2020, a year like no other, ravaged by the effects of COVID-19. A year in which we’ve had a singular and constant thread through the news.
The pandemic may have taken the headlines and shunted alternative news items down the pecking order, but these other stories and subjects have not evaporated. One critical topic is climate change and its impact on our environment.
One of the effects being most keenly felt is flooding. This calendar year, from winter rains through to tropical wet-season type conditions in late summer, Ireland has already seen countless flood events in coastal areas, inland on riverbanks, across rural and urban areas.
There are currently hundreds of flood risk zones in Ireland, over 300 to be more precise. We hear often of flood risks in Bantry in Cork, Cork city, Limerick city and the seawall in Dublin’s Clontarf, currently and almost permanently sandbagged.
I need only look out my front window and see the Dublin Tolka river, which has on occasion severely flooded (more in the last 30 years than in previous centuries) causing damage to residential buildings, bridges and businesses.
At the time of writing, the Irish Red Cross are providing a temporary humanitarian support scheme for businesses and community, voluntary and sporting bodies.
We’ve all seen the news broadcasts of people shopping in canoes, while their household belongings float past them. And as we head into another winter, we can expect more flood warnings from Met Éireann, the Irish weather service, in absence of effective flood management strategies.
Irish Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works (OPW), Patrick Donovan, recently captured the gravity of the situation in a media interview “Climate is changing faster than policy. We are now seeing monsoon like weather in the month of August. We had seven towns being inundated with water in a short time last month and it’s unprecedented and the reality for a lot of communities is that time is running out.”
But talking in the press won’t change policy. As politicians and interest groups argue about the way to stop flooding, the waters continue to rise.
So when action plans are eventually signed off and the process of construction can begin, we need to look at how it can be done.
Does it have to be construction?
Not always. There are certain methods of flood management that do not require the input of construction teams, but for the most part and certainly in the immediate future, building of flood defences is of the upmost importance.
We need to look at the growing need for better flood defences, the need to rejuvenate and reinforce existing structures and how construction technology can assist in helping us build the barriers, whilst bearing in mind that we must build in more sustainable ways to slow down the effects of climate change.
Is it all doom and gloom?
It’s not easy to be positive about the long-term future of flood prone areas of the country. Without all individuals making changes to the way they live, our actions will exacerbate the issues we’re trying to deal with. But let’s look at where change is possible and where there is a willingness to move forward, and explore how best it can be done.
Firstly, it’s impossible to examine the landscape in any element of construction in 2020 without touching on viral crisis we’re enveloped in. Maybe surprisingly a Glenigan report concluded that, “Flood defences construction is one sector which is likely to remain buoyant through the COVID-19 crisis”. OK, not all bad then. Also, in 2018 the Irish Government announced a €1 billion flood risk management plan to fund 118 relief schemes around the country.
So, we can see that the need for effective, efficient and sustainable flood defences. There is the possibility to get work done in our current climate and there is funding for projects. Now, how can the construction sector use technology to deliver?
Design and build for the future
We must look at flood defence structures differently. Does a sea wall or a dam have to be just a sea wall or a dam? We’re going to have to live with these structures, so why not make plan for them to be multi-purpose, where possible.
There’s a great example in the Netherlands, who, let’s face it know a bit on the subject of flood defences. The Afsluitdijk in the Wadden Sea (part of the North Sea) was first completed in 1932. A recent regeneration of the structure reimagined it not solely as a defence but also as an area of recreation. Afsluitdijk is a great example of regeneration and reimagining through the use of Building Information Modelling. In this case, BIM 360.
Whilst we must continue to innovate and strive for progress we have to balance that with concern for our environment. To put it bluntly, there’s no point building flood defences that increase the need for flood defences. Research by Kingspan, a global leader in high-performance insulation and building supplies, confirms the construction and operation of buildings account for 36% of global energy use. It also shows that construction accounts for 39% of energy-related CO2 emissions.
Kingspan used their research as the inspiration behind their IKON headquarters in Cavan, Ireland which they named a ‘building for tomorrow’. They enabled digital technology and research into advanced materials to create a modern and sustainable building, that through use of sensors provides data on energy consumption.
Installing innovative resource-saving features may require close collaboration with a number of specialist subcontractors. Digital platforms like PlanGrid and BIM 360 ensure that everyone can access the information they need, when they need it. The PlanGrid issues management system makes it easier to highlight and assign fixes by marking them up directly on drawings, supporting close-out even on large builds. While BIM 360 allows field teams to connect with the office to enable instant collaboration and document sharing.
Digital drawings also support new building methods, such as off-site manufacturing or prefabrication – which are more environmentally-friendly but require major collaboration across multiple locations.
Also, mistakes in construction can significantly worsen the sustainability of any build and can be environmentally damaging, as it involves wasting extra energy and resources. Using software like PlanGrid ensures that project teams can access the most up to date versions of plans in real-time from the site, on their tablets and mobiles. This helps to minimise mistakes and create high quality sustainable homes the first time.
The best defence is offense
The view of the construction industry is often that it’s a kind of behemoth; enormous, but slow to change. By embracing the power of technology through the use of data, automation, prefabrication, future modelling, generative design, collaboration, communication, the sector can lead the way in bringing real change to the environment and people’s lives.
With collective effort and collaborative support we can make the changes that will hopefully slow down the effects of climate change and therefore reduce the need to build further defences.