If you build 482 homes in two towers, how many tower cranes would you need?

For UK commercial construction firm Mace, the answer is zero.

As part of its commitment as a delivery partner for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Mace delivered 482 homes across two towers on land known as Plot No. 8 of the East Village in London’s East End.

No tower cranes were used. Instead, the buildings were constructed using two rising ‘factories’ (see image) – 600 tonne steel structures which surrounded the building’s frame as it was constructed and ‘jumped’ from each floor to the next. This created a ‘factory’ type of assembly area which moved upward as the development progressed. All lifting was done using gantry cranes which could lift up to 20 tonnes without restriction from winds.

This arrangement delivered benefits in several areas. Despite work taking place 100 metres or so in the air, there was no leading edge and no chance of falls or drops. That, along with a minimal number of operatives on site, delivered safer outcomes and enabled up to two million hours to be worked without major incident. The greater lifting capacity meant entire horizontal services for each floor plate could be delivered and installed in thirty minutes. All up, 36 storeys were delivered in eighteen weeks – beating the previous UK record by 30 percent. Construction waste was reduced by 75 percent.

According to Matt Gough, Director of Innovation and Winning Work at Mace, this is one example of what is needed to deliver the productivity gains required in construction globally. During a recent presentation at the World Engineering Forum in Melbourne and subsequent interview with Sourceable conducted in conjunction with Rafik Abdelkaddous, Autodesk Senior Territory Sales Manger ANZ, Gough said the building industry globally needs to change.

Much of this is being driven by demand. In its most recent report issued in June, the United Nations predicted that the worldwide population would rise from 7.7 billion currently to around 9.7 billion by 2050. To cater for this, Gough says an equivalent to New York City needs to be built every month.

Moreover, he says action will be driven by what some describe as a climate emergency. If construction and operations are combined, Gough says the carbon footprint of buildings is equivalent to about 30 to 37 percent of global carbon emissions depending on which report you consult. If concrete was a country, it would be the world’s third biggest producer of carbon emissions.

Nor is the problem restricted to buildings themselves. In 2018, a report from the International Energy Agency predicted that the number of air-conditioning units in circulation would triple from 1.8 billion in 2018 to 5.6 billion by 2050. This, Gough says, creates a cycle whereby greater use of air-conditioning warms the planet and contributes to further air-conditioning requirements.

To address these challenges, Gough encourages industry participants to think differently and make better choices.

Speaking of his own firm, Gough says Mace is making this happen through use of technology and more industrialised modes of operation. Toward this end, the company has digitised and integrated project workflows from design to handover and has used Autodesk’s BIM 360 environment to democratise data, integrate onsite processes and simplify work. Whether through use of drones, AR/VR cameras, sensors and automation, the firm is doing everything digital from design to estimation to delivery.

Beyond that, Mace is encouraging its people to make better decisions.

Consider the installation of light bulbs in new buildings and facilities. Formerly, the company would discard the single-use plastic in which these came wrapped when delivered in boxes. On one office project in London, it installed 98,000 light fittings – discarding the single use plastic for each.

During the company’s work on the second phase of redevelopment of the former Battersea Power Station, however, one of its electrical engineers asked suppliers to do away with the plastic – using recycled paper where necessary and agreeing that the company itself would bear responsibility for breakages during delivery. After suppliers found that such breakages were minimal, several removed single-use plastic from all fittings they supplied. All up, this prevented the generation of 16,000 plastic bags in 2019. For Mace, it avoided around half a tonne of waste on the project.

“We definitely need a mindset change,” Gough said.

“We (Mace) think what is going to make everybody stop and change is not technology, it’s the climate emergency. Technology will aid in the changes.”

Abdelkaddous agrees that change is necessary.

He talks of three phases.

Phase one is immediate and involves better decisions and actions with tools available today.

An example can be seen through an extension of Abdelkaddous’ own home. There, he has seen brick walls erected, demolished and rebuilt because the original wall was out 150ml. Timber columns and beams have been erected only for beams to be removed next day. Despite having had the site for about thirteen weeks, the builders have completed only around ten days’ worth of work.

By working more effectively, Abdelkaddous says improvements can be delivered.

Phase two involves a shift toward industrialised project delivery. Abdelkaddous points to examples of suppliers such as Melbourne’s Hickory, where prefabricated building systems and modular bathrooms are manufactured at the company’s Altona factory, transported and placed on site in a Lego type of arrangement.

The transition toward building this way, Abdelkaddous says, will happen over the next three to five years.

Beyond that, horizon three will see buildings which are not only recyclable but de-constructible. As things stand, Abdelkaddous says what is currently thought of as a recycling in terms of buildings is more accurately described as down-cycling whereby concrete from deconstructed buildings is simply used as road base. Going forward, he says buildings should be constructed to be demountable, with columns and facades able to be reused.

To achieve better outcomes, Abdelkaddous and Gough say several challenges need to be addressed.

First, Abdelkaddous says, a mandate is required. This could come from government or from private project owners.\

On this score, Abdelkaddous talks of disparities where costs associated with the building’s design and construction are loaded upfront but benefits from better buildings accrue over the building’s lifespan. What is needed, he says, is design input from those who will own and operate the building over its longer term.

This is particularly challenging in spaces such as multi-residential whereby the project owners are developers wishing to sell units as quickly as possible and having little interest in the building’s ongoing operation.

Gough, meanwhile, says procurement must shift away from pure cost and toward greater value. This involves bringing digitisation processes upfront and also bringing builders, suppliers, owners and maintenance personnel into up-front design processes.

As well, the industry needs to move away from closed innovation and intellectual property toward open source intellectual property and more open model of learning and knowledge sharing.

Gough encourages engineers to work to make things better.

“We have to believe that tomorrow can be better than today and we have the opportunity to make that so,” Gough said.

“You are all engineers. That’s your opportunity as much as it is mine.”

“Let’s go make that happen.”