Opinion

The behavioural approach to offsite in construction

14 February 2019

‘The ultimate findings might show how the construction industry, rather than approaching the manufacturing industry, is suddenly entering a new world, dictated by an “operational and behavioural” mood.’ Angelo Ciribini

Angelo Ciribini from the University of Brescia and The European Council on Computing in Construction (EC3) asks what modern methods of construction mean for building occupancy and use.

Offsite, as well as modern methods of construction, design for manufacture and assembly, prefabrication, modular building, system building and whatever other definitions you can apply, might be considered as different ways for dealing with a fascinating and troubling relationship occurring between the construction and the manufacturing industries.

This challenge is not a recent one: it occurs over several decades, dating back to the early beginnings of the 20th century.

The matter is highly controversial and has been subject to a lot of partially failed trials: the European Age of the Industrialised Building, that affected either the western or the eastern countries over the “Glorious Thirty” (1945-1973), encountered severe criticism.

Nonetheless, quite recently, the same challenge, following the circular and sustainable approach, seems to have come back both in Europe and in the United States.

Seemingly, digitisation is acting as a strong driver in triggering such a reinvention, due to its impressive computational potential to deliver combinations of standardised and panellised components and generative/automated algorithms.

It follows that digital industrial platforms could allow the construction and manufacturing industries to emulate the aerospace and the automotive sectors.

The “change or die” assumption appears to work effectively whenever the international markets ask for a lot of affordable and sustainable houses to be erected in a few years, as it could happen, for instance, in France, Germany and the UK.

Digitised processes seem to emphasise the transposition of the automated and robotised manufacturing processes to the construction industry, in order to recover lost productivity, according to the Fourth Industrial Revolution-oriented framework.

In spite of this usual and widespread storytelling, the user centrism paradigm (quite often related to the built assets’ clean energy efficiency), as well as the whole lifecycle-related notion, emphasises the relevant meanings carried out by “occupancy” and “operations”: the cycles of (users’) lives are coupled to the (built asset’s) lifecycle.

It does cause a move from the tangible components, pertaining to the offsite construction, to the intangible factors, close to the occupants’ lifestyles: some recent investments addressed towards the offsite options by the giant ICT players (for example Amazon) might demonstrate how the focus could be centred upon the enabling of smart devices capable of transforming the built assets (buildings and infrastructures) in cognitive, “brained”, vehicles, in order to provide highly tailored “Living Services”, according to the scenario offered by tech consultant Accenture.

Such a phenomenon might be totally consistent, inter alia, with the Digital Built Britain Strategy, because its “social outcomes” and “service provisions” dramatically widen the (built environment) industry’s scope, far away from the conventional stages.

Consequently, it is clear how AI, deep and machine learning could sound as enabling agents when a matching and combinatorial attitude could be needed, involving connected components, spaces, flows and behaviours.

The ultimate findings might show how the construction industry, rather than approaching the manufacturing industry, is suddenly entering a new world, dictated by an “operational and behavioural” mood.

The “AI-based configurators” should be conceived to computationally manage the building’s tangible components and the user’s intangible sentiments as key drivers.

The construction industry is trying to stay close to the “traditional” advanced manufactured solutions, but it could concurrently enter the unknown land of the “industry of behaviours”.

Angelo Ciribini is a Professor of Architecture at DICATAM, Università degli Studi di Brescia