by Nikolaus J. Kurmayer
The European Commission has outlined possible “transition pathways” to address the environmental impact of the construction sector, with plans to set up a “European Construction Data Space” to pull together industry-generated information.
Europe’s construction ecosystem employs approximately 24.9 million people, generating €1,158 billion in value added to the EU’s economy, according to the European Commission.
But it is also extremely fragmented: 99.9% of the companies are SMEs, which account for 90% of employment, the EU executive says in a paper outlining possible “transition pathways” for the construction sector.
This high fragmentation is a key driver of inefficiency. “Construction has suffered for decades from remarkably poor productivity relative to other sectors,” says a study by the McKinsey Global Institute. And lagging productivity in construction is driving up building costs, adds another study by ING.
At the same time, the sector faces a multitude of related issues, including lack of skilled labour, high cost of raw materials and energy, as well as growing concerns about its environmental impact.
According to the EU executive, digitalisation could be the silver bullet to address all these problems at once.
“Digitalisation is a means, an enabler to achieve a better built environment for the planet and people,” the Commission says in its document outlining possible transition pathways for the sector. It is “transformative to the whole ecosystem, resulting in process efficiency, support for circularity, certification and traceability,” the document adds.
The EU executive is currently preparing a final version of its “transition pathway” for the construction sector, which is expected to be published in the first quarter of 2023. The focus, EURACTIV understands, will lie on leveraging data already generated by the industry but which is currently left unused.
“Our society is generating a huge wave of industrial and public data,” explained internal market commissioner Thierry Breton in 2020, adding that he wanted “European businesses and our many SMEs to access this data and create value for Europeans.”
The goal of the initiative, an EU official said, will be to provide a “comprehensive plan” for the construction sector to become more sustainable and digital by making the data generated by the industry more accessible.
“An enabling and regulatory framework fit for the future, that fosters investments and the building of trust is key to the ecosystem’s resilience and a prerequisite for the twin [digital and green] transition,” a Commission official told EURACTIV.
Given the challenges facing the sector, “the energy crisis, shortages in materials, qualified workers,” the Commission is “trying to accelerate” the transition, the official explained.
From design to construction
According to the EU executive, the transformative potential of digitalisation is “significant” for the construction industry in three ways:
-By creating a bridge between building-specific information and urban planning;
-By creating a bridge between different professionals and users – from architects to workers on construction sites;
-By creating trust and transparency in construction processes – from procurement to permitting.
-While much of the design and planning phase in the building sector is already done digitally, workers on construction sites still operate largely without any kind of digital assistance.
“The construction phase in particular lacks many of the potential benefits of more recent digital technology,” says a 2019 report by the European Commission’s joint research centre.
Technologies that are expected to disrupt the construction sector include drones, mobile internet, additive manufacturing (3D printing), building information modelling, and automation.
“This sector has been a slow adopter of new technologies” due to the fragmentation of the market and the large proportion of SMEs “with too small profit margins to invest in modernisation,” the Commission researchers note.
The sector is also unattractive to technology-oriented younger professionals and skilled workers “inducing problems of workforce recruitment and availability to meet current and future demand.”
This compounds another issue: data, the lifeblood of digitalisation, is not being leveraged to its full potential.
“Typically, the challenge is that data is siloed, in different file formats and systems, and not easy to access,” explains Bernardo Matos, director for EU government relations at Bentley Systems, a software company.
In the infrastructure sector, “only 5% of the data is being used to generate insights” while the remaining 95% is never utilised, Matos says. “The silver lining to this is that a lot can be done very quickly to improve, if the right technologies and tools are put in place,” he adds.
According to the Commission’s research department, “the added value of knowing exactly what is happening in a site through data collation and matching it to complementary databases and data sources will be very valuable.”
European Construction Data Space
While it cannot mandate the use of digital tools, the European Commission plans to focus its efforts on leveraging the vast amount of data produced by the sector.
To do this, the EU executive wants to “support the deployment of a Construction Data Space,” in order to “centralise construction and building related data” and enable new business models.
One expert described the push as a “moonshot” where the EU executive hopes that entrepreneurs can find ways of generating value from the data.
The present already offers a glimpse of what these new business models could look like. Companies like OneClickLCA, which leverages data and software applications to automate so-called “life cycle assessments” giving buildings a quick lifetime CO2-emission estimate, are already cropping up.
Other solutions include BrainBox AI, which connects outside data such as weather forecasts and energy prices to a building’s control system in order to generate heat when it is cheapest or to pre-heat the building before a cold spell.
Emissions from buildings could easily be reduced by 30% using data, the company’s CEO, Sam Ramadori, told EURACTIV.
*first published in: Euractiv.com