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the future of civil engineering.



Twenty five years ago, New Civil Engineer magazine made a number of predictions about what the future of civil engineering would hold. In May last year they published an update [1] and today we explore not only the extent to which their predictions have materialised, but also the trends which are likely to impact over the next 25 years. 

The impact of digitalisation on civil engineering projects

Digitisation has already had a marked impact on site safety, quality control and cost management. The ability to produce digital 3D models of proposed builds and collaborate with experts from other sectors at the touch of a button enables decisions to be made, proposals tested and agreements reached prior to breaking ground.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) techniques will continue to be refined and it is likely that there will come a time where no project will commence until such time as its entire build has been rehearsed in a digital environment, thus fully encapsulating and mitigating risks associated with the project, gaining full stakeholder support, minimising timescales and wastage as well as reducing the environmental impact of the build. 

Digital twins technology has been tested in the construction industry with promising results [2] and it would be foolhardy to not further investigate the benefits that this technology can offer.

Advancements in sustainable materials for civil engineering

In order to achieve the government's challenging Net Zero By 2050 target, the construction industry must play its part. No longer will wastage and outdated techniques and materials be accepted for new builds, and instead, contractors will need to consider the most efficient and effective methods of creating the infrastructure of the future.

A number of exciting green building materials are already commonplace, and with advances in technology and a strong appetite for further investment in sustainability, the possibilities are seemingly endless.

Use of recycled materials - Using recycled building materials is one of the most efficient ways in which to minimise resource depletion and reduce the carbon emissions in builds. Re-using bricks, steel and timber from demolished buildings instead of buying new offers cost efficiencies as well as reducing waste and maintaining the look and feel of a built environment. 

Use of renewables - Timber is the renewable resource that typically comes to mind but the carbon impact of importing it must be remembered when considering its wider environmental impact. To reduce carbon emissions, it will likely become essential to secure home-grown timber over the coming years, and fast-growing materials such as bamboo should become a more prominent feature in timber build projects.

Low carbon concrete - Incorporating supplementary cementitious materials such as slag and fly ash can improve the durability and strength of concrete, whilst also benefiting its carbon footprint. Optimising and testing mix designs should be an ongoing concern for all firms in the industry in order to identify the point at which maximum environmental performance is achieved without compromising on the integrity and performance of the product.

Efficient insulation - The rising costs of energy have been well documented this winter, and consumers will continue to look for more efficient ways of maintaining the heat and ventilation within their buildings. Investing in innovative and sustainable forms of insulation such as cellulose, aerogels and hempcrete can improve thermal performance and air quality whilst reducing the embodied carbon of the builds.

Use of biodegradable materials: Biodegradable materials break down naturally through time, thus reducing their environmental impact. Their use should be considered where appropriate in order to improve the performance of a building, to limit wastage and achieve environmental targets.

Use of smart materials: Technological advancements have seen the development of smart materials which can self-monitor, adapting to the environmental conditions to which they are exposed, and produce data that can be used for optimising the performance of future developments. 

Building techniques for the modern world

An interesting prediction raised by New Civil Engineer 25 years ago was that buildings would recycle their own water and consumers would purify it for their own use as and when required. In today's world, life moves faster than ever predicted and it is hard to imagine a future when consumers would embrace this process.

Although the vast majority of the British population are keenly aware of the need to reduce their environmental impact, and are making more sustainable choices about the products that they buy and the impact that their decisions have on the environment, we cannot imagine a future where turning a tap will not result in clean, filtered and safe drinking water.

In conclusion

Whilst the need for sustainability in construction will only continue to grow, it must be balanced against the need for it to fit into the consumer's lifestyle to ensure that it is embraced and exploited to its fullest potential.

Resources:

[1] https://www.newcivilengineer.com/nce-at-50/nce-at-50-how-predictions-from-25-years-ago-stood-the-test-of-time-25-05-2022/ 
[2] https://www.pbctoday.co.uk/news/digital-construction/challenges-benefits-future-technology-digital-twins-in-construction/121958/

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