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By Paul Doherty, IFMA Fellow, DFC Senior Fellow, President and CEO, The Digit Group, Inc. (TDG)

Modular Construction in The Age of Smart CitiesPaul Doherty, IFMA Fellow, DFC Senior Fellow, President and CEO, The Digit Group, Inc. (TDG)

TDG (The Digit Group) is a Smart Cities Real Estate Development Company that is responsible for de­livering delightful and sustainable urban environ­ments that are contextualized for its surroundings throughout the world. A major challenge is the current lack of talent in the construction industry in every project. Labor in every market has now become a major cost and we are always looking for ways to reduce our costs, risks, and improve our deliverables.

A decision to explore the implementation of modular fabrication as one answer to the current lack of labor challenge was made and we partnered with Concept Modular in Shanghai, China to design and develop a methodology and factory to configure a configurable, sustainable, connected and aesthetically pleasing 250sm (2500sf) home with zero defects, zero waste in under 7 minutes. The result has been phenomenal. Over 4,000 units have been delivered with a pipeline of over 500,000 units over the next 36 months.

Modular Housing Production

This particular modular housing process develops and supplies proprietary technologies to rapidly improve construction and project timelines while improving quality homes that reduces environmental impact. These homes can be supplied with complete FF&E (Furniture, Fittings and Equipment) including pre-installed electrical, hydraulics, fire systems and automation… resulting in a 90 percent reduction of on-site labor. This seamless Design/Build process substantially reduces risk compared to traditional construction methods.

A breakthrough in the use of BIM was developing an online configurator that allows a customer and designer to quickly and easily customize a home based on a rules-based series of systems in a library

This solution currently operates in a 500m long factory outside of Shanghai, China in the heart of the automobile manufacturing area of China. This location lowers costs regarding supply chain of raw materials and labor due to the existing systems in place for the automotive industry. This factory was custom designed to incorporate some of the world’s most sophisticated and largest CNC machines. This solution leverages a customized software solution based on Dassault Systeme’s SolidWorks solution, that provides a configurable Building Information Model (BIM) that drives the CNC machines to create the fenestrations and conduits for doors, windows, electrical, plumbing, mechanical and information technology infrastructure. This ability to tailor a customer’s design in a cost-effective manner has many in the modular/ prefab space taking notice. This solution does not fabricate just components of a building; it fabricates the entire building. Here are some disruptions and innovations that are being used for delivery:

• Structural insulated panel (SIP): Materials used in this solution’s SIPs are based on the geographic location of the units. This can be based on climate, access to raw materials, local laws/codes and overall performance of the SIP. These SIPs are providing high structural integrity, 10-hour fire rating and the highest levels of R ratings in the industry.

• Propriety and patented (CNC) factory fabrication line: As described above, this factory fabrication line is customized to rout fenestrations and conduits to accommodate the performance specification of the SIP.

• Building Information Modeling (BIM): The CNC machines are driven by BIM data, specified by the configuration for an individual unit. BIM is used for each unit as a “Building Birth Certificate”, that acts a data bank for the lifecycle of the building. 

With a focus on the BIM data and not just the 3D geometry, this solution pushes the use of BIM into a BIM 2.0 level that is only just scratching the surface of its powerful potential.

• Configurator - Mass Customization: A breakthrough in the use of BIM was developing an online configurator that allows a customer and designer to quickly and easily customize a home based on a rules-based series of systems in a library. This drag and drop approach to designing a home is similar in approach to the IT industry’s ability to graphically designing software code.

• Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is built into each home: This solution treats ICT as a 4th utility for each unit. This allows each unit’s walls, floors and ceilings to be fabricated with the ICT infrastructure installed that essentially makes our homes computers. This provides an enormous array of after-market of services that home builders can only dream about.

• Intelligent Agents/Voice Assistants within the home and between homes: With the ICT infrastructure already in place, these homes are delivered with an “Alexa-style” voice assistant service that learns over time patterns and behaviors of the operation of the home and its occupants. This creates an internal home environment that provides the highest levels of safety and security while becoming a system that can anticipate needs. In the words of business guru Joe Pine, we deliver a Genius Platform.

• Cost saving opportunities for energy, water, waste and other services: The area of greatest interest is how the different Smart Homes can operate as an ecosystem when they can communicate with each other like a network or what can be called, the Internet of Buildings.

As we collectively continue the journey through the industrialization of the construction industry, expect to uncover further disruptive and innovative materials, processes and solutions that will allow all of us to deliver sustainable, delightful buildings throughout the world.

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