Could technology deliver on the UK's great expectations for housing?

10 April 2017

Is there a more intractable challenge in our built environment than housing, asks Dominic Thasarathar, senior VP and construction industry strategist at Autodesk.

For many countries, and for the UK in particular, with its already densely populated urban landscapes, and with a deficit of 1.2 million properties, the answer is likely not.

The publication by the government of its Housing White Paper in February, Fixing our broken housing market, and the release last October of Mark Farmer’s report on the construction industry’s labour market, Modernise or Die, have been timely reminders of the challenges on both the demand and supply side of the equation.

The problems are legion – from access to finance with which to build and land with planning permission with which to build upon, to finding sufficient skilled labour and tackling poor productivity in delivery, to creating dwellings that meet the aspirations of home buyers and tenants, at an affordable price.

So what role might technology play in helping to square the circle?

The triple bottom line contract

The housing challenge isn’t simply a case of building at volume. What we build, how we build and indeed why we build, needs to uphold the interlocking principles of economic viability, environmental sustainability, and social inclusivity.

Technology is already equipping professionals at the front-end of infrastructure projects, those tasked with urban planning and infrastructure master planning, with tools to help make better decisions and deliver better outcomes. It’s time for housing to adopt them too.

Reality capture, at scale, augmented reality (AR), and high fidelity visualisations, enable project teams to seamlessly straddle the physical and digital worlds. The traditional approach to design, whether via drawing board or 3D model, is an abstract process, since no built asset exists in a vacuum; the results can be less than optimal.

Bringing the real world into a silicon environment provides the ultimate canvas against which to explore and perfect designs before committing. Pushing those designs back out to the real-world via AR, or photo-realistic renderings, empowers not just those tasked with planning to test physical “form” in context, but engage communities and end-occupants in a richer dialogue at the consultation stage.

The rise of gaming engines, advanced simulation software, and big data tools, can help close the gap between aspiration for a housing project and end outcome achieved, by thoroughly evaluating “function”.

Testing and validating hypotheses, and evaluating multiple design alternatives in a way that traditionally has been cost-prohibitive, less accurate and with lower fidelity, should help planners and industry respond more effectively, particularly as projects become more complex, dropped into brown-field sites, or squeezed into the interstitial spaces of our cities.

"The new industrial revolution in manufacturing will make the phenomenon of mass customisation the new norm for the buyer experience. Tomorrow, it won't just be a pair of shoes, or a car that is procured on a uniquely customised basis, it will be homes too."

Looking to tomorrow, the UK’s population is forecast to reach 70 million by 2027. That means decisions we make today need to accommodate not just this absolute increase, but changing living, working and social patterns of the next decade.

Understanding how we use not just dwellings, but the wider built environment, is going to be critically important in understanding what, where, and how much housing to build, replace, improve, or repurpose. Expect to see increased use of Internet of Things (IoT) data as we digitally ‘light up’ our built environment, to help drive those decisions.

And as our urban environments becoming increasingly complex, planners will be forced to adopt a ‘system of systems’ approach to housing projects, navigating everything from utilities capacity, to commute times, to carbon footprints, to deliver better planning outcomes. Assimilating such vast quantities of data, turning those into actionable housing decisions is going to take vast amounts of computing power, the type of which can only be found in the cloud.

The net effect of all this should be an acceleration of the planning process, regardless of the complexity of a particular site, and better housing outcomes.

Improving delivery

Creating a great product, at an attractive price, and making a comfortable profit, are the hallmarks of any successful business. But those on the delivery side of the housing market are faced with construction processes that are demonstrably inefficient, labour-intensive, heavily dependent upon in-situ work, and susceptible to material price inflation.

Though the adoption of more modern construction methods is accelerating, this traditional housebuilding model, centred on masonry construction, needs to change if the industry is to deliver on the volume expectation of our housing challenge. But there are other, more fundamental incentives to change too.

Consumer expectations and behaviours are shifting. The new industrial revolution in manufacturing will make the phenomenon of mass customisation the new norm for the buyer experience. Tomorrow, it won’t just be a pair of shoes, or a car that is procured on a uniquely customised basis, it will be homes too.

This goes far beyond today’s notion of standardised designs with options. And in our social media era, defects, delays, or excessive environmental impact, for a house can quickly escalate into reputational fire-fighting.

Today the merits of the BIM process as a way to improve construction project performance are simply too compelling to ignore – improved productivity, predictability and quality, and reduced waste, cost and environmental impact, being the most obvious. In 2013/14 BIM was a significant contributor towards £840m of cost savings for UK construction.

But it’s the potential of BIM to better manage the entire lifecycle of housing projects, and provide a better “buyer experience”, which make it particularly relevant to housebuilders.

At the front-end, BIM technology supports rapid optioneering of designs, the ability to bring the end client into the process to share those designs, visualising them immersively, and exploring not just layouts, but finishes too. In detailed design, it supports complex analysis such as cost, program, energy, and carbon.

In construction, it can support optimisation for production, whether via traditional methods, where it can reduce waste, improve labour productivity, and reduce defects, but in offsite construction by driving Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) methods – either by standardising designs, or supporting break-down of complex designs for pre-fabrication. And BIM for FM, already making inroads in the commercial buildings sector, holds potential for improving aftercare.

Housebuilders that adopt BIM across their enterprises are likely to unlock further, enterprise level benefits. As more of their processes are digitized, and as more projects are executed digitally, housebuilders will start to amass large volumes of highly structured, high fidelity data.

That opens the door to the same type of predictive analytics already enjoyed by other sectors of the economy, like retail and finance. Mining on such data might enable them to spot patterns in anything from trade performance, to design weaknesses, to cost saving opportunities. The net result is likely to be improved productivity, reduced transaction times, and reducing the amount of time precious capital is locked-up.

Rethinking the business model (and market)

Technology has always changed the way in which we design, construct, and use housing – from the invention of reinforced concrete that enabled us to build high-rise blocks of flats, to more recently, the advent of mobile computing and digital collaboration platforms, that are increasing levels of home-working.

Today though, the sheer number of concurrently emerging, disruptive technologies which have the potential to change how we think about and deliver housing is bewildering: 3D printing, infinite computing, generative design, machine learning, gaming engines, crowd sourcing, crowd funding, reality capture, predictive analytics, the Internet of Things, robotics, drones, wearables, and many more.

Taken individually, each could deliver benefit to one or more processes in the lifecycle of housing. However, as these technologies emerge, they’re beginning to converge, and in so doing, they’re opening the door to a completely new era for our built environment. An era characterised by:

  • Access to unlimited computer processing power, smart algorithms, and big data, to solve the most complex planning and design problems effortlessly;
  • The merging of the digital and physical worlds, making it simple to design in the context of real-world conditions, whether physical, economic or social;
  • The ability to physically construct built assets in the minimum number of ‘touches’ at the same unit price, regardless of how bespoke an individual unit may be;
  • Seamless connection of talent, to get the best ideas;
  • Intelligent digital connectivity within and between assets to deliver better outcomes;
  • Freer access to capital, from reduced risk and alternative funding.

Though currently quite abstract in nature, for housebuilding executives, making sense of this emerging era, and putting the associated technologies to work as they mature, is going to become just as an important component of strategy as maintaining a strong balance-sheet or corporate reputation.

The prize will be worth the effort – a chance to not just tweak housebuilding business models, but potentially completely redefine them, and the market for what housing outcomes can be delivered.

Building sufficient homes to meet the UK’s needs, in a timely manner, in the right place, of the right type, to the right performance criteria, at the right price, that support expectations of occupants, and profit points of housebuilders, is a formidable challenge.

Changes are needed, on that everyone agrees. Today’s technology, in particular the BIM process offers immediate, tangible opportunities to help improve the situation. Tomorrow’s technologies offer radically new approaches. The question is, how bold is the housing sector prepared to be?

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