disruptors in the construction industry. What are the foundations of your concept?

The problem we have in our industry is that every building is a prototype. Everytime we begin, we start from scratch and make a good building and then leave. In this entire process, around 40% of the current resources and energy consumption is used and wasted by the construction industry. That is enormous. This certainly demanded a shift in the way we build. So after years being as a head of a big construction group I realized that change can only occur if we try to find solutions to our problems. Our LifeCycle Tower (LCT) One, which is an 8-storey building in Dornbirn, south of Bregenz, began as a research and development project based on the LifeCycle assessment (LCA) of buildings. The motivation was to find a substitute for traditional construction practices and in which the building process is rethought in every respect. The result was the first medium-rise building to be constructed in timber based on what is called the Cree system. Back in 2012 it was the prototype for the concept of building towers with prefabricated timber modules, and today it attracts several thousand visitors every year from around the world.

Today, Cree is pushing ahead with “construction 4.0” and already has developing projects in Singapore, Denmark and Luxembourg and of course in our home market of Austria, Germany and Switzerland. A new era is approaching thanks to cutting-edge Cree system and our developing platform that we are revolutionising building sites using good old-fashioned wood wherein the larger role is played by assemblers, software developers and designers rather than builders. 

What are key challenges you are trying to tackle with your concept? 

Sustainability is one of the key challenges we are tackling using our Cree system. There is a certain guilt about sustainability that goes with the territory for many builders. So certainly using wood as building resource is the most natural material imaginable as the basis for such a system. This applies particularly to taller buildings, as wood has outstanding structural properties, is extremely resilient, has high life expectancy and ensures minimum resource and energy consumption. In order to reduce the carbon footprint of its buildings, Cree uses standard building products, which can easily be sourced within the local market, creating greater independence for the local companies and enabling a shift away from imports.

The other challenge we are focusing on is the digital design process in timber design and construction. Through the use of software technology such as Revit and DfMA methodology we are offering architects, planners and developers the ability to view the Cree System and create a preliminary design for their building approval process.

Logistics is a major challenge in traditional construction that is being firmly dealt by Cree. Through our offsite to onsite approach, in which assembling the factory-built wooden sections takes only a few days, this allows workers high quality of working place, no heavy lifting and creating new jobs for people without education. Hence, boosting productivity which for our industry is known to be stagnated.

Similarly, is the issue relating to quality control. Through our Cree approach, in the building process we guarantee that each control, document and process are established in such a way that a digital twin of the building is prepared, thereby, providing a larger picture for long-term benefit. Here it must also be shared, especially after knowing that the UK government's Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is currently consulting on “Banning the use of combustible materials in the external walls of high - rise residential  buildings”. So even if that happens it does not affect the Cree building system. In our buildings we do not incorporate load-bearing walls, but load-bearing columns along the building’s perimeter. The external wall is non-load-bearing, thus can be of any given material. If non-combustible is decided for, we can easily fulfill that.

Based on your vision how will digitisation change the way we build buildings? 

The very fact that digital technologies are gradually entering the construction industry signifies that change is inevitable. Moreover, every week new softwares solutions are sprouting up on digital built environment from design to construct to maintenance. Even the world’s largest real estate developers are making direct investments into technology companies, by developing new capabilities and in-house software platforms (IoT focused) that focus specifically on the industry’s needs. Digital transformation in the construction industry will focus on three key areas: automation, standardization and mass customization supply-chain.

The way forward will be a platform that promotes interoperability based on “construction 4.0”.

In that sense, a platform is a standardised superstructure of a building where even the tiniest detail is in the form of data. We ourselves are building our Cree platform that serves as a meeting point, a cluster of knowledge and a marketplace where we streamline the processes that involve architects, contractors, and subcontractors for larger productivity and efficiency. Allowing planners to form virtual teams or firms in order to realise major projects, and developers can look for specialists. Or the innovation processes of our building platform can also suggest plans, parts and prefabricated modules. Thereby, opening the door to a completely new supply chain that construction firms have been unable to access so far, in which DfMA in construction acts as a bridge between the construction and manufacturing industries, generating a cost projection right down to the last building component.

What role does the architect play in this scenario? 

The combination of BIM and GIS are creating the future role of architects who will be called as influencers of the building process. And, in that sense architects are becoming “building designer”, where technological transformation is taking at a very rapid rate. Giving way forward to further BIM adoption and shift to the power of automated workflows driven by artificial intelligence (AI) and computational science, will allow hybrid roles to emerge based on the construction needs.

Your 3 wishes for the construction industry?

  1. Industry should focus heavily on the footprint of Co2 emissions. It's important that we change the way we construct and make use of wood as it is the only significant renewable construction material.
  2. Secondly, I would wish that when constructing, the Lifecyle of a building is well thought over. This would keep a tab on the destruction that usually happens when the original purpose of a building suddenly shifts. The ease of making and reversing changes means that the materials used in the building become a quantifiable value over many decades.
  3. Lastly, while we know that change is slow and tough in construction, yet with digital transformation taking place new doors have opened and with this I hope it shall allow further industry collaboration across various levels.

Find out more

Watch Hubert's presentation at Fifteen Seconds Europe 2018

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