Construction goes digital: “The complete revolution”

Experts agree that digitalization is changing the world of construction, but precisely how will this take place? To find out, The Magazine talked to Siemens chief architect Stefan Kögl about construction’s digital revolution: Building Information Modeling, digital twins, and intelligent materials that act like living organisms.


The Magazine: Mr. Kögl, how is digitalization changing the world of construction?

Stefan Kögl: Fundamentally! Digitalization is a complete revolution. It affects every phase of a build: planning, logistics, materials, the construction process itself. This serves to optimize the entire value chain, so that building as an activity is to some extent industrialized. What this means is that the building as a product is so perfectly planned and organized in advance that effectively it needs only to be assembled. In the production sphere this is a given, but in construction it’s not yet the norm. In the future, however, this is how things will be.

So what will the planning and construction process look like in the future? 

In the future, the planning process will take place on an exclusively digital and fully networked basis. The key phrase here is Building Information Modeling (BIM). In contrast to the customary planning activities that today accompany the construction process, the idealized BIM method sees the whole building planned in advance in parallel with all the associated trades, and simulated, tested and corrected as required in a virtual model. Faults and discrepancies can thus be easily tackled within the software and do not have to be laboriously rectified at the construction site. The building is constructed twice, if you will: once virtually on the computer and then subsequently in reality. 

What does that achieve?

For me the benefit of BIM is that the “prefabricated” virtual model allows us to solve construction site problems up front before building actually commences. We can identify and deal with potential errors and conflicts in advance, which results in a faster construction process with fewer glitches. 


Another advantage is that using the digital twin of a building, it’s also possible to simulate variants aimed at optimizing that building: What effects will a particular type of facade have on building and investment costs as well as on later maintenance and cleaning? How will an extra door impact future evacuation scenarios, comfort levels or heating costs? We are able to come up with precise answers to such questions before the first ground is broken. 

Where do you see the greatest challenge in pushing ahead with BIM?

To me that will be to implement an integrated, end-to-end BIM process with all stakeholders on an equal footing. Within the sector, it’s still the case that the planner only has his planning data, the construction company its building data, and everyone draws up their own BIM models. Each party does their own optimization and few of those involved see the bigger picture. To put it in graphic terms, everyone is only interested in their slice of the cake. Actually, digitalization leads to the interlinking of all topics as well as the requirements of the individual project phases! 


Another issue is the question of who owns the data from BIM, something that comes up especially during the operating phase. In the future, sensors will deliver a great deal of dynamic data from the running of the property: how often a room is used or cleaned, how it is heated, and so on. Over the course of time, a wealth of dynamic data accrues – but who does it belong to? So there are a great many technical and legal questions that will have to be clarified. 

How can this be changed? 

By laying down a standard and trying to drive and influence the market! And that’s precisely what we are currently doing. Over recent months we have developed a holistic BIM standard, which looks at all phases of a real estate property’s life cycle and provides associated data. To date, this is unique within the marketplace. We have now published the BIM@SRE standard and are making it available to the market, in the expectation, of course, that the planning specialists and construction companies will make use of this knowledge, thus enabling us to play a significant role in influencing the market standard.

We’ve talked a great deal about the planning and the building process. What other developments are there that will affect the construction sector?

A wide variety of topics! 3-D printing, for example, will be playing a significant role. Recently, Dubai saw the opening of the first office block erected using only parts produced with the help of using 3-D techniques. This development will continue and increasingly become the standard. 


Visualization is another trend, which will create a high degree of transparency within planning and construction. Courtesy of virtual reality I can sit round the table together with my partners and examine this or that component (this one’s too large, too thick or too thin) much more effectively, using a methodology that was previously inconceivable. This visualization brings better results and improved quality. If in future everyone works within one model, they can all immediately see the results of their actions and their input.

You also mentioned materials …

Intelligent materials and composites are also growing in importance all the time. That is materials which react like living organisms to influences such as moisture, temperature, pressure or wind and solve technical issues autonomously without external intervention. There are now highly interesting approaches such as load-bearing structures that self-optimize under stress, or surfaces that repair themselves in the event of minor damage. Or there are other examples such as light-reflecting concrete for intelligent guidance systems, or thin-film solar cells for textile architecture. We can give pretty much free rein to our imagination here. 

How will digitalization change architecture? Or to put it another way: What will tomorrow’s buildings look like?

If only there were a simple answer to that… Fundamentally, the immutable architects’ rule “form follows function” applies here too. As long as the functions within the building and the requirements placed on these remain the same, the characteristics of buildings will still be similar. The changes in the architecture will come with the function and with the altered materials, though it’s not yet possible to state definitively what form they will take.


What we can already say today is that the buildings we procure must be capable of greater flexibility in adapting to the ever-greater pace of change. They must be suitable for the manufacture of product A today, for making product B tomorrow and capable of serving as an office space or a laboratory the day after that. Modularity is another requirement for tomorrow’s buildings, and this too is a response to the need for the ability to adapt to changes of use.


And perhaps the most important development: Buildings will really become more sustainable. In Germany, for example, by 2050 the demand for primary energy in buildings is supposed to fall by 80 percent. To achieve this, buildings must be planned, and in particular operated more intelligently than today. Because if the appropriate technologies are incorporated into the planning from day one, it is possible to cut heating, electricity or lighting costs by even more than would be possible using conventional methods. And this applies not just to the planning of power supplies, but also to the scoping of the project with a view to efficient space utilization, optimum exploitation of natural light within the building and the use of sustainable materials. Without seeking to look into the future, in my view Siemens is well set up to cope with all the disruptive developments that are occurring. And here at Siemens Real Estate we have all the possibilities at our disposal, and should thus also deal with them with the right motivation. 



Picture credits: Siemens AG

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