Buzz words to concentrate efforts in 2018 04 Jan 2018

Shani Wallis, TunnelTalk

Productivity, sustainability, smart technologies, cost control, value for money and resilient cities are some of the principal catch-alls that will concentrate the mind and influence the industry into 2018. Far from being new ideas or recent focuses of attention, the uptake of proposed benefits in actuality is being slow and in some cases stubbornly or unjustifiably rejected.

This may not be surprising for the construction industry, which is not known for its agility and readiness for change and innovation, but indications are that time is now for radical and rapid change to update design and construction practices, to improve machinery and material performance, and to thoroughly and transparently review budgets and project costs.

At the heart of the projected transformation is smart technology. Other industries such as manufacturing are already reaping the benefits. It is now the turn of the construction industry to adopt the possibilities.

Fig 1. Construction going backwards on productivity
Fig 1. Construction going backwards on productivity
Source: Economist magazine


Renewed focus on productivity started in mid-2016 with publication of an article in the Economist magazine reporting on a study by the McKinsey Global Institute that productivity per hour worked gains are lowest and actually falling in the construction industry (Fig 1).

Key to this embarrassing trend, it reports, include:

  • Workers replacing machinery in countries where importing or using plentiful cheap labour is less expensive than investing in machinery;
  • Volatility in demand that deters upfront fixed-costs in equipment that cannot be easily cut in a downturn where workers can be laid off;
  • Failure to consolidate with differing practices and codes between countries and within them and the customised nature of projects blocking the advantages of scale and leading;
  • Fierce competition for slim margins among many small companies and subcontractors, rather than collaborating to contain costs;
  • Failure to adopt smart technologies with little changed on construction sites compared to decades ago except for much better safety standards; and
  • Slowness to adopt new practices and innovations with aversions to taking on their risks being a major barrier.

Advanced practices and technologies have however been adopted to great advantage by other industries and are beginning to be adopted in the construction industry.

Smart technology to improve productivity

4D BIM animation with time for Istanbul Metro progress

BIM (building information modeling) is a prime example. Be it considered a brilliant development or an overblown marketing exercise by technology companies, BIM is here to stay and to be adopted and applied each according to their own objectives and with the promise and expectation of avoiding ambiguities in contact documents, reducing the need for design revisions and construction rebuilds, assisting more accurate estimating of quantities and costs, and assisting time programming to schedule more efficiently and finish earlier and over all save costs.

BIM is now adopted or is mandatory on most projects in design and planning around the world and this is a relatively rapid development. For example in the UK BIM is central to the design, planning, construction and future maintenance, operation and upgrading of the new HS2 high speed railway project between London and Birmingham whereas it was underused for the earlier Crossrail project.

The take up of BIM today is almost universal and while initial upfront costs to establish and manage the systems are high, these are expected to be offset by realized savings over the lifetime of infrastructure from planning to refurbishment. Such is the excitement and interest of BIM, it has conference sessions and industry award categories dedicated to its application, knowledge sharing and case study reviews.

Cost control and project size

Sustainability is another buzzword that encompasses aspirations for the future. Sustainability of the global environment, of urbanization, of construction practices are all in focus and pulling or dragging industry forward or apart.

Urban sustainability and carbon reduction

More underground infrastructure for more sustainable cities
More underground infrastructure for more sustainable cities

Few now refute the phenomena of climate change and while many argue the actual courses, a consensus of opinion is that carbon emissions must be reduced. As an objective in the construction industry that covers almost all processes from excavated material transportation and disposal to concrete production and consumption; from low emission diesel and electric powered machinery to recycling of construction wastewater and excavated rock into aggregate into the tunnel project itself.

Sustainable urbanization is driving the need for more integrated approaches to urban planning, for surface and high-rise infrastructure planners to not forget the underground dimension, for the underground to be the preferred first choice rather than the option of last resort. Rapid expansion of the world’s mega cities, the vulnerability of urban developments to events of natural disaster (storms, earthquakes, fires, floods) and the increasing density of major urban centres are all raising the awareness of vital underground infrastructure and the underground as a valuable real estate resource.

Spearheading the efforts of the underground industry to be heard and integrated into global infrastructure planning is ITACUS, the Committee on Underground Space of the ITA, International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association. Established formerly by the ITA in 2011, ITACUS has made substantial progress in its goals. It has increased collaboration with other international associations of urban development, has staged several conference sessions, workshops and seminars and has published several white papers and documents and this year, in March, a book by its Chair and Vice Chair Han Admiral and Antonia Cornaro, titled Underground Spaces Unveiled, Planning and creating the cities of the future will be published.

Underground space studies and developments

ITACUS is also supporting the development of regional Think Deep groups to facilitate integration of the underground dimension into urban planning. The Think Deep group in the UK (TDUK) completed a workshop project with the Glasgow City Council of Scotland to rethink and expand plans to redevelop the Clyde Waterfront. The group of 20 young professionals, including 10 urban designers/planners/architects and 10 civil engineers/underground space specialists, discussed the topic and presented the Council with a report on their findings and recommendations. Similar workshops have been undertaken for projects in other cities with the influence of the groups on urban planning strategies growing and being appreciated.

Another trend into 2018 and for the future will be development of infrastructure in mega construction projects. Rather than developing projects in smaller minimum operating phases, clients, the public and the need will demand undertaking of mega projects in single programmes of vast investments, consuming vast amounts of resources and involving construction contracts of billions and more.

Underground mega projects

More underground infrastructure for more sustainable cities
Network of mega Grand Paris Express metro expansion

Implementation of the Doha Metro in Qatar set the standard with a network of 111km of metro tunneling and underground station excavation completed in just 26 months and using 21 TBMs. The advantages and benefits of procuring all the TBMs from the same manufacturer for the Doha mega project is also setting a trend. Herrenknecht has also secured procurement of the 10 TBMs to be used on the €3.7 billion 33km underground route of the first Line 15 South section of the Grand Paris Express Metro extension project in the French capital that will link Pont-de-Sèvres to Noisy-Champs. The full €25.9 billion 75km orbital underground network will relieve enormous pressure and congestion on the existing radial lines and is planned to be fully operational by 2030.

Other mega cities progressing rapid underground metro projects include Mumbai and Delhi in India. For Line 3 in Mumbai, 17 TBMs will excavate the 33.5km principally underground route, the contractors selecting TBMs from different manufacturers while in Delhi a total of 30 TBMs from different manufacturers completed the 80km of running tunnels for the city’s Phase III Metro expansion. From 13km of underground route in the 65km route of the first phase of Delhi Metro construction started in mid- late-1990s, Phase II increased underground alignment to 35km of the additional 125km of the network and 54km of the additional 105km of Phase III extensions aligned underground in 35 underground stations (Table 1).

Istanbul in Turkey is another mega city of more than 15 million population that is progressing an aggressive programme of metro construction to address chronic traffic congestion. Up to 20 or more TBMs are to be operating in the city during 2018 to excavate metro extension running tunnels and the new 38km long underground rail link to the city’s new airport which is currently under construction.

Table 1. Increase of metro work aligned underground in Delhi
Table 1. Increase of metro work aligned underground in Delhi' style=

With the rapid growth of underground infrastructure, the demand for TBMs has also increased and provided opportunities for a growing number of TBM manufacturers, the new brands all being from China. Along with Herrenknecht, Robbins, NFM and Terratec (all of which manufacture also in China), several new Chinese manufacutrers are providing competition and driving down prices. At the recent conference in Instabul it was reported to TunnelTalk that where new Metro TBMs were commanding prices of €6.5 million and more 10 or 12 years ago, today they are being bought for less than €4 million and down to €3.6-€3.8 million per machine.

Even at the higher prices, the cost of the TBM is small in relation to the value of the construction contracts and the overall costs of projects. When contracts of more than €1 billion are being let on projects valued at up to €15 billion and more, the question has to be where is all the money going? What is it being spent on? These are questions that are not easily investigated or explained and opinion ranges widely.

Many suggest that increasing amounts of project time and money is consumed by applying for permits but that is only partly responsible according to the Economist magazine report. In the USA, it reports that applying for permits and complying with regulation accounts for less than 1% of the astonishing 50% loss of productivity since the late 1960s. The price of materials are also not to blame as they are not included in the productivity calculations and have not increased substantially in any case.

There are other sinkholes of time and money and while more than 90% of infrastructure projects run either late or over budget or both, according to Bent Flyvbjerg of Saïd Business School at Oxford University and as reported by the article, the responsibility many suggest lies with overblown management costs at the top end. Many question the layers of management of large infrastructure projects for project delivery and project management and project supervision. Where these roles are important, the staff engaged in these levels of project realization has undoubtedly seen the greatest explosion in numbers over recent projects. The practice of man-marking is frequently questioned with for every one construction level manager there are two or more in the role of monitoring and works observation.

All these points of concern have many platforms for industry discussion and examination. As in 2016 there will be many international conferences to convene expertise and experience for knowledge sharing. These will include the ITA World Tunnel Congress in Dubai in April and the North American Tunneling conference in Washington DC in June and many more. TunnelTalk will again be at these events and will continue to explore the issues, research the concerns and report on project developments in 2018 - its tenth year of operation.

The TunnelTalk team wishes all readers and advertisers a productive and prosperous New Year and looks forward to meeting at the international events and to continue expanding the magazine through the year.


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