Feature Story | 10-Jul-2024

The future of construction: From building booms to control rooms

Digital construction, building information modelling new tools for the 21st-century

University of British Columbia Okanagan campus

UBC Okanagan’s Dr. Qian Chen knows firsthand the contrasts between China and Canada.

For example, the Civil Engineering Assistant Professor can’t keep a straight face when she describes her upbringing near Shanghai, a metropolis of 25 million people.

“I’m from a small town,” she says, then laughs as she raises quotation marks over “small.”

Canada may be small by Chinese standards, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t similarities. Dr. Chen arrived at UBC Okanagan to further her research into digital construction, a method she says can spur a dramatic shift in the construction industry.

She first became aware of the technology’s potential while watching China’s prolonged construction boom beginning in 2008.

“Canada, like many places around the world, needs a massive increase in housing supply. Technology holds the key to building resilient homes more efficiently, economically and rapidly.”

Dr. Chen chose UBC Okanagan to further her research because she found the interdisciplinary focus compelling. Answering the need for housing requires input from all corners of academia—engineering, business, computer science and beyond—alongside willing industry and policy partners.

“Canada, like many places around the world, needs a massive increase in housing supply,” she says. “Technology holds the key to building resilient homes more efficiently, economically and rapidly.

“Watching China’s building boom up close was like watching a city coming to life in fast-forward,” she says. “It showed me how quickly things can change. I learned the importance of planning and new ways of working in construction to build homes faster, more affordably and with quality to meet community needs.”

She wants everyone to see how rapidly technology can address pressing needs.

New construction technology

Dr. Chen champions a technology called Building Information Modelling (BIM). BIM can reduce costly mistakes and revisions by creating digital blueprints that can adjust rapidly.

Builders or engineers with smart helmets, glasses and watches can access BIM data on-site, enabling them to see through walls for piping and wiring or identify structural elements. Users control the interface by tapping on their wrists and making precise gestures.

Embracing new approaches could make construction more predictable, affordable and sustainable. It may sound out-of-this-world, but Dr. Chen says construction workers should start thinking like astronauts.

“I want to create a ‘mission control room’ for construction projects,” she says, smiling, “where planning, designing and building can be innovative, collaborative and efficient.”

An additional benefit is ‘upskilling’ the workforce. Construction projects still rely on manual labour, and the nature of building work—often bespoke, site-specific and exposed to environmental variables—presents unique challenges that slow down the adoption of technological changes.

Smart helmets and living blueprints are just the beginning.

“Every wall, window or door contains details like material properties, cost and energy performance attributes,” Dr. Chen says.

“Engineers or builders can ‘walk’ through the building with their headsets, see how different designs affect the building’s energy use, and even spot potential problems before construction starts.”

Industry, research partners needed

Harv Sidhu is CEO of Build Smartr, a Delta, BC, construction company exploring partnership and research opportunities with Dr. Chen. Sidhu says he can see great potential in Dr. Chen’s future.

It’s easy for him to imagine a team of engineers, builders and architects managing carpenters, plumbers and electricians through headsets, augmented reality and closed-circuit cameras.

“It’s ideal because we both want to incorporate new technologies into construction, which is an industry that can hesitate to change,” he says.

“If we don’t start making these changes now, we may never…. Even with mature technology, if we resist and don’t apply it, we won’t progress.”

That’s one reason they’re searching for opportunities to work together. Build Smartr is a leader in steel frame construction. Builders can produce steel frames off-site to allow for mass production. They can ship housing components to their locations to be assembled much faster than traditional methods.

“I see connections between Dr. Chen’s vision for the construction industry and our company’s mission,” Sidhu says. “She approaches construction innovation from a research perspective while we focus on the day-to-day business. Working together means she can research real-life projects, and we can contribute to new strategies and theories.

Sidhu compares Dr. Chen’s analogy of a construction control room to Ford’s assembly lines.

“From an engineering and technology standpoint, nothing should stop us—we need a real push in that direction,” Sidhu says.

That push comes in the form of research funding.

Construction technology innovation and funding

While money is certainly needed to further the research, Dr. Chen also needs more partners like Build Smartr. The need is especially acute in North America, where the construction industry can be risk-averse due to challenges in adopting new technologies that are not yet regulated.

As a visiting doctoral scholar in the UAE, Dr. Chen saw what was possible in terms of automation and technology. At NYU-Abu Dhabi, for example, she explored new construction technologies such as 3D printing and robotics.

She encountered similar approaches researching in England, where the UK government is pushing toward modular construction to ease housing pressures.

“The UAE’s example of readiness to finance and experiment with these innovations offers a good example for project decision makers. The success in the digital transformation of construction projects highlights the potential for collaborative projects that benefit from the stakeholders’ openness to new construction technologies,” Dr. Chen says.

“If we don’t start making these changes now, we may never. We must embrace these adjustments through new training programs, drawing on best practices and new business models, and upgrading regulations to encourage technological maturity; otherwise, even with mature technology, if we resist and don’t apply it, we won’t progress.”


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