Planes, trains and the information superhighway

Infrastructure is the world’s biggest growth market, with vast investment taking place in the transport, energy, water and communications networks that underpin every aspect of modern life. In developed countries, the emphasis is on upgrading crumbling facilities after decades of underinvestment. In the rapidly growing economies of the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, it’s about building new networks from scratch, even entire new cities, as the global population grows to a predicted 9.5bn by 2050 and mass urbanisation continues. A 2013 report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that it would take US$57trn worth of investment by 2030 just to provide the infrastructure to meet projected GDP growth – 60% more than had been spent in the previous 18 years. In this ten-page cover feature for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, I led a whistle-stop tour of the opportunities for its members: with so many sub-sectors in so many countries, the biggest challenge is working out where to start.

WSP Genivar Solutions magazine – high-rise special

My company Wordmule produced this 24-page magazine for global engineering consultancy WSP Genivar, exploring the trend for super-tall, super-slender buildings around the world. I planned and wrote all the content, interviewing experts from WSP Genivar and its clients and partners, and my colleague Nick Jones sub-edited the pages. Click here to read about why cities are building towers, the secrets of designing “iconic” buildings, the sustainability of high-rise versus low-rise, and whether there’s any limit to how tall we can go.

Solutions_high-rise special_cover

Spot the difference

The construction industry’s luddite reputation is well deserved, but it’s modernising fast. It’s had no choice since the government set a deadline for every publicly procured project to be delivered using building information modelling from 2016. BIM is CAD on steroids – a detailed computer model backed by a comprehensive database with information on every building component. But does the finished jigsaw ever look like the picture on the box? It turns out that it does. At Telford Homes’ first BIM project, the mechanical and electrical engineers followed the model to the letter, with the result that the finished plant room looks strikingly similar (if a little bit grubbier). I asked them how they managed it in this case study for the BIM+ website.

What the plant room at at Telford Homes' Tweed House development looks like in the BIM model...
What the plant room looks like in the Autodesk Revit model…
... And the same plant room in real life.  Pictures courtesy of Telford Homes
… And the same plant room in real life.
Pictures courtesy of Telford Homes

Renting for eternity

Imagine a world where a manufacturer is happy to exchange a product after 10 years, and not because there’s anything wrong with it, simply because a better version has come on to the market. It may sound far-fetched but this is a serious idea proposed by some of construction’s soberest minds. It’s part of a concept known as the “circular economy”, which severs the link between economic prosperity and resource consumption and transforms the traditional linear process of “take-make-dispose” into a closed loop where no resource is wasted and everything is reused or recycled. As one of the world’s most resource-intensive industries, construction is an obvious place to start. Buildings would be designed to be more adaptable and durable, and eventually to be disassembled into components and used again. Rather than selling products, manufacturers might undertake to provide a guaranteed level of service, upgrading components as more efficient ones become available and taking back the old materials.

It’s a million miles away from today’s consumer society, but something about the circular economy seems to have captured the popular imagination and there are signs that it is making the leap from deep-green niche to the mainstream. But can construction products – and buildings – really be recycled as easily as cans of coke or cars? In this piece for Construction Manager, I found that it demands a radical shift in not only the way buildings are designed and constructed, but also how they are financed, insured and even owned. As Jane Thornback at the Construction Products Association pointed out, “If somebody’s designing something with a brick, who owns it? The people who made the brick, the people who made the brick into something else, or the people who demolish the bricks 300 years later?” How could a manufacturer guarantee they’d be around in 10 years to honour that service contract? And what happens if they go bust – would the receivers want to demolish your house to recover the assets…?