Over the last few months, I have been working on my weakest skill: listening. I wanted to share what I heard. The question was, "What do you think a construction site will look like in 2050?" I asked several colleagues for their thoughts. What do they see developing today that will be normal work methods in several decades? I have captured some of the ideas this crew offered and have thrown in a few of my own. When we compared notes, we did not all agree; that's the cool part.
Why look so far ahead? With an aging and shrinking workforce, we must capture the opportunities that innovation provides and abandon some of what we are doing today. Construction in the United States is still steeped in traditions that routinely injure and kill our workers. An example is the use of stilts and ladders or using simple ropes and pulleys to get materials to the seventh floor. The same technology was reportedly used in 1500 BC to build Mesopotamia, where the settlers used it to pull water from a well, and we still call this system a "well wheel." Here are two more examples of habits we allow and must abandon.
Electrical burns occur from work on electrified equipment. The industry calls that "energized sources"; presumably because it's less threatening. If something goes wrong and electricity arcs, the worker is exposed to heat five times hotter than the surface of the sun. Rather than prohibit the work, we require electricians to wear what looks like a fire suit in a steel mill should an arc flash occur. That fire resistant (FR) protection, designed to protect the worker, may not work so well, so we ask the worker to wear underwear that doesn't melt. Seriously? According to NFPA® 70E section 130.7 I (12) (a), nonmelting flammable garments (i.e., non-FR) are permitted to be worn under FR garments.
Then consider head protection. For over a century, workers have worn the conventional hard hat often backward because it looks cooler. In a fall, it will likely come off, and if you're struck on the side of the head, it provides no protection. We see safety posters depicting exactly the concern—yet we neglect to discuss this personal protection equipment failing when needed.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently produced a comparison of the benefits of a helmet with top and side protection. That protection is attached to your head by chinstraps like those for skiing, bicycle riding, and skateboarding.
|Protects or minimizes head injury from falling objects
|Protects the head from all sides by absorbing and dissipating the impact and is designed for fall protection
|Complies with ANSI Z89.1 (top impact and top penetration)
|Complies with ANSI Z89.1 2015 (top impact and top penetration) plus additional side, rear, and front impact. Many comply with EN12492 standards.
|When wearer falls, the hard hat easily falls off if the harness isn't tightened properly
|Helmet stays on head during a slip, trip, or fall, even without the chin strap fastened
|5 years shelf life
|10 years shelf life
|Short warranty (1 year)
|Longer warranty (3–5 years, "lifetime")
For more than 100 years, we have overlooked protecting what's most important to any worker—their head. Yet, rather than require the fantastic protection that helmets provide, we resort back to hard hats. Per OSHA, "With a thorough understanding of the benefits and capabilities of head protection options, employers and workers can make informed decisions on which to use." 1
Recognizing the weakness in our safety arena and how the workplace and workers will change, here are some thoughts offered by a few free-thinking experts (first mine, of course).
Drones will fly over any type of roof and scan for weak spots. Workers will be dispatched to repair those weak or rotten sections—from below. A second drone will use water or air to clean the existing roof. Then drones will spray-apply a fiber-reinforced material that will provide both lateral strength and waterproofing in all elements with a service life targeted specifically to the life expectancy of that structure. You don't need a 40-year roof on a building that is designed for 20 years.
US highway construction relies on the material installed to fail; that creates work, and we need to rethink that. In 2050, when a highway is paved or repaved, 2 feet of fiber-reinforced asphalt will be used. This material will drain water, and yes, asbestos-containing drainage pipe will replace the steel culverts we prefer. The top pavement layer will be like a solar panel and heat the surface of the road (snow and ice) and power the adjacent streetlights and lamps. The routine repaving of our highways will stop. Putting construction workers out in fast traffic, often at night, will be rare.
Some last, but most don't. In 2050, bridges will have an electrical charge running through the steel to prevent corrosion. From the failure of parking garages in Canada to relentless ongoing repairs of our preferred steel bridges, once again, if a structure is designed not to fail, it does not need rehabilitation. The dangers of bridge work at height, in traffic, and often at night will be eliminated.
Flatwork for entrances and generator pads will be formed and poured off-site by robot. No longer will workers need to work in material that will burn skin or cost them their eyesight. Firms will stock common sizes of pads and deliver and place them on the project.
Rebar handling and rebar hazards will be eliminated. Pouring large surface structures like foundations and floors will be overseen by one person with a joystick. Concrete trucks will arrive, and the material will be pumped to robots similar to the Line Dragons we are starting to see.
Fiber-reinforced concrete will replace the need for any steel rebar on a horizontal surface. Columns will all be fabricated off-site using a lightweight "fibrous rebar" engineered with fiber-reinforced concrete, of course.
Only columns will need internal strengthening or wrapping. Carbon-based and aramid-type materials will replace all conventional rebar. Rebar will be 90 percent lighter—no longer made of steel and no longer needed for flatwork. Rebar breaks workers as they unload pieces when delivered, breaks backs as they are carried to the work area, and damages good people as they bend 8 hours a day, week after week, tying pieces of steel together with little bits of wire. We will do better, and these materials are already finding their way onto construction sites. One example is aramid fiber rods, produced by Saffle Co., Ltd. Below is a photo of a sample I was provided this year in Tokyo. I love this idea!
Photo by TJ Lyons
Exterior walls, regardless of height, will be created by a 3D pouring machine, producing that floor and most of the floor above. When the machine is jumped to the next floor, the unfinished portion of the floor below is completed, on and on every day and night. There is little need for conventional workers, so slips, trips, and falls are virtually eliminated. And we are no longer wearing out the workers in their first 20 years of work. In essence, they become the supervisors and quality techs that are needed.
Wall and ceilings will be delivered to a site and installed that day. Light fixtures with bulbs and receptacles will already be installed. These will be attached with snap-in connections like the Sears prefabricated kit house from 1908 to 1940. Sheetrock will have been abandoned for its weight and immediate failure from any moisture. Lightweight panels composed of fire-resistant fibers including asbestos will create a lifesaving barrier to occupants and soundproof walls in hotels. The panels will be fabricated to fit exactly the space installed and snapped into place for easy removal when needed.
Over a hundred years ago, Sears sold houses in a kit. Later in the 20th century, Wilson James Ltd. and Mace Ltd. used a similar approach called a "consolidation centre." Picture an electrician walking into room 222 of a new hotel. In that room, in a container on wheels, are all the materials they need to finally connect and test the power and security systems. When done, the system is complete, and the box is empty except for any tools. There is no debris because the room and components were engineered for that space only. A robot collects those empty containers, and they are refilled by workers overnight. Those workers are likely on work release as part of their rehabilitation and training as former electricians.
Director of Technical Services for the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry Don Allen, P.E., S.E., envisions an interesting approach that he expects to see by 2050. Before any site is designed, an army of robots will characterize the soils and native rock to gauge its use for aggregate for roads, backfill, or use in concrete. Existing buildings will be surveyed by machines to determine the material value of the current walls and slabs, again as components of the materials that will be created to make the new structure (local material use). That's sustainability at its best.
He is convinced every new structure will be "designed for deconstruction." Walls, ceilings, and floors will be assembled off-site and delivered the day they are to be installed. There will not be any stored or staged components or materials on site. "Each component will be fastened in place for later removal when living or work areas are redesigned, renovated, upgraded, or deconstructed."
In 10, 20, or 30 years, most of the buildings, roads, and bridges we have now will still be around. Much of the construction work will be retrofitted in addition to new construction. Safe practices in retrofit should also be considered as well as the technology used to provide these retrofits. Much of the new construction technology can also be applied to repair and rework, such as robots and additive manufacturing. There are some retrofit-specific technologies that are already in use that will become more widespread, such as carbon-fiber reinforcement and external patching for concrete.
Regarding transportation, he says that "at some point, our vehicles will change [read: moving away from cars and trucks or possibly moving to trucks that carry twice as much as current trucks] so bridges will have to be redesigned, rebuilt, or eliminated accordingly."
An example of eliminating hazards by replacing workers is steel mills. If you get a chance, visit a modern steel mill. The first question most visitors ask is, "Where are all the people?" The answer is they have been replaced by automated and robotic processes, and the controllers of the steel-making machinery sit in a well-protected elevated area called a "pulpit," where they can monitor and control everything in the process. I foresee this as the new job-site trailer: a high-tech office where sensors and controls are centralized, and continuous monitoring occurs both on-site and back at the architect's, engineer's, and general contractor's office.
Mr. Allen envisions a trailer arriving on a site complete with rolled stock for producing steel wall studs. Computer-generated plans will generate exactly what studs will be needed for an area, including "dimples" where each screw will be driven to secure the stud. The studded walls will be assembled on workstations, eliminating the need for workers to work at height. Once fabricated, these walls will be lifted into place, and only one person in a lift will be needed to secure it.
The largest barrier to this approach today is the maximum length allowed for shipping. This constraint is eliminated by on-site fabrication; he knows of some of these techniques already underway: "This is happening now!" He sees real value in the technology for the quick erection of military housing, of base camps, or after natural disasters. These field-fabrication trailers could simply be lifted or flown to the building site.
He sees the current "walls" we have become accustomed to changing to a fabric between studs. Depending on the use of the space (commercial kitchen versus office), robots will spray specific admixtures similar to the shotcrete or spray-applied fiberglass on boats.
Raghu Chakravarthy, an international safety professional who covers projects across the world, sees the opportunity in the elimination of electrical injuries and deaths. He sees "plug and play" as the key.
This groundbreaking development will revolutionize how we interact with electricity, connections and electrical receptacles making them safer and more convenient for everyday use. With advancements in technology and a growing focus on safety, these innovative like unique sockets will provide a much-needed solution preventing electrical accidents. This new design will significantly reduce the risk of electric shocks, wrong connections, or short circuits by enabling users to easily plug and unplug the phase and neutral wires—no way to make mistakes for they cannot be interchanged.
From receptacles to switchgear conductors, connections will be designed uniquely for a single piece of equipment or receptacles. Like QR codes, those unique connections will be created by a machine. The work will be faster, there will no longer be missed wired components, and workers will find it simply easier to do.
Electrical safety is one of the top priorities in the construction industry. In the next decade or so, we expect to see the emergence of plug-in plug-out sockets for phase, neutral, and ground to eliminate electrical accident completely.
And the perfect summary by Richard Korman of ENR. "I look back at history, the Industrial Revolution and embracement of steam." He sees the power of data being better understood by artificial intelligence. Advanced computing will drive the decisions, engineering, and management of tomorrow's projects.
Construction sites will look similar to what we see today. Some of the technologies coming … use of prefabrication and offsite assemblies (delivered as packages) will continue to grow but others … unless they are economical to produce or install, will not be adopted. What will not change is the cost of change—the price of innovation will drive its use.
For those reading these "visions," what are yours? In 50 years, our kids can gauge how close we came to these predictions.
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