Greg Stone

Enormous digital disruption is occurring globally but if the Australian property industry is to utilise emerging technology, it needs to change its business model, contractual arrangements, and design methodology, says Greg Stone, Arup’s Australasian digital services leader.

The global design and engineering firm hired Mr Stone a year ago, a sign that the digital dimension is becoming more important in every aspect of the built environment. With a background of 15 years at Microsoft, including 10 as the chief technology officer of Microsoft Australia, Stone has been entrusted with helping clients navigate their way to a more digitised outcome in their projects.

A new way forward

The days of developers or investors “putting down a lump of cash” to construct a building or precinct and turning it into a reliable investment through the rental of fixed square areas of floor is over, Stone says.

“The change that needs to occur now is to understand that that model will no longer work,” he says. “Businesses now seek high levels of flexibility in the extent of the floor area and when they need it. In addition, they increasingly want to use it on a pay-per-use basis rather than a set amount each year for a set amount of floor area.

“Think about flexible spaces, think about the considerations of wellness that are really starting to come up as important for people. They are demanding outside spaces or the ability to work outside in a garden, or maybe use a board room once a month and share it with 10 other tenants in the tower.

“The ability to access in other cities … other types of flexible spaces that are connected with their own tenancy. They can augment their work styles with all these sorts of things and that is changing the model that most of the buildings are built around.”

Similarly, Stone says we need to better integrate all the different aspects of a building, whether it’s systems, wireless, connectivity or the ability to control the lights.

“The current contractual arrangements for the construction industry, particularly, are such that all the different parts of the building are let out separately,” he says. “They don’t talk to each other; there’s no overall design that allows them to be linked together systematically at the outset and then delivered seamlessly as a whole.

“Airconditioning, lifts, signage, you name it, they’re all subcontracts that are let out at various points without any reference to one another and this is happening in smart cities.”

Unfortunately, there are no standards within the Building Code of Australia for how digital components should be brought together. Stone believes the methodology used for design – with architects, engineers and consultants working separately on their own piece of the project – is “disconnected and without a lot of collaboration at the outset”.

“You lead to a product which isn’t necessarily sustainable; it’s driven potentially just by a cost outcome,” he says. More coherence is needed for a more effective and sustainable result.

“Those are the three areas we really need to see change: the business model that actually funds and drives it (development); the contractual vehicles and standards that power the way that the project is actually built and upgraded; and then thirdly the need for holistic design to overarch some of the decision-making that ultimately dictates the product.”

Autonomous fleets and building resilience

Stone’s work at Arup spans everything from autonomous cars to geotech for soil stabilisation to digital master planning.

His team is developing an autonomous car policy framework that considers how cars would actually operate, how to prevent human error when pedestrians and cars interact, and envisaging downstream impacts such as the emergence of autonomous fleets.

“All of a sudden the notion of having a car park in a city building becomes less attractive,” he says. “We are also looking at doing research into what are those implications for building owners who are creating large multi-use buildings in the CBD? And what should they be thinking about and building resilience into in their designs in order to mitigate the threat of certain spaces or functions becoming redundant.”

In addition, Arup has built software for public transport services that counts passengers in train carriages in real time and makes it available via cloud technology to a number of stakeholders.

The office robot and other scenarios

A large amount of work is being done within the private sector in regards to digital master planning.

“Imagine that you are a large asset holder or you are about to build an asset. How do you ensure when you build it that it’s going to be fit for purpose at the end of that, given this enormous digital disruption that’s occurring and digital innovation that’s occurring over a period of just a few years?”

According to Stone, digital master planning involves considering what purpose a building needs to serve and undertaking a deep investigation of the end-user scenarios that are critical to its success.

“If it’s an office tower, what is work going to look like in the next five to 10 years? Will there be fewer workers? Will there be more robots doing work? Will there be a need for higher levels of collaboration that require dynamically changing space that needs to have software to both drive and design the way that rooms can be configured?”

They then look at the likely technology innovations that will occur and how soon.

“When will they attain the price point, availability and ease of use that will cause them to become a disruption in the market? Just because you have an innovation, it doesn’t actually have an impact until it gets to a certain price point and becomes ubiquitous.”

The team has to work out where to position decision-making in the building process to actually implement those technologies as well as work out the necessary ingredients to design upfront to ensure options can be plugged into down the track.

“We really think deeply about everything starting from the perspective of the stakeholders, i.e. tenants, the companies that go into those buildings, and how their requirements will change,” Stone says.

New technology will assist sustainability

Emerging technology is not only enabling pure efficiencies for systems such as airconditioning but is helping to form a better understanding of the way we use spaces and how they can be utilised more effectively.

“I think where [Building Information Modelling] has really big potential … is we can now model virtually not only a building but also the precinct and broader levels around that building such that we can understand what is the real-time usage of a particular room or a particular area,” Stone says.  “We can optimise the way the flows occur within a retail precinct.” Similarly, the technology can be used to reconfigure office space for maximum efficiency.

“All those kinds of things rely on you effectively having a virtual model that you can then introduce historic data or real-time data and then do careful big data analysis on that to find out better ways of doing it that then feed into possibilities for changing usage patterns or changing how they use the space.

“So that is one of the areas we are seeing has a big opportunity. It’s actually changing the way that people use buildings as distinct from simply making a fan run slower, or making something more efficient, or predicting when something will break down.”