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Revolutionising the construction industry through digitisation and sustainability

As technology evolves, many industries, including construction, have experienced a revolution. “A successful building is digital, sustainable, innovative and cost-efficient,” states Steffen Szeidl, CEO of the international construction company Drees & Sommer. Discover the exciting case study and learn what it all means for investors.

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In a ‘smart’ city, everything will be connected: traffic lights, street lights, buildings, roads and even the self-driving cars using them. Data will be collected by an armada of sensors and cameras spread around the city, gathering information about traffic, temperature, air quality and humidity - both inside and outside.

 

The fifth generation of cellular networks (5G) is still being rolled out around the globe but its expansion should pave the way for the Internet of Things to come into its own, connecting a multitude of devices. This expansion of digital infrastructure is an absolute necessity to make our cities more fit for the future.

Reinventing the building sector
As technology evolves, many industries, including construction, have experienced a revolution in terms of possibilities and available solutions. Many players are exploring and utilising innovation and technology to advance the building sector. An interesting case study is the international construction company Drees & Sommer. With nearly four thousand employees spread across multiple locations in Europe as well as parts of Asia and China, the organisation is one of the most technologically advanced companies in the industry. Which exciting projects are they working on? And which challenges still need to be overcome to make buildings and cities truly smart? Steffen Szeidl, CEO of Drees & Sommer, explains.

It all starts with community engagement
“Construction today goes beyond merely creating real estate,” explains Steffen Szeidl, CEO of Drees & Sommer and an architect by trade. “A key distinguishing feature of our organisation is our interdisciplinary team structure.” According to Mr. Szeidl, his teams do not just comprise engineers and architects, but people from diverse, seemingly unrelated fields, such as medicine, biology, and chemistry. The company wholeheartedly takes the needs of the users of the buildings into account during the construction process. As such, the organisation considers it necessary to hire people who are familiar with the lives and patterns of the building’s users to help provide insights throughout the entire design and construction process. “While an architect has all the necessary knowledge on how to create a functioning and safe hospital, having a doctor on the team leads to more field-related insights during the planning process," explains Mr. Szeidl.

Adding to this is Drees & Sommer’s Urban Life Plus project, which aims to create infrastructure solutions that better cater to the wants and needs of elderly individuals. If the distance between an elderly person’s residence and a hairdresser is one kilometre long, a sitting and resting spot has to be placed in the middle as it is unlikely that the elderly person will be able to cover the entire distance in one go. Urban Life Plus is scheduled to span five years and aims to implement measures that make it easier for the elderly to be an active part of society.

From smart buildings to smart cities
Another exciting area in which Drees & Sommer is strongly involved in is the development of modern building technology and infrastructure. Not only will technology raise the value of properties, it will also increase their efficiency by reducing the need for maintenance and improve their management through data-based/driven solutions. Mr. Szeidl, who is a passionate advocate of digitisation in construction explains that “the scope of digitalisation is not just about finding a perfect spot for building or maximising rent, but it now covers soon to be essentials like glass fibre, and the 5G telecommunication standard.” Also, the radical shift from working in offices to working from home brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the construction industry. “Residential buildings must now contain facilities that allow colleagues to connect and work seamlessly from home.” For this reason, Drees & Sommer constructs digital buildings, which are run by an app. The company builds structures and also creates the software that controls the building. Thus, the facilities can be upgraded to keep up with the changing needs of its users.

 

Another factor to consider in this regard is energy. “If a building generates excess energy, efforts should be channelled towards setting up another building beside it that can utilise the excess,” explains Mr. Szeidl. These buildings can become interconnected, thereby contributing to the creation of a smart city.

Demolish or renovate?
Apart from digitisation, which is a broad concept that is not limited to software creation and management, sustainability is lies at the core of the construction process at Drees & Sommer. One of the areas it is most noticeable is in the refurbishment of old buildings. More often than not, construction companies prefer to destroy outdated buildings and create new ones instead. The main reason for this lies in the fact that most old buildings are not suited to modern needs. As such, it is easier to pull them down and build new structures that fit modern requirements. The major disadvantage of this approach is that it poses a threat to the environment because of the amount of waste that is generated.

A better approach advocated by Drees & Sommer is the transformation of outdated buildings to meet modern requirements. Providers of systems such as lifts, escalators, heating and ventilation benefit from these investments. And the coronavirus pandemic may well prompt the uptake of technologies that had never been considered previously. Manufacturers of specialised equipment such as air-conditioning systems that can be enhanced with disinfectant and room sensors that can detect general humidity levels, should benefit from a much higher requirement for companies to look out for the health of employees.

The road ahead
Although Drees & Sommer is constantly on the lookout for innovative solutions, Steffen Szeidl believes that there are still various hurdles to be surmounted, with the first and most pressing challenge being sustainability. A cursory glance at the construction industry reveals that over 50 percent of the waste produced in Europe is due to the construction sector, as well as 38 percent of CO2 emissions. “The further promotion of sustainability in the building process remains a major objective,” he explains. A viable solution to this challenge proffered and implemented by the company is building a circular economy and adopting a cradle-to-cradle approach in creating and selecting biological and technical construction materials.

The second challenge that building companies deal with today are the ever-changing needs of the building’s users. “Construction companies must be aware of the changing trends and patterns in the lifestyle, work situation, and living conditions of a building’s users. By embracing digitisation, it becomes possible to keep track and then adjust design, construction, and upgrades to meet their needs,” states Mr. Szeidl.

Finally, interconnectedness is a product of digitisation. The goal of the construction industry is to create interconnected buildings and facilities that are capable of radically transforming our cities, making them more than a mere combination of glass, asphalt, steel, and concrete. “The future of construction is building smart cities that are sustainable and make our lives easier.” Therefore, the development of digital infrastructure becomes a necessity.

Attaining this goal relies heavily on data, which is to be collected by an armada of cameras and sensors spread across the city. However, what proves to be the biggest challenge in this regard is that many processes in the building sector are still executed manually. Therefore, it is exceedingly arduous to gather the necessary data required to create a system of interconnectedness within cities. Gathering data in an ethical and transparent manner is a challenge that many stakeholders, including governments, are working on.

“This is an exciting time to be working in the construction and urban planning field. Embracing technology and sustainability will lead to many innovative solutions that will profoundly transform buildings and cities,” concludes Mr. Szeidl.

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About the Greentech Festival Berlin

Nico Rosberg, the 2016 Formula 1 champion, became Julius Baer’s brand ambassador in 2021. In 2018, alongside two co-founders, Rosberg launched the annual Greentech Festival, now a leading platform for green technologies, ideas and products. The objective is to showcase some of the most forward-thinking sustainable innovations and create a global community of change-makers and innovators. As Excellence Partner, we interviewed Steffen Szeidl at the Greentech Festival 2021.

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