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Das Bauen von morgen

The buildings of tomorrow

Our municipalities should become climate-neutral, socially just, and worth living in – and, of course, so too should the buildings within them. These are goals that we can all subscribe to without hesitation. But how do we reach them? And how does the construction industry have to change in order to play its role in the transformation? Spoiler alert: By thinking more networked and working more digitally.

By Holger Glockner

Anyone with an interest in the buildings and lifestyles of tomorrow should first take a look at the ramifications of today’s buildings. With almost 8 billion fellow human beings, we live in a time of extreme urbanization and densification. More than 50% of people already live in cities today; in 2050 it will be around 80%. But that also means that, if more and more people dream of life in the city, there will be little space to dream. And in many places, unfortunately, the air we breathe will be affected, too. 

According to studies, the construction sector is currently responsible for 40% of greenhouse gases and cities are responsible for 70% of energy consumption. Figures like these show that the construction industry has a special responsibility. It must take a leading role in the fight against climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions along the entire supply chain. 

To a much greater extent than before, the sector must also embrace building products as recyclable materials that are not disposed of at the end of the day but are returned to the technical cycle. Culture manifests itself in buildings. In this respect, new cultural technologies are required in the construction world – primarily networking, participation and automation – in order to make a significant contribution to the necessary transformation in the economy and society.


Future scenarios: How will we build in 2050?

Together with Arup Germany, Z_punkt has developed future scenarios for the Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (BBSR), which have just been published in the publication "Buildings of Tomorrow". For example, we dealt with the question of how more social and ecological sustainability can be achieved in urban districts and how new technologies in the construction world will finally enable access to the digital modern age. We also looked at what means municipalities can use to achieve a climate-neutral, or even better, climate-positive building stock and to encourage circular construction. The publication makes it clear that the construction world must change dramatically in the coming decades and there are already many hopeful signs that this can be achieved.

Download the “Buildings of Tomorrow” study from the BBSR website


Three theses for the buildings of tomorrow

On the basis of this study and numerous other foresight projects, we can be certain of one thing: Not only will our communities and cities, as well as the buildings, have to change – the entire construction industry will have to rethink the concept of building.

1. Outside thinking: Think cross-sectorally and plan in an integrated manner

The pandemic has shown us that the division between residential and office districts is no longer cast in concrete. Since companies have been offering more remote work opportunities and people have been increasingly going on shopping sprees online, cities have been thinking about new usage concepts for their office districts and shopping streets. This leads to new opportunities, where municipalities can once again become more diverse and distinctive. 

The uniformity of shopping streets and office canyons is giving way to a more vibrant ambience – a number of municipalities are already relying on the ingenuity of their citizens and are driving forward the idea of participation. For planners, this means that modern construction should be flexible – and in the future it will increasingly draw on ideas from outside. For example, the construction sector could network with forestry so that it can make greater use of wood as a renewable resource. Or, it could work with agriculture to think about how buildings should look that allow urban farming on a larger scale. 

The sector could also strengthen cooperation with the energy industry and jointly come up with concepts for decentralized energy supply and optimization of energy efficiency. Or, it could develop more aesthetic variants for meeting solar requirements for new buildings (e.g., photovoltaic skins). In the future, gray, green and blue infrastructure – i.e., buildings, green spaces and bodies of water – must be more closely interlinked right from the planning stage. 

In this sense, these "converging infrastructures" will lead to a rethinking of planning, design and building. If municipalities and cities contribute to a better, fairer and more sustainable life in this way, then this will correspond to the culture of success that the sociologist and social psychologist Harald Welzer speaks of. It is clear that the construction industry cannot implement this utopia on its own. All in all, it is about entering into unconventional connections with other sectors in order to come to viable solutions in the question of renegotiating public space, something that was significant in the 1920s.

2. From squad to team: Overcoming silo thinking

Digitization will also completely change the construction industry. If you want to position yourself more innovatively, you first have to overcome silo thinking in trades. This is because silos slow down the pace on the construction site as well as digital advances. That means, in the future, fragmented construction crews will have to be transformed into transparent and cross-trade construction teams. 

This requires a new mindset. In the future, different trades should see themselves as an ecosystem – as a network that works to create value together. Digitization will support this process – for example with Building Information Modeling (BIM) or the cloud. Modular and sustainable construction, 3D printing and robotics will fundamentally change job profiles in construction. Only those who can add value to traditional craftsmanship with digital know-how will remain relevant.

3. Accelerate digitally: Implement system innovations

The German construction industry is not a digital pioneer. That needs to change. Because it is only with digital support that climate-neutral construction and renovation can be achieved within a reasonable period of time and the housing shortage in conurbations eliminated. This means that, where people used to put stone on stone and poured concrete walls, in the future they will be helped by robots. Factories will automatically prefabricate entire components. Drones will provide the data for 3D CAD or BIM models and uncover energy losses in older buildings. 

Machine learning will make predictive maintenance possible in smart buildings. Regular maintenance checks will no longer be necessary because the systems will report automatically when a failure is imminent. And the digital twin, the digital pre-release version of the building, will make risks clear before they occur on the actual construction site. If you want to implement climate neutrality quickly and position yourself cost-effectively, you cannot avoid serial construction and renovation or 3D printing. Digital technologies will thus enable the sustainable transformation towards a regenerative economy.


Transformation to secure livelihood

Only if the industry transforms now will the construction of tomorrow not seem like yesterday the day after tomorrow. But for the construction industry, it's not just about reducing emissions of greenhouse gases during the construction phase or developing models for more socially just, climate-friendly and livable living. It is also an existential question because digital platforms will increasingly push into the construction sector. How will the industry fortify itself against this? Ideally through digitization, networking and new forms of participation.