Digitalisation and serial production for sustainable construction


Frank Talmon l´Armée

Börsen-Zeitung, 16.10.2021

Heat waves, droughts, heavy rains – the new world climate report does not paint a good picture of the future and human activity is to blame. To limit the temperature increase, it is necessary to limit CO2 emissions. Various sectors are needed here, including the building industry. After all, buildings account for 30% of CO2 emissions in this country and are thus among the major greenhouse gas emitters.

If global warming is to be combated and climate targets achieved, the real estate sector must also do its part. Against this background, the state government in Baden-Württemberg recently decided that photovoltaic systems on house roofs should become mandatory. However, in order to build more sustainably from the ground up in the future, the entire sector must be mass-produced and digitalized.

As it was 50 years ago

So far, however, construction sites today often still look like they did 50 years ago, with iron benders, workers setting walls, concrete mixers and employees often travelling long distances. This also applies to the planning process. All buildings are virtually a prototype, as each house is designed, planned and built anew, usually with new teams working together all the time. On the one hand, a lot of time is lost, and on the other hand, there is no learning process, as it is always necessary to start from scratch.

Reconstructions due to errors account for 30 % of design work. This common approach is thus time-consuming and cost-intensive and wastes a lot of additional material and energy, which further worsens the ecological footprint. Although new technologies are being implemented sporadically, one cannot speak of a fundamental change.

A first step in the right direction is modular construction. Producing turnkey room cells and installing them on the building site means a high degree of prefabrication and thus makes it possible to approach each project with the same project mathematics. This also applies to the individual modules. Following the same sophisticated process helps to save material and at the same time the highest quality is achieved. Just assembling the units on site saves time, which in turn reduces energy and costs.

The "cradle to cradle" principle

At the same time, modular construction allows for the “cradle to cradle” principle. Modules are designed from the outset so that the materials used can be easily extracted and recycled. The dogma of a sustainable concept is also to use as little material as possible and to construct buildings that can be used for different purposes or even “relocated” over time.

For example, if the environment and social requirements change, kindergartens or offices can simply be moved to a new location. Part of the method is also to use as much wood as possible in manufacturing. Not only is wood particularly well suited for construction because it is load-bearing and can absorb large tensile forces, it also has very good thermal insulation properties and stores CO2.

However, in order to make the most of the advantages of modular construction and to build as many sustainable homes as possible, serial production is needed. Similar to the regional automotive industry, projects also need to be scaled up. In such large-scale production lines, robots can also be used for even more precision and quality, as they do not have to be rebuilt each time and are not exposed to wind or weather. With the right programming, robots can independently perform standardised and repetitive tasks.

For example, machines can paint walls with much higher precision in the same colour thickness every time, just as cars are no longer painted by hand in the automotive industry. In this way, automated manufacturing plants can produce and combine large quantities of a wide variety of modules.

However, in order to derive maximum benefit from mass production, regulatory change and harmonisation of regulatory change and harmonisation of regulations. In the past few years, building regulations have quadrupled from 5,000 to 20,000. According to a study by the Federal Institute for Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Research, the 16 state building regulations even differ so much that even the wording sometimes differs greatly. This standardisation of building laws is not about questioning high safety standards, but merely about ensuring that the same requirements that apply in Berlin are also applied in Stuttgart or even Paris and Brussels. For affordable and sustainable houses, builders must build in series across countries. For this it is also necessary that instead of having to apply for a building permit for each building, these should apply to entire series. This could be supported by standardising systems and introducing uniform industry standards. This would make it easier to connect different modules and elements such as sound insulation, fire protection or electrics would be better coordinated.

Finally, there is a need for end-to-end digitalisation. A wide variety of factors must be taken into account as early as the design phase. From solar radiation and ventilation to energy consumption and life cycle assessment. In the future, digital building models can serve as a digital communication platform, database for information or for documenting process steps. This facilitates sustainable planning, construction and management of buildings. This information is also relevant later for deconstruction and recycling.

“Digital building
models can be used in
future as a digital
communication platform,
for information or
for the documentation
of process steps

Optimise further and further

Together with appropriate software, machine learning and artificial intelligence, these processes can be optimised further and further. Ideally, this can create a particularly large amount of diversity in sustainable construction. For example, software could design a wide variety of original buildings that are based on the same project mathematics each time, comply with building regulations and are particularly sustainable.