Future-proof buildings in the here and now
The cost, timeframe, and effort involved in creating and adapting buildings means that most organisations do not do so every year – or even every decade. But business needs are changing at an ever faster pace. Which raises the question – how can you ensure that a building constructed today is still up-to-date in 20, 30 or even 50 years’ time?
Constant technological progress is changing the way we live, how we work, and even where we work at an astonishing rate. The past is littered with examples of once cutting-edge structures that quickly became outmoded and redundant, leading to costly remodelling. But can technology enable us to future-proof a building, and if so how?
By definition, it is too early to say. Certainly many structures are now designed with a host of contingencies in mind, from technological advances and flexible working patterns to extreme weather events, security threats, and climate change.
But designing an adaptable structure is only one way of hedging against the vast unknown.
Data = knowledge = true adaptability
An alternative, and potentially less costly, strategy is to focus on gathering consistent, rich, and accurate data and engaging with stakeholders about its outcomes as early as possible.
The guiding principle is to track every element of the built asset, and how its occupants operate within it. Detailed, consistent data leads to greater knowledge, the bedrock on which confident decisions can be made in later decades.
At its simplest, this knowledge can be embedded in a 3D digital model that mirrors exactly the real physical asset. Known as building information models (BIM), these can contain hosted and relational information on every object within the physical asset. They are an archive for everything, from materials to appliance installation instructions and maintenance logs.
They can aid efficient operation throughout the life-cycle of an asset; employees are able to locate hidden pipes and power networks, know whether enclosed air conditioning units are under warranty, and even understand how to dismantle sections at the decommissioning stage.
A detailed digital model can become a powerful predictive tool for forecasting operational costs and any remodelling, remediation, or repair times. This knowledge can cut cost and save time.
For example, imagine a scenario in which an adhesive commonly used in building materials is suddenly discovered to be dangerous to human health. A good model would not only identify the location of every item containing the toxic matter, it would also show the surroundings and orientation of each. Contrast that with the complex, expensive and time-consuming surveys that must be carried out when searching for asbestos in older buildings today.
The people factor
As the above example illustrates, BIM offers tangible benefits for managing assets in the short and medium term. But when combined with other technologies, it can unleash even more exciting possibilities, shifting our mindsets from subjective to objective decision-making.
Social data, gathered from sensors or mobile phone apps, can radically shift the perceptions of how people interact with assets.
Thanks to advances in the internet of things and cloud computing, the cost of embedding sensors into building and asset management systems is much lower than it was a decade ago.
Owners already have the opportunity to measure everything from temperature and the sun’s orientation to humidity, motion, and the flow of people. Sensors are set to become an increasingly powerful means of tracking in real time how an asset is being used; identifying common areas of wear and tear, supporting maintenance, and providing insight into capital investment planning, optimisation, and portfolio management.
They are also helping asset managers to manage the expectations of the general public: a simple example is the digitised information that tells passengers when the next train or bus will arrive.
Allowing people to interact with assets, both passively and actively, is a key driver in improving outcomes and optimising future developments.
Getting it right the first time
When considering how to future-proof an asset, it is critical to ensure that all parties are familiar with the design in the early stages. All too often, occupants don’t get to see a facility early enough – by the time they do, the project may be too far advanced or even completed. But the later changes are made to a project, the higher the subsequent cost in time and money.
The challenge is how to help stakeholders visualise how they will interact with the asset before it exists. Hotel and retail chains often construct physical models, prototypes or ‘mock ups’ to test the design, finishes, or layout of a room. Effective use of data-rich 3D models is a more cost and time efficient alternative.
As well as facilitating feedback during the early design stages, these tools are also useful for staff training and helping occupants to familiarise themselves with new facilities before they open. BIM will play an increasingly important role in facilitating smooth handovers, sometimes referred to as ‘soft landings’.
Conceiving a building that can successfully adapt to future needs remains a significant challenge, but BIM can help to speed up decisions - both on day one and in response to future changes.
Going one step further, physical structures now exist that can be remodelled almost as easily as virtual ones. The principle is to create modules that can be dismantled and moved within the outer shell of the building.
Thus, room sizes can change and new spaces emerge with minimum cost or effort. The building becomes a dynamic organism, creating an adaptive environment for an evolving community.
When planning for the long term, all we can be certain of is that the future is unpredictable. The problems that preoccupy us now may be irrelevant in a decade, but new obstacles will emerge instead.
Consistent, rich, and accurate data is our greatest weapon for dealing with uncertainty. We may not be able to see into the future, but knowing and understanding your asset, and closely tracking how its occupants are using it, is essential preparation for the unseen challenges and opportunities ahead.
Read the July 2016 issue of Construction Global magazine