How Elon Musk and other innovators have pushed the needle in construction

Anastasios Koutsogiannis looks at some of the buildings and projects that can inform the way the construction industry moves forward.

It all began when in December 2016 Elon Musk complained through his twitter account about the unbearable traffic in Los Angeles.

This tweet surprised the building sector, as nobody was entirely sure what the next step would be. A month later, Musk had already started digging the first test segment of his tunnel.    

Musk founded the Boring Company as an experimental effort in alternative urban transportation, with Musk envisioning a series of underground roadways that ferry vehicles to and from destinations using electric tracks. It’s effectively a high-speed subway exclusively for cars

This brave and ambitious move shocked the construction industry and proved that delays can be overcome if there is a solid plan and a vision which could approach and retain talent.

In October 2017, Musk posted the first photo of his underground tunnel in LA, proving that his project is rapidly going forward and that the first tests on his idea are being conducted.

Image: The

The Elon Musk example is only one proof that the construction industry can move faster and embrace innovation. Thankfully, there have lately been more and more cases where ambitious new projects are changing the way we used to think and work in the sector.

The recently published report, Shaping the Future of Construction: Inspiring innovators redefine the industry, by the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group is presenting some of these visionary building projects. In a nutshell, here are some of the most eye-catching examples:

Burj Khalifa: The tallest building in the world  

When the design process of Burj Khalifa started in 2002, the goal of Emaar Properties (responsible for the project) was to create one of the top urban destinations on earth. Sixteen years later and after a lot of changes on the initial plan, it’s safe to say that the goal has been accomplished.

Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world, with final height of 828 metres, and it is a unique attraction for tourists and construction enthusiasts around the world. The success of this project was based on three pillars: skilled workforce, smooth collaboration and good relations with government authorities.

Starting from the workforce, an experienced and highly-skilled team was recruited. The selection of the team was done carefully and generous performance incentives had been included in the deal.

Second, the collaboration between the involved parties was almost impeccable. Suppliers had an active role from a very early project stage so they could implement an innovative concrete design plan which as a matter of fact is regarded as one of the key points of the whole project.

Lastly, the on-time and close engagement with the government and the other stakeholders helped the project to run with no bureaucratic hiccups until its completion.   

The Edge: World’s greenest office building

The Edge in Amsterdam is probably one of the smartest buildings in the world today. And it is surely the most sustainable office around the globe. It was designed by PLP Architecture and built by OVG Real Estate.

It focuses heavily on transforming the workplace into a more friendly and productive environment for employees. During the building process, the contractor introduced 21 innovations that had never been implemented in the past.

Some of the most impressive are the following:

  • the ethernet-linked lighting built by Philips with sensors that can measure the temperature, CO2 and lighting levels and that are linked to the central data platform of the building.
  • the full integration of all office elements. Even the coffee machine and the towel dispenser are connected to the central information platform of the office.
  • the development of a building app that allows the employees to access every part of the facilities in an easy and straightforward way simply by using their smarthone or laptop.

It comes as no surprise, then, that The Edge achieved a score of 98.36% BREEAM rating and it is regarded today as a sustainability icon.

3D printed houses by Winsun

The Chinese construction company Winsun wants to revolutionise the building sector by introducing 3D printed houses. It’s an ambitious plan that could change the way we build forever if it eventually proceeds.

The company created its first 10 3D printed buildings in 2013 and managed to attract international attention. On top of that, Winsun managed to complete, in 2016, the construction of the first 3D printed office located in Dubai.

What makes this building technique so impressive is the minimisation of the project delivery time and the significant reduction of produced waste during the building process.

More analytically, Winsun is able to print huge constructions (for example a mansion of 1,100m2 ) in one day and assembly on-site in less than a week.

Furthermore, up to 50% of the materials used are originating from demolition waste and other environmentally friendly sources.

What the construction industry should do

Despite these powerful results, the absence of well-established regulations and the heavy scepticism by construction stakeholders and project designers have stalled the further expansion of the concept for now.

From the examples above, it becomes clear that the construction industry has great potential. Nevertheless, building an innovative and productive industry isn’t always easy. There are numerous steps that construction companies need to complete before we can claim that we have entered a new era without harmful delays and project miscalculations.

The good news is that now we know what we need to change in the sector. In a few words, these are the moves that will allow for a more innovative and transparent construction industry:

Invest in digitisation

In all the projects described above, there is one common factor that led to their completion: the good use of data and the investment in digital tools. That’s the only way forward for the whole sector.

We can’t afford to waste valuable segments of information due to inefficient data management and poor project planning. An unhindered flow of information could simplify the construction process and help the industry with experimenting and adopting new building techniques.

Construction software could be a game changer toward that direction and enhance real-time project management. In that manner, a faster building procedure with less material and budget waste is possible.

Maintain a long-term perspective

The construction industry should also put a lot of thought into reviewing its current culture. A more open culture toward innovation should be promoted. Yes, the minimisation of risk is extremely crucial but sometimes a risk-taking strategy should be embraced when the reward both for the company and for the future of the industry is big.

Only then can we encourage the innovative players of the sector to be bolder and change the current problematic situation.

This attitude will progressively help us move towards a more sustainable industry with modernised project techniques, fewer mistakes, and reduced delivery times. But most important, it will introduce construction to a continual improvement process.  

Work with government authorities

Last but not least, a critical parameter that construction companies should never ignore has to do with the way they collaborate with the local authorities. It’s no secret that construction projects can be very complicated and they can face huge delays due to bureaucracy hurdles.

This is where the government comes in. The state has to make it easier for construction stakeholders to adopt digital technologies and embrace innovation. This can happen in a number of ways, such as reviewing the existing building codes, pushing for a simpler procurement process and establishing proactive performance-based requirements.

Governments can encourage competition and promote a faster and more open building process. It goes without saying, though, that contractors also have a duty to address these issues and participate actively in the discussion about construction’s future.

To sum up, Elon Musk’s tweets and actions were an excellent example of what the building industry truly needs. A bolder and more innovative approach is the only way forward for the sector’s future.

Anastasios Koutsogiannis is a content writer at GenieBelt. This article first appear on GenieBelt’s website

Top image: Wikimedia Commons/Dan Taylor/Heisenberg Media

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