Big data: revolutionizing construction

More and more construction projects are relying on big data to improve profitability and safety

Brown University in Rhode Island is one of the pearls of the Ivy League, the elite group of the eight most prestigious universities in the United States. Its campus looks exactly how an Ivy League college should: low red brick buildings, well-tended lawns, and students walking or biking back and forth to classes. But this classic image hides a technological soul that is driving the construction of the new engineering facility. For the first time in history, a U.S. university is using big data and Integrated Project Delivery to decide where to place the new building. The scientific and systematic collection of data – not only linked to construction but also for the building’s educational end use – was used to identify the best place for the building in terms of both the university and students. Ground was broken on October 22 2015 on the $88 million School of Engineering, as part of a broader ten-year plan called “Building on Distinction”.
Brown University is just one example of how the construction industry is reorganizing itself in a more modern way, and is increasingly relying on big data.

Big data in the construction industry

The systematic and comprehensive collection of data is becoming an essential tool to reduce construction times and costs. A study carried out by the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary calculates that using Building Automation Modeling (BIM) during construction projects can result in a cost reduction of 20%. In Oregon, both the Portland State University and the Oregon State University saved $10 million on recent building projects because they relied on the collection of big data.
According to the study realized at SAIT in Calgary the Virtual Design Construction (VDC) model and the use of  Unmanned Aerial Systems (also known as drones) is closing a productivity gap suffered by the construction industry, as well as meeting the increasingly stringent demands of the biggest companies on the market. The study uses industry data that shows that 57% of companies in the sector want “consistent, up-to-date financial and project information”; 48% would like to be warned when specific situations occur; 41% want forecasting, allowing them to better prepare for best and worst-case building events; and 14%  want online analytics to see for instance precisely which factors are affecting profitability and by how much. All of these needs can be met by using big data. For example, a drone that flies over a work site for 30 minutes can gather millions of pieces of data to plug into 3D design models to make work go faster or the construction site safer.

Drone quad copter

Big data before, during and after construction

Big data is useful in several phases of the life of a construction project, and in three phases in particular: design, construction and after completion.
During the design phase, data gathering involves not only the project itself, but also the analysis of environmental information, stakeholder indications, and social media discussions between citizens impacted by the project. This is strategic information that, as the case of Brown University shows, can even influence the position of the building.
In the construction phase, the emphasis is on data analysis of weather, traffic, and activity taking place near the worksite -- all elements that can contribute to making the job quick and efficient. For example, sensors placed on the machinery in the construction site can provide information useful for decisions involving purchasing or leasing of the equipment. In the same way, geo-localization of the machinery contributes to improved logistics and reduces wasted time.
The third phase is essential for testing the quality of the work carried out, and to predict any future need for repairs. Sensors placed inside buildings, bridges and streets can monitor the functioning and performance level of the infrastructure. And gathering information of the impact of traffic on a street or on the flexibility of a bridge can help avoid risks to the safety of its users.

Information that changes lives

Solving problems, reducing costs, implementing safety rules, organizing production processes in the most efficient way possible: the construction industry can achieve all these things by using information in a systematic way. And data plays the central role. To have an idea of just how important the role of information is, each day Google processes an amount of data that would fill 17,500 trillion floppy disks, according to the SAIT study. And 10 million photos get uploaded to Facebook every hour. The numbers are important because it is precisely the large numbers that characterize big data. For example, retail giants Walmart and Amazon already use data mining to identify and predict how their customers will react, so they can better fill their needs.
After taking root in other businesses, the digital revolution is now spreading to the construction industry, enriching this sector vital for economic and social development and helping it improve people’s lives even further.