Construction technology is a long-term reality in the Middle East
Experts examine the smart building trends in today’s construction industry and discuss how the sector is changing at an exponential rate
Technology adoption has accelerated over the past couple of years, with nearly every industry in the world starting to digitise in one way or another.
The construction sector, however, has proven to be more resistant in its shift towards smarter solutions and in its acceptance of digital approaches to designing and building projects.
In fact, construction ranks 21 out of 22 industries – just ahead of agriculture – when it comes to digitisation, according to a report by McKenzie.
“This industry has historically had a very low adoption rate for technology,” says Guy Barlow, global commercial director – commercial cost at Aconex, an Australian firm that specialises in mobile and web-based collaboration technologies for project information and process management.
But the use of smart building technologies has started to pick up steam, especially in the last few years, as larger companies have begun to realise the benefits of going smart – or smarter – in the long-term.
Barlow explains that construction as an industry, whether in the Middle East or abroad, has always been reluctant to change because of uncertainty, especially when it comes to the way that projects are managed and budgeted.
“People are very comfortable in this industry, but we are starting to see a change in the use of products like spreadsheets to manage multibillion-dollar projects.”
Aconex has recently launched a new product that it says will make budgeting project finances more effective, thus allowing and organising high-value developments to avoid the common struggles of cost overruns and scheduling delays that are often seen in the construction sector.
“Clients wanted it for a better view of the financial aspects of projects – how to better manage what goes on when someone realises there is a change in the design and they need to raise a change order,” Barlow explains.
And with projects continuously increasing in size – and, as a result, becoming more expensive – the risks become even greater.
“On a limited basis, [spreadsheets] can easily manage [cost-related tasks], but when you’re dealing with billion-dollar projects, or even projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars, it becomes very complicated,” the Aconex expert says.
Barlow compares this technology to an early warning system, making it possible to get to a problem more quickly and efficiently than would be possible using more traditional tactics: “Now we start to see productivity and efficiency gains, because the information is easy to get and more easily shared.”
But smart building is not necessarily limited to software systems, and could also be said to include building materials and sustainable practices.
“When we talk about smart building materials, we are talking about something that is going to last longer,” says Omar Rathore-Rayi, global sales manager, Pultron Composites. “Something that is going to help us build more quickly and that is going to be around for generations.”
A New Zealand-based company, Pultron opened its first office in Dubai’s Jebel Ali district in 2008, where the company manufactures components for the structural reinforcement of concrete.
The company offers glass fibre reinforced plastic (GFRP), a building material that is known for its durability, lightweight feel, corrosion resistance, low thermal conductivity, and high electrical resistance.
“When we talk about sustainability in construction, we talk about the durability of a project or an asset,” Rathore-Rayi says.
“When you are using glass fibre rebar, we tell our customers – whether they are developers, contractors, or consultants – that they can build a structure that they do not have to maintain, [which is especially attractive to them] since the biggest cost in construction is maintenance.”
As the main issue in construction in this region is corrosion, Rathore-Rayi explains, smart building materials could include everything from composite flooring to new types of wood, steel, or reinforcement.
“We provide glass mixed with resin, which forms a tough building material that could last [for] up to 100 years, and that is why it is smart.”
Pultron is currently working on the largest 3D printed building in the world, located in Dubai, and is deploying a number of different technologies on the project, including its GFRP material.
Elsewhere, contractor ASGC claims to be leading the way in implementing smarter and more sustainable solutions, using building information modelling (BIM) and off-site manufacturing in several of its projects, including in its recent work on the Dubai Arena project.
“We are also using drones now, to monitor construction on sites on a weekly basis, presenting progress to our clients and consultants,” adds Ahmad Abdulrazaq, technical manager for the Dubai Arena project at ASGC.
He explains that ASGC has plans in the pipeline to further accelerate its reliance on technology during construction: “We are thinking of using tablets, which will facilitate better communication between site engineers, accelerate information reach on site, save time, and reduce the amount of paper printed.”
Abdulrazaq adds that the company is considering implementing electronic chips inside the helmets of its engineers, using GPS monitoring to promote efficiency among workers on site.
“These are just a few ideas we have, and the plan to integrate tablets will be further explored soon,” he says.
Overall, the experts agree that implementing smart building technologies has its challenges in an industry that has been used to doing things a certain way for decades.
“I think the most difficult aspects to consider when you are bringing in a new product are the hesitation around the price, and how to [effectively utilise] it,” Rathore-Rayi says.
“I think people also worry about whether the product meets the standards and the codes that are recognised around the world when it comes to the building of concrete structures. That is another obstacle to [be tackled] as a technology company in the construction sector.”
Implementation costs have worried many companies seeking to digitise, especially those with smaller budgets.
“It is a little bit costly to implement in the beginning, but now that the technology is more readily available, it has become cheaper,” Abdulrazaq says.
Educating the market also needs to be a priority if the shift is to be made towards what many experts see as the inevitable future of the construction industry.
“For any new construction technology [company] that is coming to the region, they need to be ready [to educate] the market, and have the patience to [hold] the customer’s hand all the way through [the process],” Rathore-Rayi adds.
All the experts agree that Dubai is ahead of the game when compared to other markets in the region when it comes to tech adoption.
“[In Dubai, technology adoption] is moving very fast. For [the industry generally], it depends on the main contractors […]. Smaller contractors still tend to use traditional systems,” Abdulrazaq says.
The experts also agree that “early adopters”, especially larger companies such as Atkins and Saudi Aramco, are setting the pace and encouraging the rest of the industry to follow their lead.
In fact, Rathore-Rayi says that Atkins is currently working with Pultron to design exact specifications: “Once you get an early adopter, you tend to see others follow because it becomes more and more accepted. Even with the smaller companies, I think it is becoming more widely accepted.”
Barlow agrees, adding: “It’s a journey, but [its pace is] accelerating.
“If you are looking at technology adoption generally, it does tend to flow from North America and the UK, and it permeates from there,” he says.
“[In Asia, meanwhile], they have also begun to look more into digitising, especially [in light of] the construction boom that is currently happening there.”
Abdulrazaq concludes: “In the beginning, it will take time for people to get used to using these [smart building] technologies, but the industry is starting to learn.”