BuildingBots – Thoughts about the Future of the Building IndustryAECbytes Feature (December 15, 2015)

Christian Ehl
Founder, BIMQ

It is the year 2050. Rosa Maier stands, with a satisfied smile, and looks through her data goggles at the distant skyline. Siri reads out the most important KPIs of the office complex she’s just finished. Once again, no mistakes were made in construction. This time, she’s cut the operating costs in half—not so bad, she thinks. She pats her project manager on his cold carbon shoulder: “Neo, do you remember what a hassle the building process used to be?” The bot sighs and gives her a smile. Of course he does not remember—he has never seen the difficulty she describes.

Sounds futuristic? In the year 2050, there will be 11 billion people on our planet, but by that point there could easily be 1,000 robots for every human on earth. What does the existence of 11 trillion artificial intelligences mean for the building industry? Over 70% of the world’s people will live in cities, more than 3.3 billion more than today. To cope with this massive growth, our cities will need to build 50 billion square meters of housing in the next 35 years. The construction industry and its infrastructure will have to be reworked completely to cope with this massive proliferation of people and robots. Could there be a more exciting time to be in the building industry?



We are facing the biggest change in the history of building. To accomplish this enormous construction challenge, it will be necessary to reduce the cost of planning, building and managing buildings significantly. We will need to build more intelligently, take advantage of limited space, and finally focus on sustainability. The integration of new technologies and materials brings with it new challenges. The continuous digitization of our society and the economy will create new usage models of buildings. Not a stone will be left unturned.

Look into Today’s Mirror – Large-Scale Projects

Large-scale projects show us where we stand today. From here, we plot the path to the future. Whether you look at the San Francisco Bay Bridge, the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport, or the Elb Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg, major construction projects are defaulting. People are overwhelmed. We are still building with a system that is hundreds of years old. Everything was supposed to get better—more training for project managers, BIM, agile planning methods, tools from the cloud, apps on mobile devices, networked communication, balanced scorecards, and armies of consultants. We have all of these things, and yet the problems remain. So do we really know what the problem is? And even more importantly, how do we progress in the future to cope with the new challenges?

Humans are simply overburdened. This holds true for individuals, as well as the building teams and the companies involved in the process. It is not the tools that are missing. It is not the growing set of regulations, the timelines, or the costs that are causing the problems. People are working to the best of their abilities. The problem lies in the nature of mankind. No planner, no matter how experienced, can be sure to always find the optimal solution for complex problems. The large number of dependencies is becoming exponentially harder to manage at the construction site. The properties of the building model are not sufficiently managed and maintained for the facility managers to provide reliable as-built data on the building. Mistakes happen. There are too many compromises made during the project lifecycle. People are working diligently against this, but they are not always attentive and alert. They are limited by their abilities.

It is Time that the Computer Takes Over

This points us to some clear facts. Computers are more reliable, they calculate more accurately, they can simulate millions of variants in seconds. They optimize, compare, monitor, calculate, plan, and control. Computers never sleep. They communicate in real time with no emotions. They are always equally approachable. IBM Watson and the self-driving car show us that computers are beginning to challenge people even for the most cognitively complex tasks. It's only a matter of time before computers take over simple and monotonous tasks related to construction projects. They can do a lot more in helping people and allowing the building team to focus on making the right decisions. Welcome to the future of building.

Data Show the Way into the Future

Data provides the fuel for building the future. Over the entire lifecycle of a building, from planning and construction through to facility management, data is becoming more important. The more accurate the information is, the better the results of calculations, planning, simulations and evaluations. BIM provides the basis for this. Once humans are no longer the only source to deliver and maintain the essential data, or to evaluate them, we are at the beginning of the future of building. The computer can control the process, analyze data, discover problems, ensure 100% data quality, optimize with advanced algorithms, learn from other projects, compare and benchmark. The computer can feed all this valuable information and prepare decision options for people to take. And computers will even leverage psychology to motivate people and get them to act in the interest of the project success. A new team member in the project? No problem. New standards arise? Data is immediately benchmarked and the plan is adopted. New materials available? A simulation is available in an instant. A breakthrough in design? It is immediately available in all projects.

Can you see the benefits?

Bots will be Ubiquitous

The future of building will be shaped by BuildingBots, small software and later hardware robots. They will play a major role in creating the buildings of the future, from planning and construction to operations and management. Once implemented in the project, they will manage proactively, explore all parameters, get and interpret data, take over the communication, and ensure 100% project success and support building experts and owners in the best possible way.

In 2016, the first bots will evolve and make sure that all building data is available with 100% accuracy. Planning and construction processes will start to run more smoothly. But that's just the beginning.

In 2020, we will see the first self-optimizing buildings. BuildingBots will constantly crunch through model data and make suggestions for improvements, which otherwise only the most skilled experts would be able to find. Anytime, anywhere, bots will monitor the building data and oversee construction sites with valuable suggestions for optimizations.

In 2025, the first self-building buildings will evolve. These will make sense in certain conditions and environments requiring economies of scale. In these projects, the operational contribution of humans will be limited. Bots will take over the planning, and robots will build most parts of the building. Later, the building will be actively managed and maintained by bots.

Software and robots are already reshaping the world completely. The construction industry and its descendants will not be an exception.

Get Ready!

As James Preston-Werner, co-founder of community coding startup Github, famously said, “In the future there’s potentially two types of jobs: where you tell a machine what to do, programming a computer, or a machine is going to tell you what to do,” so too, there will only be two kinds of jobs in the construction industry in the future: those in which the computer tells you what to do, and those in which you tell the computer what to do. As it has been in other industries, this will be good news for building owners and knowledge workers that can use the bots to their advantages. The impact is profound. There will be hundreds of new bots every year.

Do you want to build in the future? Do you want to control the bots? Then start today with getting data-savvy. Data is the gold in this new age and bots will act on it. Only if you understand and control your data, can you act successfully in the future and remain in control of your projects.

Look out for the first bots. They’re not science fiction— innovative start-ups are making them right now.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.


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