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need for a new way of building homes and offices, using smart construction to tackle design problems, inefficiency, outdated techniques and environmental challenges.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 Milestones

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

Venezuela: Parliament calls for urgent EU help for people fleeing the country

The impact of COVID-19 on the life of the elderly

Hurdles on creating effective vaccine campaigns against COVID-19

The role of junior entrepreneurs as a bridge between academia and business world

Can privatisation be the panacea for the lack of growth in Europe?

Peacekeeping chief highlights challenges facing UN Police

From Russia with love: Brussels and Moscow close to an agreement on Ukraine’s gas supplies

European Youth Forum welcomes steps towards raising awareness of youth rights by EU ministers

European Semester Spring Package: Paving the way for a strong and sustainable recovery

Jakarta is one of the world’s fastest disappearing cities

The Commission accused of tolerating corruption and fraud in taxation

Parliament urges EU to take drastic action to reduce marine litter

Feeding a city from the world’s largest rooftop greenhouse

Two EU Commissioners fire at will against the US

Coronavirus response: over €1 billion from EU Cohesion policy to support Spain’s recovery

Spending on health increase faster than rest of global economy, UN health agency says

Europe must regain its place as world leader in digital technology

3 ways the coronavirus is affecting animals around the world

EU guidance on the handling of visa applications from residents of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions

One person dies by suicide every 40 seconds: new UN health agency report

Palm Oil: With Malaysia cracking down on production, what’s the alternative?

Here’s what COVID-19 teaches us about ‘social learning’ and the environment

‘Ground Zero’: Report from the former Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan

To save biodiversity, MEPs call for binding targets at global and EU level

Eurozone: The crisis hit countries are again subsidizing the German and French banks

Germany to help China in trade disputes with Brussels

The three US financial war fleets

These 3 countries are global offshore wind powerhouses

EU and Germany join efforts to support the African Union’s response to coronavirus

Five ways individuals can help save the oceans

Eurozone banks to separate risky activities: Can they stay afloat?

Microsoft says the internet is getting a little nicer

Entrepreneurship and strategic planning: the enabler

5 of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases

How 5G can connect the affordable homes of the future

‘No-deal’ Brexit: European Commission takes stock of preparations ahead of the June European Council (Article 50)

Afghanistan: UN ‘unequivocally condemns’ attack in Kabul

Denmark is experimenting with ‘culture vitamins’ to lift people out of depression

Latin America’s cities are ready to take off. But their infrastructure is failing them

The EU lets the bankers go on rigging the benchmarks

Snowden is the “EU nomination” for this year’s Oscars

EU helps tackle air pollution in Kosovo with €76.4 million

How will the NATO-EU competition evolve in the post Brexit era?

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

Coronavirus Global Response: WHO and Commission launch the Facilitation Council to strengthen global collaboration

Teen activist Greta Thunberg arrives in New York by boat, putting ‘climate crisis’ in spotlight

A Europe that protects: EU customs seized over 31 million fake goods at EU borders in 2017

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is redefining the economy as we know it

How Sierra Leone is using 3D printing to become a model state

2018 Golden Pen of Freedom Awarded to Maria Ressa of the Philippines

5 things we can do in 2021 that will protect the ocean and change lives

MEPs call for additional EU sanctions against Russia over Navalny’s imprisonment

ECB to people: Not responsible if you lose money on Bitcoin, your governments are

COVID-19 shows we need a broader definition of safe mobility

‘Green economy’ pioneer Pavan Sukhdev wins 2020 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement

Combat against devastating effects of tobacco can only be won ‘if the UN stands united’ – UN health official

ECB to play down IMF’s alarms for deflation danger in the EU

EU: All economic indicators in free fall

Palliative care: how understanding terminal pain and suffering guarantees the dignity of human rights

An open letter to Europe’s leaders

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