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Can digitisation shift the dial on carbon emissions?

by Tim Clark
A digital-looking offshore wind farm

Like society at large, the construction sector must wrestle with the implications of new technology and the need to address an overheating climate, so can digital transformation help shrink its carbon footprint? Tim Clark reports

They form two of the most pertinent questions facing developers and construction firms in the coming decade: How to digitise, and how to decarbonise their processes.

However as the construction sector gets to grips with net zero and the ever-more digitised world, is it possible to advance both at once?

Build In Digital hosted a panel at the UK Construction Week in Birmingham last month to delve into the issue, and shine a light on which firms are boosting their net zero and digital credentials at the same time.

“There is a document which gives me a lot of hope at the minute,” says James Franklin, head of BIM at Kier Strategic Projects. “That’s the transforming infrastructure performance road map to 2030.

“It looks at harmonisation across government agencies, looking at digital approaches and how they come together. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there.”

Published by the Infrastructure Projects Authority (IPA), the document covers governance across infrastructure in particular.

The Transforming Infrastructure Performance (TIP) aims to overhaul how the government and industry intervene in the built environment to drive step change in infrastructure performance.

Formulated by the IPA as well as the UK Infrastructure Bank, and the National Infrastructure Commission, the roadmap will prioritise “societal outcomes we need, and use modern digital approaches and technologies alongside models to achieve them”.

According to Franklin, the advantage of the central government push is the consistency it provides to firms such as Kier when they draw up their bids for work.

Widening the reach

The built environment sector covers a far wider variety of works than simply infrastructure, though. There are signs of progress in areas such as homes and offices, however.

“As an industry we have got very good at measuring embodied carbon,” says Ciaran Garrick, associate director and head of design technology at architecture practice Allies and Morrison.

“The area we are trying to focus on now is working on the design stages and getting a bit more ownership of what you select in terms of materials. We seem to be as an industry to be heavily focused on measuring the problem, rather than actually addressing the material selection problem in the first place.”

According to Garrick, it is essential to keep materials within a building project, and try to incorporate aspects of the circular economy – an economic model whereby consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible – into developments.

Learning curve

Allies and Morrison has worked with British Land on a number of schemes to enhance their carbon credential via digitisation of the construction process. According to Garrick, the larger developers are learning how to meld their own agendas with the wider innovation drive in the sector, but it is a learning process.

“We are working with British Land on a few projects and the interesting part of a client like that is that the government is pushing them [British Land] in the direction of producing COBie data at the end of a project that then informs maintenance of buildings through the operations,” Garrick says.

“British Land, coming from a completely different perspective, they’re more interested in measuring the performance of spaces.

“They have a smart buildings team, and are looking at how to integrate IoT sensors that really tell them how their spaces are performing, including maintenance of assets. They are the exception to the rule; most clients we work with, you’re guiding them along the way.”

COBie data – which stands for Construction Operations Building Information Exchange – is a non-proprietary data format for the publication of a subset of building information models (BIM) focused on delivering asset data as distinct from geometric information.

In January 2019, the UK National Annex within BS EN ISO 19650-2 states that non-geometric information exchanges in open data formats should be structured to COBie format.

The new standard is beginning to have an impact. However bottlenecks in incorporating data to drive up efficiencies and drive down carbon emissions still exist. Retrofits remain a key example of how the industry is grappling to make the programme or works more efficient.

“Take retrofits, you can be looking at buildings which don’t have any [construction] records at all, the work is to then digitise that building, take all the records, create a digital model,” says Franklin.

“You then take that model and do analysis on it, which is why we need people such as Buro Happold or those with the skills such as Python [a coding language], or Energy Plus [a whole building energy simulation program], which can take a fabric first approach and look at issues such as HVAC [Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning] requirements to make sure that retrofitting is using the best data, and the best platform to make a decision.”

When skills shortages in the construction industry are discussed, coding is not usually top of the list but dedicated tech professionals who also know the construction sector are key to helping unlock, and standardise many processes.

Conversely, the terminology surrounding digitisation has to a certain extent also created barriers, even if unintentionally.

“I think that at the moment, there’s some negative associations often with the word BIM, and historically, data has been used as little as a tick box exercise,” says Mairead Gallagher Morgan, specialist consulting UK BIM innovation lead at Buro Happold.

“It’s important that information is used in a multidisciplinary way, and is shared with a project’s sustainability consultants.

“This is something that Buro Happold is doing, and data has been used through projects and can then inform future design.”

Buro Happold has set out its own roadmap and an innovation working group looking at net zero. Gallagher states that as projects’ lifecycles become more digitised, more data on how they perform is produced, and the information gathering is critical in informing future decisions on how projects can be improved.

She notes how cloud storage usage is useful to improve such data sharing, however “we need to just start using it in a more correct way”.

Intellectual property

According to BIM specialist Anna Galika, design technology manager at Gensler, every company – be they architects, consultants, construction firms or developers – wants to be able to offer a product or solution that can give them a competitive advantage, which means keeping its intellectual property close to its chest. This leaves less room for open collaboration across the sector.

“Every company wants to be at the forefront and bring something special, such as another tool, or an additive service [to the market] that no other company offers. So I think there is a lot of information stuck in silos on its own as people strive to reach the same goal,” she says.

“We have to think a bit bigger and try to tackle the goals which lie beyond our own companies or workflows.

“We need to come together with democracies of data to understand what we need to achieve on a wider-scale [in terms of decarbonising the sector]. We need to do this collectively at a higher level.”

Galika’s role at Gensler includes taking client briefs and liaising with design teams that have useable data to create more streamlined workflows that developer clients can understand.

Tech providers which supply the numerous programmes that the property industry relies upon could also do more to ensure that data is transferable between different systems or projects.

“I think there has to be more ownership from those that are providing the tools that we’re using the digital environment to really get to grips with some of the challenges that we’re going to have for the next few years,” Garrick says.

De-central approach

Can the government show more leadership to help drive down carbon costs? Politically, the environment doesn’t seem to be in favour of speeding up the drive for net zero, however the real estate sector has insulated itself from the varying policy changes at government level to press ahead with some of its own programmes

The net zero carbon building’s standard is an initiative led by Related Argent chairman David Partridge, which is due to report later this year.

The Building Safety Act will also to a certain extent speed up some of the technological adoption many hope to use to drive down carbon savings, possibly as an offshoot of the introduction of the Golden Thread of information, which now accompanies new builds.

“Standardisation isn’t going to come centrally, we need to work with the largest developers across the country to try and coordinate that in a coherent way,” Garrick adds.

“If you’re looking at ways of measuring [carbon performance] in the industry it is, in some ways, very similar to the Building Safety Act.”

According to Gallagher, the cultural shifts will be the vital component in delivering long term change. The government can produce bundles of roadmaps, but they are pointless if no-one follows them.

“When people say ‘we’ve done it this way for 30 or 100 years’, its hard to explain what the changes are,” she says. “We are going to have to try and win people over, and explain why these things apply to them, whether they are a scaffolder, or an acoustic engineer.”

Bringing in skills from other sectors into construction remains vital, she adds, as the fresh perspectives can help shift the dial when it comes to deploying innovation.

“Educating people who come from different industries that are driving for change that have passion about net zero is important.

“We need to utilise those skills, such as computation, or software engineering. I think there’s just such a big opportunity for a proper cultural shift to happen.”

Image credit: Who is Danny/Shutterstock

Read next: Embodied carbon reporting guide published

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