Fit-Out & Construction Management

Three Trends Driving Smart Construction in China

Stimulated by growth in the country’s economy, over the last 30 years China has undertaken a colossal amount of construction projects that collectively have become the bedrock of the country’s modern urban environment. Cities in China have literally risen upwards and expanded outwards into their respective hinterlands. 

Today, China’s cities continue to be rapidly built out, but what is different now compared to earlier periods of urban development is the influence of smarter global construction processes and methods. These incorporate new materials, new technology and new methods of construction, which are being adopted by the construction industry in China. For the ‘new’ economy, smart construction holds the promise of boosting growth in several ways, including for example, reducing construction costs through use of new forms of materials and improving sustainability through reducing wastage and the promotion of a cleaner and healthier environment. 

In this segment, we pick out three smart new constituents within the construction industry that are in their infancy and explain the potential impact they could have on construction going forward. These three elements are: 

  • New materials 
  • 3D printing 
  • Prefabricated prefinished volumetric construction (PPVC) 

New materials 

What are they? 

Today, constructing a building is not simply the matter of hiring an architect, purchasing materials and leaving the creation up to builders. Increasingly today, the construction industry and the processes involved have become innovative and more technical. Increasingly, a variety of new materials are being used by the construction industry that are multifunctional, environmentally friendly and energy saving. These allow for architects to push the design envelope of modern architecture. 

The changing face of building design 

With building architects continuing to find new ways to push the design envelope, modern architecture structures are becoming ever-more complex and cutting edge in their design. Ground breaking designs are what set buildings, and even cities, apart. The move towards new materials is what smart construction is truly about. 

The harmonious integration of new materials and smart construction can be seen in China’s CCTV Headquarters in Beijing. Ahead of its time back in the early 2000s, the focus at design stage of constructing the new CCTV Headquarters was not to compete on becoming yet another skyscraper, but to become an iconic and state-of-the-art design addition to China’s capital city. Its unique three-dimensional design, featuring two conjoined towers, had never been done before at that point in time. The building boasts energy-efficient climate control systems, glass walls to make use of natural daylight, thermal insulation and modern high tensile steel (to account for the intense vertical and lateral loads along with the considerable temperature changes). It is the use of such new materials, coupled with its design, which makes the CCTV Headquarters an iconic landmark of the city. 

Today, there are plethora of new materials at hand to construction professionals and many more to come. In this article we outline three new forms of concrete, bioplastics, and new forms of solar panelling. 

Concrete – Something old, something new 

An example of a new material would be concrete. Concrete some might say is old – after all, it’s been around since the Romans. Even though great Roman structures, such as the Colosseum and Hadrian’s Wall, are still standing today, one of the downfalls to the concrete we use today is its susceptibility to cracking. Cracks in concrete expose it to water infiltration. This is especially problematic because the water can then have a corrosive effect on any steel rebar used to support the structure. 

In recent years, however, self-healing concrete has been produced and put into use. Self-healing concrete has the ability to repair cracks and imperfections as they occur within the material. 

Three Trends Driving Smart Construction in China

This is made possible because of certain bacteria that are incorporated into the mixture. These hardy bacteria, which are capable of living in alkaline conditions, feed off calcium lactate to produce the limestone that ultimately repairs the cracks that develop in the concrete. This will have major positive implications for the durability of buildings and other infrastructure projects in China in the future.

Bioplastics – The sustainable solution

With plastic now found lying both on top of the world’s highest mountain and at the deepest sea trench, there is growing concern about the use of plastic, especially disposable plastic. The construction industry in China has the opportunity to take the lead in reducing the amount of plastics used in the built environment by utilising more sustainable new materials.

The incorporation of bioplastics is one way. Bioplastics are made from renewable biomass rather than from oil based products. In 2016, according to European Bioplastics, bioplastic production globally was 4.16 million tonnes and 13% of this went to the construction industry (Figure 25).

Two rousing products in the field of Bioplastics are AirCarbon and Liquid Wood. AirCarbon is a material which sequesters carbon emissions to produce plastics. By uniting air with methane-based carbon emissions, oil in plastics can be substituted with AirCarbon. Liquid wood, or Arboform, is made from lignin, the natural waste product from the paper industrial-scale making. Lignin gives wood its natural strength. Lignin is combined with natural fibres to produce a material that is similar to wood but behaves like a plastic. It is tough and can endure collective tensile and compressive forces.

Bioplastics are not necessarily a complete sustainable solution but they do and will provide a greater number of possibilities and alternatives for the construction in China.

Three Trends Driving Smart Construction in China

Solar panelling – Adopting new forms

Incorporation of renewable energy is environmentally and economically one of the best decisions a firm can make when constructing/retrofitting a building. By turning natural resources into energy, we are able to power more and over the longer term, at a cheaper rate. Tesla CEO Elon Musk claims that a small corner of Nevada in the U.S., when covered by solar panels, could power the entire country. In fact, estimates by Bloomberg suggest that global solar (and wind) energy electricity generation volume will surpass nuclear energy electricity generation between 2020 and 2025 and come close to the volume generated by fossil fuels by 2040.

Three Trends Driving Smart Construction in China

Two new solar-power related materials that could help make this happen are thin film solar material and solar windows.

  1. Thin film solar material

Gathering solar energy today does not mean installing large solar panels any longer. Thanks to thin film solar material, solar energy gathering strips can be printed off and placed on various exterior surfaces of a building. Installation is easy and production and installation costs are cheaper than fitting traditional panels.

  1. Solar windows

Windows can now be treated with new electricity generating coating but at the same time still remain transparent. The coating contains the world’s tiniest solar cells (a quarter the size of a grain of rice) and can be put on at room temperature, with no need for dedicated production facilities.

3D printing

Customisation and time and cost reduction

Today, there is a growing desire for unique customized components and goods. 3D printing is a technology that makes customisation possible and is nowadays being used across several industries, such as consumer products, automobiles and life sciences. In terms of smart construction, 3D printing, which prints material layer by layer, can be utilised for speedier, cost effective, efficient, high quality as well as customised construction. In fact, where the process has already been used in Dubai and China, construction times have been lowered by between 50% and 70% and construction costs (due to decrease in labour and material wastage) have been reduced by between 50% to 80%.

All this is only going to result in driving 3D printing industry growth. According to Wohlers, industry revenue is expected to reach US$21 billion by 2020.

Impact on corporate real estate (CRE)

The use of 3D printing for more customised and on-demand production and delivery of goods and products has the potential to reduce the need to hold inventory of some goods and products in warehouses and in retail stores. As such, the supply chain and space requirements for both warehouses and retail shops might have to be readjusted. What’s more, with 3D printing having the potential to lessen production costs, certain manufacturers might need to rethink their production plant location strategy.

Prefabricated Prefinished Volumetric Construction (PPVC)

What is PPVC?

PPVC is a construction technique whereby modules made up of a number of units complete with interior finishing, fixtures and fittings are assembled at the factory and are then transported to the site for installation on a unit-by-unit basis.

Although PPVC is still a relatively new concept in smart construction, a good case where this process has been utilised to good effect is the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport Hotel in Singapore.

In 2015, the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport Hotel was Singapore’s first private sector commercial project to use PPVC. In 2016, dormitories at Nanyang Technological University were constructed, marking it as Singapore’s first high-rise public project to use this construction method. In Singapore, PPVC has been successful enough in so far that it has now been mandated as the construction method to be employed for a number of selected non-landed residential government land sale sites.

PPVC benefits

Although it may be challenging to adopt this new technology, and costly too, for those companies who are used to certain methods of construction, PPVC generally allows for more uniform and better-quality construction. By building components off-site, the quality control is high. Once complete, units are brought onto the construction site and are stacked on top of one another, which requires less manual labour and allows for less air, water and noise pollution. The time it takes to stack units is also less than constructing each building section and component on site.

By reducing the required labour and speeding up the process of building, PPVC is a cost effective and efficient form of construction building firms can employ now and in the future.

New materials, 3D printing and PPVC: How will they shape the future of construction?

The use of new materials in smart construction should only increase in the future. The driving forces will not only be architects and project owners wanting to push the design envelope but will likely also be the need for greater sustainability within the built environment.

3D printing is expected to begin to find a greater home within smart construction as more property owners start to demand greater building design customization and as the process becomes more recognised within the industry for achieving construction time and cost reduction improvements.

Finally, PPVC methods will likely be more promoted within smart construction because of the way it drives productivity in a traditionally manpower-intensive industry. As the process of building apartments and hotel rooms becomes more efficient, the next venture for PPVC in the future could quite possibly be the prefabrication of office spaces.

For more on how smart, sharing, and green trends are shaping China’s economy, download our full report.

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