What you'll be talking about in 2016

5 January 2016

From FinTech to broken-plan, a raft of new buzzwords are entering the language. Tom Ravenscroft looks at the hot topics you'll be talking about at the water cooler this year, and offers a cups 'talkability' rating.


Move over wi-fi, there’s a new kid in town. Li-fi, which uses lightwaves to transmit data and is integrated with LED light fittings, is being touted as the super-fast, secure and energy-efficient successor to wi-fi. It can transmit data 100 times faster than wi-fi by using the visible light spectrum, which is 10,000 times larger than the spectrum for radio waves currently used for wi-fi.

As it uses standard LEDs, li-fi has the potential to turn every light source in the home, office and city into a super-fast data transmitter. As futuristic as this may sound, this is not a technology for the future – it already exists. Li-fi has been tested in labs and real-world environments, is already commercially available and is to be installed in a Paris office next year.

Professor Harald Haas is co-founder of pureLiFi, a company spun out of Edinburgh University, where much of the early li-fi research took place. Haas, known in tech circles as the “father of li-fi”, believes it will emerge as a viable alternative to wi-fi over the next two to three years: “Architects and designers need to start thinking about li-fi right now. When they are thinking about light and IT infrastructure they can now solve these two things with one system.”

Light work: Li-fi can use lightwaves from LED light sources to provide super-fast data transmission

PureLiFi and French LED manufacturer Lucibel are currently working together to create the world’s first fully integrated industrialised li-fi luminaire, which they expect to install throughout the headquarters of French homebuilder Sogeprom in La Défense, Paris, next year.

At present, the technology is restricted by its high cost in comparison to wi-fi. However, as demand rises, bringing economies of scale, expect the cost of li-fi to fall and its adoption to increase.

As offices, homes and cities look to switch their lighting to lower-energy LEDs, this could provide the perfect opportunity to upgrade to li-fi. Haas, however, doesn’t expect li-fi to replace wi-fi anytime soon. “It’s a disruptive technology. We are doing our best to introduce it as quick as possible, but it will still take a while until it is widely adapted,” he says. “It will take the same route as wi-fi: first it will be adopted by progressive enterprises and then a gradual transition until people have it in their homes.”

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Light fidelity; VLC (visible light communications); data light; spectrum crunch; optical wireless communications

Wearable tech

Just as technology is transforming construction projects, it may soon be transforming the people who work on them, as employers look to monitor employees’ fitness, health and wellbeing – and even brainwaves – with wearable tracker devices.

Recording heart rates, perspiration and breathing may sound worryingly like an invasion of privacy, but the argument is that workers will accept this as a trade-off for de-risked sites. Wearable monitors could send alerts when individuals are tired or stressed, or even exposed to dangerous levels of noise or poor air quality.

According to research company Gartner, wearable tech in the workplace could boom in the very near future. It reports that 10% of under-75s in the UK now use a fitness tracker and predicts people will become more accepting of sharing data.

The Melon headband includes electro-encephalography (EEG) sensors

In the US, wearable monitors are being incorporated into employers’ voluntary fitness-based reward schemes and Gartner predicts that by 2018, 2 million employees worldwide will be required to wear health tracking devices.

Simon Hart, built environment platform leader at Innovate UK, thinks that the technology will be adopted in the UK: “It’s absolutely a possibility that wearable monitors could become compulsory on construction sites. The technology already exists and is being driven by the consumer market. It’s just about finding the right business model and a forward-thinking organisation to allow it to happen.”

In fact, Carillion explored trialling BUPA Boost, an app designed to motivate employees by tracking progress against colleagues. In Australia, Laing O’Rourke is piloting a scheme to collect data via a sensor strip inside a worker’s hard hat.

And the smart helmet of the future could monitor our brainwaves to check how focused we are on the task at hand. The Melon headband includes electro-encephalography (EEG) sensors to measure the electrical activity of neurons through electrodes on the forehead. It was acquired by Daqri, which is trialling Augmented Reality “smart helmets” on Crossrail.

You may also be talking about...

Fitbit; biometric sensors; health tracking; smart helmets

Behavioural assessment

In November, when HS2 advertised for a “provider of behavioural assessment consultancy services”, HR managers across the industry took a gulp. Assessment exercises for bid teams’ key managers are increasingly being deployed by major clients as part of the procurement process. They want individuals who can collaborate, solve problems collectively and not impose their world view on others. So think of the tasks set on reality TV programmes – standing between your firm and the next contract. 

But what actually happens at an assessment? According to one report, you might meet a 30-strong assessment team, each armed with clipboards, monitoring every move as groups work through tasks. “Some of the men were very ego-driven, trying to put their point across,” says one female participant. “We had to remind them it was about collaboration.”

But firms eyeing up HS2 should pay attention. According to a spokesperson, it will be “an important part of our tender evaluation to select successful suppliers”. But it also plans “a wider strategy for building the right behaviours... to embed collaboration in our relationships.”

You may also be talking about...

Cultural intelligence

Generative design

Above and below right: Zaha Hadid Architects is using generative design to optimise the position of artefacts in its maths gallery for the Science Museum

Think of generative design as architecture by algorithms. Fully developed generative design could allow every element of a building to be generated by a computer by inputting large amounts of data and corresponding algorithms to simulate
their influence.

This, according to Shajay Bhooshan, an associate at Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), is the “holy grail” and, although we are undoubtedly many years away from this being a reality, elements of generative design are already being used by architects.

“Now is the right time to talk about generative design,” says Bhooshan. “Every day, in all industries, there is more talk of data-driven processes like the self-driving car or algorithmic trading. Architecture doesn’t operate in a vacuum and generative design is architecture’s version of these data-led disruptive ideas.”

Key to generative design is that the numerous inputs that determine a building’s form and structure — such as structural and manufacturing constraints, planning requirements, site restrictions, ground conditions, environmental conditions – will all be available in a digital form in the era of Open Data transparency.

With the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) and increasing amounts of information being digitised, this data is becoming available and architects are beginning to take advantage of it.

Innovations such as Google’s Flux – currently only available in Austin, Texas – which can create a maximum envelope for buildings by incorporating all the national and local planning regulations overlaid on a 3D map, show the ideas being implemented on an urban scale.

The concept is already in use on live projects. Bhooshan explains that ZHA used generative design at the Science Museum in London, to determine the overall spatial configuration and the arrangement of artefacts in the maths gallery.

Data points such as dimensions, lighting requirements and collection groupings were determined for each artefact. These were then inputted into a digital model that could assimilate all the inputs and determine the artefact’s optimum arrangement. As the model is flexible, if inputs change – in this case the choice of artefacts to be displayed – the arrangement can quickly be recirculated.

“Generative design is becoming more mainstream, and it is one to watch for the future,” concludes Bhooshan.

You may also be talking about...

Parametricism; generative art


Financial technology, often referred to by its snappy shortform name of FinTech, essentially means the use of software and apps to provide financial services. Often startup companies, these “digital disruptors” (a phrase that surely belongs to the 2014 buzzword top 10) challenge existing banking systems and processes by offering cheaper, quicker, online services.

A leading example is peer-to-peer currency platform TransferWise, which has been used to transfer £3bn of money around the world by matching up transactions in different currency pairs. It offers better exchange rates than banks, and is marketed at SMEs as well as individuals sending salaries back home.

"This year expect to see keynote speakers introducing the idea of FinTech at conferences."

Neil Thompson, Balfour Beatty

The industry will hear far more about FinTech in 2016, believes Neil Thompson, the UK head of digital research and innovation at Balfour Beatty, although its impacts may not be felt for several years. “This year expect to see keynote speakers introducing the idea at conferences and thought leadership pieces appearing in magazines. FinTech is only just starting to disrupt the financial services industry, but I hope that in 2016 we will start seriously talking about its potential in construction.”

Simon Hart, built environment platform leader at Innovate UK, agrees: “FinTech is certainly something we want to look at. It’s not something that I have seen trickle down into the construction industry yet, but I suspect it will. The digital team [at Innovate UK] has already run a funding call on this, and we are investigating the innovation requirements of FinTech for construction.”

FinTech offers the capability to make secure, rapid and cheap transactions that could enable a whole variety of functions, such as peer funding of major projects, or peer-to-peer energy purchasing. But the most immediate way it could make an impact on construction is in the digitisation of payments to replace contract-driven payment notices and invoicing. A digital system could speed up the system with e-signed invoices and verified receipts.

Thompson explains: “This could mean digital payment methods allowing transparency between customers, main contractors and the supply chain and a clear understanding of scope and the quality of products and services procured.”

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Digital disruptors; startups; block chains


For many decades “open-plan” has ruled supreme as the internal layout of choice for the UK’s modernising homeowners. Countless renovations have seen walls removed and rooms combined, while the centre of almost all one-off houses is a sprawling open space. However, according to one leading architect, instead of knocking down walls, the trend for tomorrow’s homeowners may be to build them, as people seek to create more compact personal spaces.

Mary Duggan, co-founder of Duggan Morris Architects and a juror for 2015's RIBA House of the Year contest, has coined the term “broken-plan” to describe this.

“When we were judging this year's awards, there was a growing demand for emphasised spaces for individuals, which was evident at several of the houses we visited,” says Duggan. “The Kew House by Piercy & Company [pictured], in particular, has an interesting range of snugs, breakout areas and usable landing spaces.”

Above and below: Piercy & Company’s Kew House, shortlisted for RIBA House of the Year, incorporates breakout spaces and useable landing areas to provide a multi-use family space

Duggan puts this down to the adoption of personal digital devices and modern flexible working practices. “I think that the change is down to IT,” she says. “We’re working on two different houses right now that both share a common desire to have spaces to play out real life scenarios. Gone are the days of a family gathering to watch TV, now each member wants their own space to watch an iPad. Also different working hours, with more people working from home, has created more demand for dedicated workspaces. Opening a laptop and sitting on the sofa is not really enough any more.”

Although “broken-plan” is likely to be an emerging trend, Duggan says that open-plan will be with us for a while yet. “I’m not saying that people are going to stop knocking down walls immediately, but we need to talk much more about how we create multifunctional spaces that are appropriate for modern family needs.”

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Flexible plan; modern living; adaptable floor plan; fragmented space

WELL building standard

After a period when the links between employee wellbeing, productivity and “green” buildings were explored in conferences and research reports such as the UK Green Building Council's (UK‑GBC) Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices, 2016 could be the year when wellness takes centre stage for developers and contractors.

“Around 86% of the total cost of an organisation is people, with property a much smaller proportion. So it makes sense to make sure those people perform well,” says Helen Berresford, head of ID:SR, architecture practice Sheppard Robson’s interior design group.

Berresford believes that we will see wellness placed alongside sustainability as a key client requirement. “All of our new briefs have a wellness agenda written in them – this was not the case last year,” she says. “The issue is really pertinent now as the economy has improved and everyone is trying to attract and retain the best talent. We are being asked to create holistic buildings that support organisations to do what they do better and to enable the best talent to operate the best they can.

“There's been a lot of circling around the wellness agenda. But now we have precedent studies and the building blocks are in place; clients can see the impact wellness has on staff,” she continues.

One of those building blocks is the WELL Building Standard, created by a New York consultancy that also established the WELL Buildings Institute in 2013 to administer it. Described as “the world’s first building standard focused exclusively on human health and wellness”, it is now being talked of in the same breath as BREEAM and Ska as a requirement for developers.

However, Berresford also notes that the expense of WELL certification, and the continuous assessment it demands, will be offputting for some clients, but expects that individual companies will still use wellness as a unique selling point.

For example, Sheppard Robson designed the interiors of KPMG’s offices in central Leeds (pictured) specifically to promote physical movement throughout the office.

Meanwhile, Jo Wheeler, senior sustainability adviser at UK-GBC, linked the wellness agenda with the growing trend for wearables. “In the not-too-distant future, cheap wearable and portable technology may allow occupier-driven comparisons of buildings at scale. Engaging with this agenda early and carefully promises significant benefits for companies who put the health and wellbeing of their occupants first.” 

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Wellness; conscientious design; living building

Contract robot

Contract robots are one of the first manifestations of how “cognitive computing”, or the simulation of human thought processes by a computer, is being used in the construction industry. It’s not quite Artificial Intelligence, but the robots’ ability to extract accurate data from chaotic documents is already saving one law firm hours of arduous work sifting through contracts looking for dates and addresses.

“We take paper-based contracts and unstructured documents and extract information from them to create accurate structured data,” says Peter Wallqvist, managing director of tech start-up RAVN, which has developed the UK’s first contract robot with international law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP).

"We take paper-based contracts and unstructured documents and extract information from them to create accurate structured data."

Peter Wallqvist, RAVN

The programme it has developed not only automatically reads documents, but interprets, extracts and summarises information, much as a human would do — but significantly faster.

The contract robot is being used by BLP to submit light obstruction notices. It does this by extracting data from Land Registry documents into a spreadsheet, which is crosschecked for accuracy, then uses this data to send out the light obstruction notices. According to Wallqvist, the robot does this 10 million times faster than the human it has replaced.

Wallqvist’s business is currently focusing on the property management sector, due to the large number of pre-existing contracts that need to be interpreted. However, as the majority of businesses have vast amounts of paperwork, often historical, to be processed, he believes that contract robots could have applications throughout the construction industry.

“We are experts in understanding existing contracts. If companies have a situation where they are using a lot of manual labour to read documents, that is the sweet spot for contract robots,” he concludes.

You may also be talking about...

Cognitive computing; structured data

Human cloud

The “human cloud” is a term that describes the growing number of workers offering their skills for short-term contracts online, which could impact both on how construction companies recruit and the offices they work in and build.

Contract work has long been a feature of the management and supervisory section of the industry, individuals have often viewed it as a temporary response to unfavourable economic conditions and a hiatus between permanent salaried jobs.

However, many white-collar workers are now choosing to opt out of salaried positions and pursue employment on a contract by contract basis, something that Jason Farnell, a director of CR Management, has identified as a growing trend.

"Gone is the idea that you work for one company for 40 years. Now it is about the 'individual PLC'."

Jason Farnell, CR Management

“Gone is the idea that you work for one company for 40 years. Now it is about the ‘individual PLC’,” he says. “Main contractors will become much more light on their feet as each year we see more people moving to contract work and not thinking much beyond that contract.”

Farnell predicts that contractors will be employing fewer and fewer white-collar workers directly, as the best project and site managers choose to futureproof themselves by deliberately working on a variety of projects to gain experience. And it is the internet that is enabling this.

“Employees are going experience shopping. The internet gives people the opportunity to track upcoming projects and directly engage with employers,” says Farnell.

Guy Standing, professor of development studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and author of A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens, agrees that cloud labour will lead to “more very short contracts and flexible, insecure working arrangements”.

He adds: “The growth of platform companies acting as labour brokers means that middle management in construction companies will shrink even further. But cloud labour will affect backroom operations most of all.”

You may also be talking about...

The gig economy; robobosses; individual PLC; experience shopping

Battery-powered buildings

Rechargeable batteries are a technology we associate with annoying children’s bunny toys, laptops and convenient, cable-free handheld site tools, but 2016 will see the technology shift to powering our homes and businesses.

Technological advances, combined with concerns over the UK’s future energy policy and the slashing of renewable energy subsidies, are set to supercharge demand for onsite power storage in 2016.

The evolution of the electric car has jump-started the development of cost-effective electricity storage, which has long been the missing piece in the sustainable puzzle needed to balance out the peaks and troughs of renewable energy generation. In 2015, electric car manufacturer Tesla released its Powerwall home battery, and experts predict the technology will be refined and scaled up quickly.

“There is so much capital being poured into car battery technology, making storage more dense, less heavy and less expensive,” says Barny Evans, renewables and energy-efficiency consultant at WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff. “Prices are dropping so fast that on-site storage is becoming increasingly viable.”

Eco drive: Tesla, which has developed electric cars such as the Model S, now makes the Powerwall battery for the home

Evans predicts two key areas where battery storage will be seriously considered on projects over the next year. First, on residential properties where clients use large amounts of photovoltaics (PV) or other forms of renewable power generation.

Here the reduction in feed-in tariffs for exporting to the grid means that the cost-benefit equation will only work if all the energy generated is used on site – which will require batteries capable of storing the electricity produced.

Second, commercial properties can use the technology to avoid distribution use of system (DUoS) charges. In areas that are operating at near or peak capacity, the charges for using electricity at certain times of the day can multiply the costs up to five times.

“One big opportunity is to have batteries that charge during the day and then are used at peak times to avoid DUoS charges,” says Evans. “We are advising clients that, although not viable in most areas, it is already viable in some niche areas. We are already working with a supermarket that is setting up a trial to test the financial viability.”

You may also be talking about...

Powerwall; Tesla; load-shifting


Great article

Edgar Lopez, 13 January 2016

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