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Connected Construction: The Next Frontier for Sustainability

Connected Construction: The Next Frontier for Sustainability

By Eric Harris

These days it’s hard to find a company that isn’t talking about adopting more sustainable practices.  Although it’s become a buzzword, environmental sustainability is critical for making the Earth a better place to live and work. And, as it turns out, the construction industry has the potential to make a significant impact. 

According to the World Green Building Council, buildings account for 39 percent of global carbon emissions. Of that, 28 percent is caused by operational carbon – the emissions that result from heating, cooling, lighting, and operating a building once it’s complete – while the energy used to produce building and construction materials makes up 11 percent. The construction industry can have a substantial positive impact on both fronts by creating buildings that are environmentally friendly to own and operate, and by reducing material and resource waste during the construction process itself. 

Waste is all too common on construction projects today and is not only bad for the environment, but also cuts into budgets and diminishes a project’s overall return. The culprits are typically disconnected workflows, inefficient processes and old ways of working that lead to waste or don’t allow project teams to compare material and design options early in the design phase to determine the most sustainable approach. 

One of the most common causes of construction waste arises from the “order more than we think we’ll need” mindset. This is evident, for example, in planning concrete pours. In lieu of not ordering enough concrete, contractors purchase more material than they need to avoid jeopardizing timelines with material holdups. Another problem is relying on inaccurate data to determine production quantities, which often results in excess material that can’t be reused and is simply discarded as the “cost of doing business.” Additionally, when a single source of data isn’t available to all project parties so that everyone is working from the same, up to date information, errors are inevitable and lead to wasted time, materials, and resources.

Sustainability Starts With Connected Construction

The answer to increasing sustainability and lowering the construction industry’s carbon emissions, costs, and material waste lies in connected construction. However, in order to eliminate waste, boost productivity, and truly enable a connected team, changes must be applied across the entire construction continuum. 

Before construction begins, architects, engineers and designers can use software and analytics technology such as SketchUp PreDesign and Sefaira to create eco-friendly models, while also considering other aspects of the project’s environmental impact such as material, water, and energy needs. With advances in technology, users can explore different concepts nimbly and with ease, without fully defined parameters, to make sustainable design decisions.

Advances in building performance analysis tools are also allowing architects to better understand how building design concepts will use energy, even in the earliest phases of the construction lifecycle. By answering questions early on about heating and cooling loads, lighting, appliances and other energy demands of the completed project, owners can make more informed decisions about the long-term environmental impacts of their projects.

Companies are finding that most construction waste can be reduced or eliminated by adopting a constructible process utilizing digital tools and data in building information models (BIM) at the outset of a project. With this approach, all phases and trades are connected, models and workflows are content-enabled, and data-rich constructible models drive smarter workflows. These models include construction-ready content that is easily accessible through open formats. A key part of this process is the constructible, data-rich 3D model that goes beyond simple geometry and contains accurate and intelligent information that can be used throughout the project lifecycle. 

File-sharing systems such as Trimble Connect and Quadri can ensure that everyone has the most recent set of plans and is working toward the same goals. By collaborating with all stakeholders, knowing what is expected and having the right equipment in place, there is less room for error. 

Reducing Rework Across The Construction Continuum

The cost of rework in construction is high and can be measured in terms of project quality, price, scheduling and environmental impact. Rework can be the result of mistakes or poor construction, but it can also be caused by factors outside of the contractor’s control – such as clients just changing their mind about what they want. 

Technology can provide big benefits across multiple project phases when it comes to reducing rework and eliminating waste. First, extended reality and 3D modeling tools that help stakeholders visualize designs as completed projects enable customers to commit with confidence from the get-go. This clear and early visualization can significantly reduce changes orders – and material waste – throughout the project.

In addition to reducing change orders, technology also helps provide greater visibility into project details during the entire project lifecycle. When a constructible model is shared and accessible in real-time, all stakeholders can coordinate more closely. This improves communication, saves time and vastly reduces the potential for error, which has its own waste reducing benefits. The transparency that is gained by enabling shared access to data among multiple stakeholders also saves materials and shortens construction timelines. 

These savings can be seen in various stages of both building and civil construction projects. When it comes to concrete pouring, for example, a constructible model includes information such as areas, volumes, concrete mix, cost codes, detailed rebar, embeds and formwork, leading to more accurate pours and eliminating wasted material.

During site prep, augmented reality on excavators give operators the ability to view 3D models in a real-world environment at a true-life scale, right inside the cab in the context of their existing surroundings. These machine control systems are improving the accuracy and efficiency of heavy earthmoving equipment, thereby enabling job completion in less time, and using less fuel. 

3D scanning technology in the field is also reducing waste throughout a project’s lifecycle. Field layout is an essential task in which accuracy is a necessity and errors can lead to rework and delays that can come at significant economic and environmental costs. Using advanced 3D scanning technology provides more precise data, and exporting the exact point data from a constructible model to a total station can eliminate errors and dramatically increase productivity in the layout process.

Prefabrication is also contributing to more sustainable models by enabling companies to build components in a controlled environment with all necessary tools and equipment readily on hand, which increases speed and predictability. In addition, the concept of “nesting” allows companies to get the most out of raw materials by optimizing material cuts for maximum output.

With intelligent data fueling fabrication, prefabrication, and lean construction, companies can generate more accurate material estimates that reduce waste, improve productivity, and increase profitability across the project.

Connected construction is the greatest defense against the inefficiencies that stem from data locked up in silos. Breaking down communication barriers and encouraging collaboration and data sharing across project teams is critical for reducing waste and wasted effort. A constructible approach helps streamline construction throughout all phases of a project, eliminating waste and leading to greater sustainability, which will benefit businesses and the environment for years to come.

Eric Harris is Director of Strategic Communications at Trimble.