As we embark on a new year, it’s important that we reflect on 2020 and the unprecedented level of resiliency we witnessed across the AEC industry as a whole. In dealing with a global pandemic in real-time, we saw more businesses than ever turn to technology to not only keep their metaphorical doors open — but, in many cases, as a means of survival.
According to a report from McKinsey & Co., the global pandemic has sped up the pace of digital transformation by seven years — with companies acting to implement these changes “20-25 times faster than expected.”
This rapid increase in digitization has proven to be particularly valuable — and visible — within the MEP industry. COVID-19 is accelerating the need to use technology, which is allowing the MEP industry to adopt new ideologies, methods and workflows to tackle challenges more efficiently, effectively and ensure increased success across projects.
A shift to outcome-based design: Harnessing the power of process automation and computational design
Over the past year, the industry turned to MEP design as we were quickly forced to adjust to life in a pandemic — particularly with regards to how people and air move through buildings. This focus on occupancy health and wellbeing, paired with the opportunity gained by the rapid digitization of our industry, is forcing owners to make new and increasingly stringent demands on MEP firms.
But in a true display of innovation born out of necessity, this pressure has resulted in firms moving towards a more outcome-based design approach. By harnessing the power of process automation, along with computational and generative design, it’s become possible to meet these increased — and urgent — demands of our industry.
For example, COVID-19 has forced the MEP industry to look closely at how air is conditioned, supplied and extracted in spaces. Traditional recirculated air systems are being revisited in favor of more clean air options, as well as filtration specifications and humidification practices.
Being able to dynamically simulate conditions and the impacts of air flow changes or differences in grille patterns enables engineers to design with increased confidence to deliver higher performing designs and systems more efficiently. These new design practices require more advanced design modelling capabilities — and are an embodiment of the shift in technology adoption we’re seeing.
To meet the demand from the industry, we’re also beginning to see the increased usage of tools such as computational fluid dynamics software (CFD) with BIM. Computational design is enabling engineers to more accurately model and simulate final real-world conditions, allowing them to confidently determine occupancy comfort.
And while CFD simulations have been standard practice for hospital operating theatres and data center projects, as it becomes easier to use and more cost effective to employ, CFD is being considered on more projects. Especially post COVID-19. Technology like this is also enabling firms to diversify their services, helping them to win more work (or repeat business) and provide massive competitive differentiation.
Advanced visual scripting tools and new workflows powered by BIM and the cloud
With more and more engineers turning to BIM-based technology, we’re also seeing an increase in the use of visual scripting tools and customization — which enable engineers and designers to not only automate repetitive tasks, but also interact with the model in new and different ways. To continue our example of air filtration systems, visual scripting tools provide the ability to easily model alternative ceiling diffuser scenarios based on different grille types and throw capacity — something previously incredibly time consuming and unthinkably complicated.
With advanced visual scripting tools, engineers have access to open-source scripts that open the lid on traditional black box analysis and enable them to customize analysis to meet specific criteria such as industry guidelines or standards, or specific outcomes. And by using the cloud, analysis can be run quickly, often and on much larger data sets than historically possible.
The rise of prefabrication in MEP
While the global pandemic massively disrupted construction supply chains, social distancing and increased safety measures greatly impacted on-site construction. These challenges have significantly highlighted the benefits of off-site prefabrication and modular assembly in controlled environments — a trend that has been gathering momentum in recent years, and has dramatically accelerated as a result of COVID-19. According to McKinsey & Co., construction spend attributed to prefabrication is set to increase from 5% to 31% by 2035.
Companies are looking for ways to continue to work during the pandemic, as well as seeking ways to improve material management, cost, reduce waste and manage construction schedules with more predictability. Using BIM-based processes to break projects into smaller work packages, partially commissioned, off-site assembled MEP modules can be packaged with supporting materials and shipped to the construction site at just the right moment for installation. This is made possible by prefabrication and helps reduce trade down time, increase productivity, improve build quality and ensure outcome predictability. Tools like Revit are also helping bridge the design-to-fabrication workflow, making it easier to intelligently leverage design models downstream, utilize data to inform decisions and replicate success.
At the same time, the process of industrializing construction is also evolving. Manufacturers and distributors are now starting to offer modelling, prefabrication and cost analysis services for MEP firms.
By using fewer more standardized components, best-practice construction methodologies can be more easily incorporated much earlier in the design process — increasing the constructability of designs and helping facilitate design-to-contractor handover.
In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in design-assist services, where engaging MEP trade contractors earlier in the design process has resulted in faster project schedules, a reduction in both waste and cost, improved constructability and an overall superior final product. If our industry moves towards a more standardized, component-based approach, certain project types could be designed more easily and constructed for better outcomes, with more predictability — a true convergence of manufacturing and construction.
Machine learning, artificial intelligence and beyond
With access to greater pools of data and tools to mine and manipulate that data faster and more accurately, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities are just around the corner. With data to better inform the design process likely to come from IoT (Internet Of Things) measuring devices recording actual building performance, outcome-based design begins to become very predictable, and very real.
Over the past year, we have witnessed a truly breathtaking display of resiliency, innovation and, most importantly, adaption as a response to the global pandemic. The MEP industry has been able to adopt and adapt cutting edge technologies and workflows to meet the unprecedented needs of the current moment — and will continue to do so long after the pandemic has ended.