A 3D-snapshot of the mkSolaire (or “Smart House”), a house design originally designed by Michelle Kaufmann*

In his blog Housing Matters, Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan suggested that technology is key in increasing productivity in our construction industry. As you all know, the construction industry is largely responsible for all the roofs over our heads, and thus could be considered of high importance. That was on 17 January of this year.

He emphasises reduction in our reliance on unskilled foreign labour as a key goal. He goes on to give examples of how technology can be involved in every stage of the construction process, not just in design. He gives three examples of techniques that will raise productivity and reduce construction time.

More recently, he has indicated that the Housing and Development Board (HDB) is also exploring options to create green spaces, not just at ground level, but also on rooftops and at intermediate levels; in other words, greening upwards to create “housing in a garden”. He suggested a few technologies used for creating such green spaces, such as the Prefabricated Extensive Greening (PEG) roof system, and vertical greening systems such as the VERTI.GRO and VERTI.GREEN. HDB has already implemented some of these technologies.

With this push for innovative construction techniques already underway, we at BLUTA think HDB should go even further, by introducing labour-saving and cost-reducing techniques that are successfully implemented in other developed countries. Technology in construction has progressed leaps and bounds since the days of the first HDB flats, but in Singapore, the construction industry as a whole is sorely lacking the productivity from leveraging such technologies. Moreover, while productivity and speed are all fine and good, there are also many other worthwhile objectives that can be sought in today’s high-tech construction.

Tunnel Form

Tunnel form is a formwork system that allows the contractor to build monolithic walls and slabs in one operation on a daily cycle. It combines the speed, quality and accuracy of factory/offsite produced ready-mix concrete and formwork with the flexibility and economy of cast in-situ construction.

This fast-track method of construction is suitable for repetitive cellular projects, such as hotels, apartment blocks and student accommodation. It offers economy, speed, quality and accuracy, as well as utilising the inherent benefits of concrete, such as fire and sound resistance.

Flat Slabs

Flat slabs are built quickly due to modern formwork being simplified and minimised. Rapid turnaround is achieved using a combination of early striking and flying formwork systems. Use of prefabricated services can be maximised because of the uninterrupted service zones beneath the floor slab; so flat slab construction offers rapid overall construction, as it simplifies the installation of services.

In addition to saving on construction time, flat slab construction also places no restrictions on the positioning of horizontal services and partitions. This offers considerable flexibility to the occupier, who can easily alter internal layouts to accommodate changes in the use of the structure. Post tensioning of flat slabs enables longer and thinner slabs, with less reinforcement, and hence offers significant programme and labour advantages.

Hybrid Concrete Construction

Hybrid Concrete Construction (HCC) combines all the benefits of precasting with the advantages of cast in-situ construction. Combining the two, as a hybrid frame, results in even greater construction speed, quality and overall economy. HCC can answer client demands for lower costs and higher quality by providing simple, buildable and competitive structures that offer consistent performance and quality.

Thin Joint Masonry

Thin Joint Masonry allows the depth of the mortar to be reduced from 10mm to just 3mm or less, resulting in faster laying and improved productivity, particularly on long runs of walling. Construction speed can be further increased by some 13.5 per cent using large-format concrete blocks, which have a face size equivalent to two traditional concrete blocks. The mortar cures rapidly, achieving full bond strength within one to two hours, eliminating the problem of ‘floating’ therefore enabling more courses to be laid per day.

Insulating Concrete Formwork

Insulating Concrete Formwork (ICF) systems consist of twin-walled, expanded polystyrene panels or blocks that are quickly built up to create formwork for the walls of a building. This formwork is then filled with factory produced, quality assured, ready-mixed concrete to create a robust structure. The expanded polystyrene blocks remain to provide high levels of thermal insulation and the concrete core provides robustness and good levels of sound insulation.

Precast Foundations

Precast concrete systems can be used to rapidly construct foundations. The elements are usually to a bespoke design and cast in a factory environment, giving assured quality for the finished product. The foundations are often supported by concrete piles and connected together.

These systems improve productivity, especially in adverse weather conditions, and reduces the amount of excavation required – particularly advantageous when dealing with contaminated ground.

Green Building

In addition to these modern construction techniques for improved cost or time productivity, various sustainable building materials and methods are also available, seeing widespread use globally.

Incorporating energy-saving features such as high-efficiency lighting and effective thermal insulation will help to save on temperature control costs. Even something as simple as minimising glass on sun-ward facings will help tremendously. Going one step further, energy-generating features such as wind turbines and solar panels will reduce dependence on external power even more.

Recycling water usage within the building is another way of reducing environmental impact of the building. For example, non-potable or rain water could be redirected to irrigation systems. It could also be used for flush systems.

Compressed earth block construction. Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Kr58uc.

Sustainable building materials have also made great strides. Recycled content is increasingly being used to make building components such as bricks or construction blocks. Also included in this category are materials from rapidly-renewable resources, such as bamboo, straw and compressed earth block.

With such a plethora of available technology, it certainly isn’t a lack of ideas that is holding back a construction revolution in Singapore. Instead, it is probably something much more insidious; a lack of motivation. Do you agree?

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* Image courtesy of Michelle Kaufmann, via Wikipedia Commons.

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