There is no doubt, that government infrastructure impetus, increasing capital investments and a post pandemic sharp housing sector recovery has created excellent opportunities for the construction sector in India. The downers are the supply chain disruptions and rising inflation of energy, raw materials and labour that is creating a cautiously optimistic mood among the product companies.
The most noticeable development in this segment has been the ESG becoming a mandate for many products and materials companies as well as the construction and real estate firms. This requires a big technology support to boost internal and external performance, quality and safety.
A major step taken by the government has been the Light House Projects (LHPs) that are using distinct technologies to showcase their use for further mainstreaming in the country. The LHPs are functional as Live Laboratories to promote widespread learning on the use of innovative construction technologies/ systems on ground and mainstreaming in Indian context.
The six light house projects were selected in Chennai, Rajkot, Indore, Lucknow, Ranchi and Agartala under which 6,368 houses are being built using innovative construction technologies. With these light house projects, various benefits demonstrated include -- 50 per cent reduction in construction time, 15- 20 per cent saving of cement, 20 per cent reduction in construction waste, 10-20 per cent reduction in cost of construction, 20-25 per cent enhanced thermal comfort, 4-Star green GRIHA rating, low lifecycle cost, 20 per cent reduction in energy and 35 per cent reduction in GHG emissions, among others.
TECHNOLOGY ADOPTION: THE HOLY GRAIL
The Indian construction industry has come a long way from standard materials, machineries and manual labour to high performance construction materials and equipment. However, the technology adoption has been relatively slow.
On the brighter side, this also presents an opportunity for many a start-ups, to bring innovative technologies and automation that can help scale up processes, streamline supply chains, and enhance resiliency.
In the recent years, from smart sensors and AR/VR to drones and 3D printing, we are seeing the advent of plethora of technologies making a huge impact on the construction sector. In addition to that is the Augmented Reality (AR) that can be utilised for site visualisation & project management and Drones that are being utilised for site surveying, mapping and inspection, especially in the inaccessible areas or terrains. Undoubtedly, these tools are aiding in identifying problems and optimising building performance at the design and survey stage that eventually leads to reduced project costs.
Not much behind are the autonomous equipment or self-driving machinery which can prove to be a boon for the labour-intensive sector. Though still in limited use, given the scope of its use, we can anticipate wider use in next few years.
Moving up the ladder, 3D Printing has made its appearance on the Indian construction scene. Worldwide, complete buildings are being produced using this tool. India’s first 3D-printed house followed by the 3D-printed post office by IIT-Madras and Indian Army’s first ever 3D printed dwelling unit, has set the tone for the things to come. Going by what the industry experts have to say, this technology has the potential to revolutionise the construction sector.
THE TRANSFORMATIVE AI
The much talked about technology these days is the Generative AI (Artificial Intelligence). In construction sector, it has the capability to optimize resource allocation, minimize waste and enhance design. One cannot emphasize enough, the transformative impact this technology can have not only on construction processes, but also the construction materials and building products. With the ability to generate new outputs based on algorithms and trained data, it represents the next step in the evolution of building construction.
Generative AI technologies such as OpenAI’s GPT-4 and Dall-E 2, Alphabet’s Bard, Adobe’s Firefly and Github’s CoPilot are the talk of the town. And rightly so, Artificial Intelligence is increasingly demonstrating its capacities to enhance the design process and companies are leveraging it to create user applications for better creativity and productivity. This also points us to the future where humans will be called the co-creators with the Artificial Intelligence in customizing models for various problems and applications.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that cities emit up to 75 per cent of the global CO2-equivalent emissions globally. Buildings and urban transport are amongst the largest contributors.
Not surprisingly, a big break seen in the construction sector globally and now in India too is the emphasis on sustainability in building construction and it has to start with the basic building materials.
Concrete and steel, the building products with the largest CO2 footprint have seen the most innovations in the past few years to increase their environmental performance. From modifying the ingredients to reducing the quantity by making them more sophisticated, the research and development is ongoing in this segment. Additionally, these companies are readily adopting more eco-friendly manufacturing practices.
The next basic building block is the bricks which has now taken a new avatar as AAC blocks. Unlike red clay bricks that uses top fertile soil, the AAC (autoclaved aerated concrete) bricks use fly ash generated as waste by thermal power plants and thus helps in conserving of top fertile soil. They are 50% lighter and 10 times larger than traditional bricks and have excellent thermal insulation properties, which reduces HVAC requirements.
Replacing the river sand for concrete construction is the manufactured sand (M-Sand). As, it can be manufactured near the construction sites, it brings down the transportation carbon footprint as well as costs, while also preventing dredging of river beds.
These are just some of the examples of how construction materials are transforming to make the resource-intensive construction industry a little more sustainable.
Biobased materials like timber, straw, hemp, cork, clay, and earth once considered experimental materials of limited applicability, with new technologies, are now finding more applications and uses in building construction. There is no doubt, with further advancements, they will play a crucial role in the construction industry in the years to come.
Engineered timber such as cross-laminated timber (CLT) and Glulam offer homogenous superstructures and rapid construction of entire built systems. With far lesser carbon impact, its structural capabilities are at par with concrete and steel.
Likewise, materials such as cork, hemp, and straw are highly insulative and lightweight. Cork is being used as flooring, insulation, external cladding and countertops. Hemp is being used for external cladding panels and roofing tiles and as insulation panels and fibreboard. Straw’s insulative properties are being utilized as infill insulation within prefabricated external wall systems.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE
Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Singh Puri had said more than 60 crore people are estimated to reside in cities by 2030 because of rapid urbanisation and he stressed the need to increase adoption of new technologies in the construction industry. "It is imperative we find feasible ways to increase the adoption of emerging materials and technologies in the construction industry," Puri said.
There is no contradiction on the fact that technology and innovative materials can only help us tackle the growing needs of urbanization in India. However, the construction sector in India, especially in the smaller cities is often disorganized and labour-dependant. The wide availability of manual labour, necessity to keep the construction costs low, lack of awareness and disinterest in investing capital in new tech and equipment are some of the reasons, the developers are still inclined to rely on conventional methodologies and practices.
Same is the case with the latest high performance and newer eco-friendly materials. Their unfamiliarity to the construction industry and building code regulators who have been used to steel, brick, and concrete for so long, is one of the major roadblocks in their wider use and application. These new materials need to be covered in the national building codes with appropriate ratings, so that the building industry can utilize them in their construction.
The regulatory landscape is gradually changing, but we need to expedite the process to change-over to newer eco-friendly materials. By creating more demand for carbon neutral materials, the costs will decrease and more innovations in the segment will increase.
The lower carbon technologies and the alternative materials are there that are constantly evolving with capabilities to substitute the carbon-intensive materials and construction methods. The onus is on the design fraternity as well to incorporate the lower carbon substitutes in their designs. By creating awareness, informing clients and the wider public on the practical applications of new technology and material, architecture can play a key role in the decarbonisation of the Indian construction sector.
HOUSING AND URBAN AFFAIRS MINISTRY HAS SHORT-LISTED 54 INNOVATIVE CONSTRUCTION TECHNOLOGIES FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD UNDER THE GLOBAL HOUSING TECHNOLOGY CHALLENGE.
TERMINOLOGIES SUCH AS EMBODIED CARBON AND CIRCULAR ECONOMY ARE BECOMING MORE MAINSTREAM IN INDIAN REAL ESTATE, DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION SECTOR. THE GOVERNMENT TOO IS TAKING A POSITIVE APPROACH TO CREATING POLICIES TOWARDS DECARBONISATION OF CONSTRUCTION. FROM THE END-USER PERSPECTIVE, IT IS CRITICAL TO CONSIDER NOT ONLY ECO-FRIENDLY USE OF THE BUILDINGS, BUT ALSO THE NEED TO PUT ECO-FRIENDLY MATERIALS INTO OUR BUILDINGS IN THE FIRST PLACE.
ACORN (an acronym for automated concrete construction), utilizes robotically driven prefabricated construction methods to optimize structural forms. According to ACORN’s project summary, “Something as simple as allowing beams, columns and floor-slabs to have the shape they need to do their job, rather than the shape they need to be easily formed, allows a complete rethink of the way material is used in our buildings."
AI Sculpting by Berlin-based Onformative was done to realize AI-generated physical objects. First, the designers began the process with a simple virtual cube from which the application would remove volumes of voxels (volumetric pixels) using a roaming, subtractive object. Next, the team trained the AI to privilege certain manoeuvres over others as the program attempted to manifest a given result, such as the shape of a kneeling human figure. This partially hands-off method, and the visually provocative results it delivers, suggest that the designer’s role will adopt more curatorial and instructional dimensions in the future.
Construction materials are transforming to make the resource-intensive construction industry a little more sustainable. From environment friendly products to carbon-neutral manufacturing, the sector is marching towards a more decarbonized world.
Bio-based materials are materials that grow or are a natural part of the biosphere – such as timber, straw, hemp, cork, clay, and earth. Bio-based materials typically have lower embodied carbon, with timber around 3 times less than steel and over 5 times less than concrete.
Engineered timber such as cross-laminated timber (CLT) structural capabilities are extensive, producing increasingly taller high-rise buildings on par with concrete and steel, and is the only current viable eco-friendly structural alternative to them.