28 hours and 45 minutes flat. That's how long it took one Chinese contractor to build a 10-storey apartment building. It was a world first that ‘revolutionized’ traditional construction techniques. To set this new record, the contractor used prefabricated structures similar to large containers, and stacked them one on top of another. Three cranes, some bolts and water and power connections... And the building was ready to welcome its new residents in less than two days. In a country with a population in excess of one billion, it’s easy to understand why ‘build fast’ is an essential imperative. But is it really necessary elsewhere? So isn't this a record that’s as futile as it is useless? Honestly?... No. Building fast and - if possible - better is no longer an option. Because if you look around in today’s world, there’s an emergency going on.
The housing shortage is imploding at the speed of light, affecting emerging and industrialized countries alike. Some are already predicting that it could be the next crisis of this millennium. Estimates suggest that the USA will have to build 3 years’ worth of housing in one year just to catch up. But the situation is no different in Europe or Africa, where the demographic counter is running out of control and on track to hit 2.4 billion people in 2050, according to the latest projections (1).
So is building fast really building better? Yes! And even more so if building quickly also means responding to global issues... while building better.
Building quickly to prepare for tomorrow
The issues to be resolved by building fast AND better include the demographic emergency, galloping urbanization and the urgent need to eradicate substandard housing. These changes are therefore being driven and accelerated by a very real groundswell of urban, demographic and environmental concern. No longer building as we always have, but inventing new solutions for now and the future... those are the challenges facing the construction industry today as it explores new ways to reduce completion lead times.
Let's take the Chinese building as our example: to build ‘against the clock’, the contractor - Broad Group - embraced the principles of modularity. In other words, the entire building was prefabricated in a factory. Including water systems and power circuits. All that then remained was to connect the unit directly on site.
Timber and metal: working towards renewable buildings
Another time-saving option - lightweight timber construction - appears to offer a serious alternative for building fast. Widely used in Japan and the USA, timber framing is an appealing solution given its versatility and speed of construction. Closely followed by its sister technique of metal framing, both solutions are based on the same principle of site-ready factory prefabrication. That means no wet trade drying out time. Better still, given the current shortages of raw materials, timber and metal are opening the door to a new era of renewable buildings. Both are recyclable and energy efficient, since they involve no need for water in their construction.
Print me a house!
In an attempt to resolve current housing problems, the construction industry is also testing new avenues, including 3D printing. Saint-Gobain Weber Beamix in the Netherlands has already achieved this by printing an entire 94 sq. m. (1,012 sq. ft.) house in a suburb of Eindhoven. Similar projects are springing up in Belgium, El Salvador and California. A collection of 15 3D houses grew like mushrooms for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in the Colorado Desert. Designed by Mighty Buildings, these homes of the future embrace the Taylorism management ethos, with 80% of the process automated in a factory. That means you can become the proud owner of a turnkey 3,765 sq. ft. 3D printed house in 24 hours flat.
So is 3D printing a credible answer for replacing poor housing? Well, although this technology can reduce costs and time, it doesn’t have all the answers. So for the time being, it’s being used mainly for individual home construction. Not so much for large buildings. Then there’s the issue of its carbon footprint. The truth is that we have little perspective on these issues at the moment, because the technology is just too new. It would therefore be instructive to conduct a complete assessment - from factory to construction site - to make a fair comparison with more traditional construction techniques.
The BIM Big Bang
Building fast demands the design of innovative products and services that don’t compromise on sustainability issues. It also requires a well-oiled organization that’s as tight as a drum to avoid losing any time on site.
In this context, construction worksites could become much more streamlined by using Building Information Modeling. Understanding “BIM” or digital modeling. This may not be a new solution, but it does continue to demonstrate just how much precious time can be saved when the construction trades are effectively scheduled and coordinated. With BIM, everything is modeled, checked and analyzed upstream. That means no nasty surprises on site or last-minute adjustments, because everything has been planned for in advance. The other great strength of BIM is the ability to share information in real time. Everyone involved in the project has access to all the technical specifications, the master schedule and individual tasks. This inevitably saves time, rationalizes flows of labor and materials, etc... and therefore, we build faster! In some countries, BIM goes hand in hand with the ‘fast-track construction’ technique that allows tasks and assignments to be overlapped. For example, it provides for earthworks to begin even before the design phase is complete.
Another solution for speeding up the on-site construction process is the pre-cutting of materials on demand. So, for example, Saint-Gobain Belgium offers plasterboard pre-cut to precisely the right size, minimizing waste and saving the maximum amount of time. Another example is ceiling panels that are beveled on all 4 sides to enable easy adjustment, and maxi partition walls 3 meters long to avoid multiple joints. These and other solutions are designed not only to save time, but also to build high-quality, more durable and more responsible buildings, thereby extending sustainable construction initiatives.
SAM, the new mason on site
High-speed, high-quality construction can also draw on the benefits of digitalization and Industry 4.0. Take drones, for example, which can be used to check progress on construction sites more efficiently than simply walking around the project. And then there’s SAM, (the Semi-Automatic Mason); a robotic bricklayer capable of laying 3,000 bricks a day. But solutions like these raise questions about the future of specialist trades. The American company that manufactures SAM is at pains to reassure tradesmen: SAM is only a tool for increasing productivity, and will always need a human to program it and inspect the finished work...
Digitalized, ultra-modern or based on traditional techniques... Ultimately, fast-track construction is primarily a practical and efficient response to the changes now going on around the world, from increasing urbanization to the population explosion and the need for greater energy efficiency. It also means learning how to build better, more conveniently and even more cheaply, without compromising on product quality.
Photos credits : Garsya/Shutterstock // Ungvar/Shutterstock