The future of building technology

The construction and property sector can play its role in climate change and the environment because buildings consume more energy than cars. In the US, for example, according to a report in The Economist, buildings account for 39% of energy consumption whereas transport takes up only 27%.

The environmental issue is, therefore, relevant to the sector since its contribution to the carbon footprint is not only evident in the energy consumed by buildings but also by the amount of raw materials such as steel, timber and cement, among others, consumed in the construction of buildings.

This is taking place in a world that is enjoying the biggest housing boom in three decades and though it is essentially over in the US, in parts of East and Southeast Asia, it is on the upswing again. In fact, the property sector has in part fuelled the global economy, which has enjoyed four consecutive years of 4% growth.

Human activities ranging from construction and manufacturing to the use of air and sea transport for trade have increased as a result. This is also fuelled by rising consumption of raw materials and commodities by Brazil, Russia, India and China. Increasing prosperity everywhere is also boosting demand for consumer goods.

When one browses through the papers these days, the environment and global warming have become key concerns of everybody - from the man in the street to governments, businesses and various industry lobby groups. Stories of floods, tornadoes, wild fires, drought and rising sea levels have become all too common.

It is against this backdrop that a recent seminar on sustainability in the construction and property sector was held in Singapore, an island-nation whose stake in global warming, like other island-nations, is high due to rising sea levels.

Titled "Leading Lights in the Realm of Sustainability - Strategies in Design and Construction 2007", it was jointly organised by the BCA Academy, which is the education and research arm of the Building and Construction Authority of Singapore and US-based Autodesk Inc, the developer of Autocad, software used by architects during the design stage of construction. There are six million registered users of the software.

The profit motive

Autodesk vice-president for industry strategy and relations Phillip G Bernstein, who has also taught in the Yale School of Architecture and was part of the team that built one of the Petronas Twin Towers, says architects, engineers and building contractors have become more interested in sustainable design in the past four years due to concerns over the environment and climate change. He adds that there's a need to market the concept of sustainability so that people in the industry will accept and promote it.

"There have to be other factors to push the industry into adopting sustainable design because the question that drives an economy is the outcome, which is productivity, efficiency and branding," he says. His presentation at the seminar was on "Predicting the outcome of a building design through building information modelling". The Building Information Modelling (BIM) platform enables the creation and use of coordinated internally consistent information to predict the outcome of a building design before the construction process, thereby eliminating waste and cost. BIM is also used for advanced green analysis for environmentally-friendly buildings. A green building costs 10% to 15% more to design and 5% to 10% more to construct.

Bernstein says the profit motive can be the driver in the acceptance of sustainable design as part of the construction process.

He adds that 30% of the money spent on construction is wasted because it is inefficient; this is partly due to the fragmented nature of the industry where there are so many business operators.

"There could be as many as 30 models for a single project, but we can't park all of them in one location physically because that's not how the business process works," he says.

Bernstein says Autodesk is one of the few companies in the world that have developed software (such as the BIM), which enables business operators to cooperate by using a common platform in which to design a building in three dimensions. About 200,000 copies of the BIM flagship software, Revit, have been sold since its introduction in 2000.

"Reproducing the Western development model is a mistake," he adds, referring to the construction patterns in Southeast Asia. "It'll be a real shame [if the Western model is reproduced] since there's so much work going on right here that there's a chance for innovation," he says.

He adds that Southeast Asia is experiencing a property boom, but it has caused shortages of building materials, which has an important bearing on cost and time.

Bernstein says it will take time for ideas on sustainable design to sink in. "It takes awhile for these ideas to penetrate because the business process is different in the building industry, but I see it being sustainable in five years; there're already more than 100 government jurisdictions looking into it [throughout the world]."

"It is not the software cost that is an obstacle to more people in the industry embracing it; it's the training and adjustment, it's about how people can rethink the process because a modelling-based approach is a big cultural change," says Bernstein.

"I was already an architect for 10 years when the shift was made from drafting [drawing on paper] to designing on computer," he says, adding that his students only know how to design on computers.

Bernstein says the process of change is slow in the industry due to several obstacles - change of contractors in the development span of a project, low margins so there are few opportunities for innovation, and technological constraints.

"The theoretical ideas on sustainability have been around for 30 years but due to the constraints, they were not looked into until now while the lifecycle of a project [between three and four years] is too short a span since technological changes don't occur on a project basis," he says. Another problem to consider is the different standards which the building industry follows in different parts of the world.