How to engineer the future and increase energy efficiency

Current methods and devices for mass production are outdated and need to adapt to more flexible, automated, and energy-efficient methods of engineering.

By Andrew Watts, CEO Newtecnic, London, UK June 28, 2018

To facilitate building engineering, small but efficient temporary manufacturing cells (Construction Labs) equipped with very advanced production machinery are dedicated to producing mass-customized components. As construction and maintenance robots become more advanced, they will interact with Construction Labs by generating, moving, and installing new and replacement building parts.

For example, there are current and future projects that are being designed so that inspection, monitoring, and precise measurement of normally concealed areas behind panels and within the completed building’s fabric are executed by small flying Lidar and camera-equipped drones and robots. High-resolution building and system-performance data collected this way can be shared with, and coupled to, onsite Construction Labs that are equipped with 3-D printers that fabricate components that perfectly fit the structure. Projects that is engineering are planned to deploy construction labs from the earliest stages of construction. In this way, mid-20th-century methods and devices of mass production are being replaced by automated, very flexible, highly controllable, and adaptable sets of tools efficiently operated at a local level for mass customization. 

New construction methods reduce risk

Many industry players and stakeholders mistakenly believe that new methods and technologies present increased risk. In fact, the opposite is true. By using technology, it is possible to reduce risk while creating more imaginatively conceived buildings at lower cost and that use less energy. These buildings are more durable, look better, and are interesting to inhabit. They also take less time to make and, on completion, appear effortless. This seemingly impossible list of advantages has been proven across the world where, in partnerships with developers, architects, and engineers, collaboration over data reveals absolute truths about buildings.

Around 40% of the world’s energy is consumed by buildings. It is vital to understand how to reduce consumption. This can be done by modeling climate in relation to the building and analyzing the structure’s thermal conductivity, weather tightness, and airflow. Glazing also is a significant factor in controlling the inside temperature. By taking these considerations into account, there can be a balance that reduces energy consumption and improves the building as a whole. While some may think that more glass equals more light, it is possible to reduce the amount of glazing without impacting the interior lighting levels to create interesting illumination, shadow, and consequent cooling effects as a result.

The following is a list of top-10 tips for engineering the future and reducing environmental impacts.

  1. Use automation to close the disconnect between design and manufacturing.
  2. Embrace mass customization for innovative and better-made structures.
  3. Deploy onsite construction labs for local fabrication.
  4. Engineer buildings for the future of collaborative robotics.
  5. Create digital twins of buildings as living user manuals.
  6. Use fewer cranes during construction and maintenance by deploying robots to do the heavy lifting in hazardous conditions.
  7. Inspecting buildings by drones is safer and more accurate-with no cradles required.
  8. Use Lidar-equipped drones to check the as-built condition against the digital twin.
  9. Reduce waste by manufacturing and delivering components to order.
  10. Calculate weight to better understand environmental impacts and true operating costs.

In hot-climate construction projects, like the King Abdullah Financial District Metro Hub, airflow and cooling are key priorities. In many cities, urban pollution levels mean that windows cannot be opened.

The standard solution is often to install air conditioning with all its inherent commissioning, maintenance, and long-term operating costs. However, buildings can and do successfully operate as their own cooling systems by allowing filtered air to naturally circulate throughout the interior. This possibility stems from designing the building and its façade to maximize airflow. When algorithms automatically generate designs based on airflow, the outcomes are genuinely unique and often very beautiful.

Andrew Watts is CEO of international building engineering firm Newtecnic. And is a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Institution of Engineering Designers, Institute of Engineering and Technology, Royal Society of Arts, and Royal Institution of British Architects. Watts is a building engineer and an architect who specializes in the engineering design of facades and their interface with structural and environmental design.