Here’s how smart construction could transform home-building after COVID-19

construction site

(Jacek Dylag, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Fanyu Lin, CEO, Fluxus LLC & Matt Howell-Jones, Partner, Arcadis

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to find safer and smarter ways of building homes and offices.
  • Prefab construction powered by digital technology can help us safely create sustainable, high-quality housing at speed.
  • Using big data and artificial intelligence throughout the design and construction process can transform the building sector and help us provide sustainable, affordable housing for all.

As building sites all over the world gradually re-open after lockdown, it’s becoming increasingly clear that construction will look different after COVID-19. Our global public health crisis has confirmed the urgent need for a new way of building homes and offices, using smart construction to tackle design problems, inefficiency, outdated techniques and environmental challenges.

Where sites have re-started, the consensus is that at best, a maximum of 60% of workers can safely return under social distancing rules. Productivity is expected to be 30%-40% lower, meaning projects will take longer to complete. Tighter immigration controls to control the spread of coronavirus will exacerbate the current labor problem in the building sector.

At the same time, demand for high-quality housing is continuing to rise, especially in cities. Offering urban populations better and more spacious accommodation is crucial for reducing overcrowding and preventing future waves of infection. The question is how to do this in a fast, sustainable and environmentally sound way. One answer is prefabricated housing, powered by digital technology.

Unlike traditionally built homes, prefab houses are assembled from components including walls and roofs that are produced in factories and delivered to site for assembly. This helps make them cheaper and faster to build. Digital technology, including artificial intelligence, robotics and the Internet of Things, has also improved the design and production process.

Here are four ways smart, technology-driven construction can transform the building sector, ensuring high quality standards for affordable, factory-built housing and offering a solution to our most pressing housing problems.

Image: Fluxus + Arcadis

Smarter planning and design

The construction sector is already using Building Information Modelling (BIM), a first step in the digital transformation of the sector. During the COVID-19 lockdown, BIM was more widely adopted in the industry. It enabled projects to continue in a digital and virtual environment even when participants were unable to meet in person. This collaborative approach allows data to be shared across professional disciplines and businesses, and facilitates smarter construction. In the prefab industry, the data can then be fed into manufacturing processes for components and modules that are later put together to form finishing buildings.

Smart technologies including artificial intelligence (AI) can further enhance the design process. They use big data and complex algorithms to create standardized designs at pace. The resulting designs can then be tested on a virtual platform in terms of their viability and cost, the local environment, and the developer’s specific ideas and requirements. This means decisions and commitments can be made at an early stage, which speeds up the whole process.

The standardized components developed this way can then be produced in factories with all the advantages of mass manufacturing, such as reducing costs and improving productivity and efficiency. For this to work on a global scale, manufacturers need to collaborate and combine resources and processes.

Image: Fluxus + Arcadis

Safer construction

With the right technological support, prefab construction is safer, faster and more reliable than conventional building work.

Factories typically offer a more controlled working environment compared to building sites, with static workspaces and more structured supervision. This makes it easier to implement safety processes and procedures such as physical distancing. Site-based activities, on the other hand, commonly include a lot of interaction between workers.

Technology can support these safe processes by analyzing factory activities and people’s movements within the factory environment. The production process can then be adjusted to separate individuals or create small groups working together.

Pre-manufactured components require minimal labor to install when compared to traditional construction, which reduces accidents on site. Minimal labor not only helps with issues around physical distancing in the COVID-19 context, but also accelerates production.

Other emerging digital technologies include GPS-enabled devices that monitor people’s movements around building sites and alert individuals if they come too close to others, or accidentally mix with those outside their working “bubble”.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the future of cities?

Cities represent humanity’s greatest achievements – and greatest challenges. From inequality to air pollution, poorly designed cities are feeling the strain as 68% of humanity is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.

The World Economic Forum supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner, greener and more inclusive.

These include hosting the Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, which gathers bright ideas from around the world to inspire city leaders, and running the Future of Urban Development and Services initiative. The latter focuses on how themes such as the circular economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be harnessed to create better cities. To shed light on the housing crisis, the Forum has produced the report Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities.

Faster and more predictable timelines

Using smart digital technologies and prefab construction can halve the time of a project, compared to conventional building techniques. This productivity boost is of vital importance when it comes to meeting pent-up demand after the lockdowns.

Prefab housing also offers greater certainty. Conventional building projects regularly see costs escalate and schedules lengthen due to unexpected events such as supply issues or bad weather. Projects that use factory-made components, on the other hand, tend to be very predictable and not impacted by the weather.

As prefab construction gains momentum, data gathered from manufacturing and construction can be analyzed to further understand, optimize and standardize the process.

In the context of COVID-19, such predictability is all the more important as the sector already faces a number of uncertainties, such as the risk of a second wave of infections that could force traditional building sites to close again.

Image: Fluxus + Arcadis

Improving sustainability

The construction industry is estimated to be responsible for 35% to 45% of CO2 released into the atmosphere, making it a major contributor to global warming. Given global commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change, the industry needs to urgently adopt more sustainable methods. Prefabrication can be part of the solution.

Manufacturing components in a factory has been shown to cut emissions by up to 60%, compared to conventional construction. One significant factor is the sharp reduction of traffic movements by up to 40%. Conventional building sites typically see a constant flow of vehicles delivering materials and shipping out waste. Factories on the other hand organize deliveries to minimize traffic. Using big data, the scheduling of deliveries can be planned and optimized to reduce frequency, avoid peak times and reduce double handling on site, all contributing to improving sustainability.

Research suggests that prefab construction can cut waste by up to 90% compared to conventional building, partly thanks to the help of data analytics and smart planning.

Modern prefab elements are designed with long-term sustainability in mind, including using data analytics to design homes with optimal energy use and storage. These homes are manufactured using materials that them at a comfortable temperature, reducing the need for extra heating or cooling.

Other smart energy solutions include connecting homes to electric cars, and using the energy stored in the car’s battery to power the home. This can help alleviate peaks in energy consumption caused by sudden high demand at certain times of the day.

New homes for a new era

We are currently in the middle of a global health crisis. Infection outbreaks are frequently associated with low-income, high-deprivation clusters of high-occupancy homes, often with many generations of the same families living together. Alleviating this risk by providing high-quality homes must become an urgent priority for governments everywhere.

Traditional construction techniques will always play a role in the housing sector. They can be useful for small and more complex buildings, or the replication and restoration of historic buildings. However, prefab construction has the potential to take us into a new and more sustainable and affordable era of home-building. Supported by digital technologies, it presents an unprecedented opportunity to provide comfortable and affordable housing to a growing global population.

Taking inspiration from more technologically advanced sectors such as the automobile industry, robotics would be the next natural step in the housing production process. Robotics and automation could speed up production even more, and make it even safer.

The key is to collaborate on a global scale, and share the best solutions so we can all advance together, create a pool of talent, research and development, and make use of economies of scale. One way to do this would be to develop a blueprint for so-called Global Powerhouse Hubs that connect industry players all over the world, allowing them to exchange best practices, align their strategies and co-operate throughout the supply and production chain.

Technology has helped many of us weather the crisis. Now is the time to tap its potential in the construction sector, putting humans at the center to make a positive impact on communities all over the world.

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Qualcomm to be the next target of EU antitrust regulators? China might be the answer

France breaks budget promises once again and the EU’s finance offices are shaking

COVID-19 shows why we must build trust in digital financial services

Amazon: our green is turning to ashes

EP President praises Nobel Peace Prize award to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad

Suriname’s climate promise, for a sustainable future

Medical students: catalysts to close the gender gap

As people return to work, here’s how we can make commuting more inclusive and sustainable

Safety fits into our palms: The role of mobile technology in healthcare systems and life saving

Keep Africa’s guns ‘from firing in the first place’, UN political chief urges

Algorithmic warfare is coming. Humans must retain control

Paris, Rome, Brussels and Frankfurt to confront Berlin over growth and the Athens enigma

How the institutional response to COVID-19 can prepare us for climate change

Germany is turning its old mines into tourist hotspots

Turkey’s Erdogan provokes the US and the EU by serving jihadists and trading on refugees

Yemen bus attack just the latest outrage against civilians: UN agencies

We need to protect 30% of the planet by 2030. This is how we can do it

Friday’s Daily Brief: UN chief in China, counter-terrorism, updates from Bangladesh, Mali and Mozambique

7 steps to becoming a ‘CEO Academy’

Merkel refuses to consider the North-South schism of Eurozone

Coronavirus: Commission adopts new exceptional support measures for the wine sector

MEPs vote for upgrade to rail passenger rights

Juncker and Tusk killed Greece on 07 July 2015 to meet the Commission’s summer vacation plan? #Grexit #Greferendum #Graccident

‘Protracted crisis’ in Venezuela leads to ‘alarming escalation of tensions’: UN political chief

Afghanistan: Civilian casualties exceed 10,000 for sixth straight year

A letter from Italy: Our insecurity in COVID-19 times

These coastal countries are sinking the fastest

Women still struggle to find a job, let alone reach the top: new UN report calls for ‘quantum leap’

‘Act now with ambition and urgency’ to tackle the world’s ‘grave climate emergency’, UN chief urges UAE meeting

European Commission statement on the adoption of the new energy lending policy of the European Investment Bank Group

A challenge for inclusion in the Dominican Republic’s health care services

There is no recipe for a healthy mental state

Outbreaks and pandemics periods can be stressful, but how can we turn it to a positive life-changing experience?

International World Summit Award calls for outstanding digital applications with impact on society from 178 UN member states

China greenlights first underwater high-speed railway

Three out of the past five Julys were the hottest on record

COP21 Breaking News_04 December: Commitments Made to Reduce Black Carbon, Methane and HFCs

Medical workforce migration in Europe – Is it really a problem?

Investing in rural women and girls, ‘essential’ for everyone’s future: UN chief

European Parliament speaks out against “killer robots”

10 million Yemenis ‘one step away from famine’, UN food relief agency calls for ‘unhindered access’ to frontline regions

These are India’s cleanest cities

EU Border and Coast Guard: new corps of 10 000 border and coast guards by 2027

7 lessons leaders should take from the COVID-19 crisis

We won’t win the online security war without people power

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page

Q&A on extraordinary remote participation procedure

EU Elections: new rules to prevent breaches of data used to influence elections

Mining the deep seabed will harm biodiversity. We need to talk about it

Congolese expelled from Angola returning to ‘desperate situation’: UN refugee agency

In West Africa, UN Security Council visits Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea-Bissau

JADE President opens JADE Spring Meeting 2014

Commission welcomes the political agreement on the transitional rules for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)

Cameroon: Clear ‘window of opportunity’ to solve crises rooted in violence – Bachelet

The EU Commission fails to draw the right conclusions about corruption

How youth and technology can drive Africa’s COVID-19 response

We are ‘burning up our future’, UN’s Bachelet tells Human Rights Council

How to change the world at Davos

5 ways to get your business ready for AI in 2020

UN, global health agencies sound alarm on drug-resistant infections; new recommendations to reduce ‘staggering number’ of future deaths

More Stings?



  1. kerrycfendley says:

    Good sound tips here, a good addition would be to encourage people to choose green cleaning alternatives there are plenty of safe, TGA approved; WELL compliant; green alternatives – rather than reaching for synthetic chemicals with toxins and fragrances that pollute our buildings or can negatively impact workers health.

  2. Great Blog! I love this post and found it very amazing. Thanks a lot for sharing.

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s