Scanning the left side of the Roman Theatre stage with a Faro X330. The two-level column facade was recreated from the remains found on the Volterra site. There were three groups of these two-level columns, part of the scaenae frons (Latin for “stage front”), which was a permanent stage backdrop typical in ancient Roman and Greek theaters.

Not many geospatial professionals enter the field thinking they will travel to Italy to document and digitize ancient sites. For many, it would be the ultimate adventure of combining history and technology—Indiana Jones without the boulders and snakes, and Star Trek without the intergalactic conflict. Three leaders in the Survey/Geospatial Practice of Civil & Environmental Consultants, Inc. (CEC) embarked on such an adventure to the town of Volterra as part of an international research team for two trips over the past three-year period.

Produced by Autodesk and Case Technologies, the humbly named “workshop” is executed through the Volterra-Detroit Foundation, which is a previously established relationship between the city of Volterra and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture. The focus of the workshop was reality capture. New to most surveyors at firms, reality capture is enabled by photogrammetry, which is the use of   photography in surveying and mapping to measure distances between objects. 3D models using photogrammetry can be combined with geographic information system (GIS) visuals such as land surface, roads, and rivers to create more complete georeferenced 3D digital models. These mapped sites can be viewed in a virtual environment.

Digital historical preservation of this kind is important to better document and monitor architectural treasures, especially as they deteriorate over time or are destroyed by natural disasters (earthquakes are not uncommon in Italy, and Volterra is particularly susceptible to landslides). By capturing data every few years, professionals can measure the shifting and deterioration that gradually occur over time. Historical preservation of this nature opens a window into history, ancient engineering and architecture, and archaeology for civilization to reference and enjoy for centuries to come, whether you’re a professional in the field or simply an interested member of the public.

Located approximately 50 miles southwest of Florence, the walled city of Volterra has been continuously inhabited for more than 3,000 years, with historic sites dating back to the fourth century B.C. The historic significance of Volterra is top of mind for Mayor Marco Buselli as he has been actively pursuing a World Heritage site classification from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He knew that gathering data on and documenting the details of this village would likely support (and hopefully accelerate) the application process.

 

 

 

The First Adventure: Racing Against Time to Document and Digitize Volterra’s Ancient Roman and Etruscan Sites
The first workshop in this series was a nine-month endeavor that began in October 2016 with an international team of technicians, software experts, architects, engineers, and historians (a team of eight, representing two countries, U.S. and Canada), and included Rick Celender, CEC’s Corporate Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Program Leader, of the Pittsburgh office; Rob Sinclair, CEC’s Corporate CAD Technology Manager, also of the Pittsburgh office;
and Matt Bainbridge, a survey project manager in CEC’s Bridgeport office. The team was tasked with three assignments: create a digital, interactive 3D model of the city; create Building Information Models (BIMs) for historic buildings and architectural features; and create 3D models of ancient artworks and sculptures.

The primary equipment that Celender, Sinclair, and Bainbridge used for the data capture was a 3DR Drone with a GoPro and two Faro X330 LiDAR scanners.

Terrestrial Light Detecting and Ranging (LiDAR) scanners were used inside historic buildings such as the the Baptistery of San Giovanni and the town hall, where the team captured millions of intelligent data points about everything from the intricate artwork on the ceilings to the tiniest of cracks in a pillar. The points were used to create detailed 3D models of the structures and their features, as well as a BIM, which becomes a useful tool for architects and planners should there ever be a need for maintenance, restoration, or retrofitting. The team also scanned objects in Volterra’s museums.

However, most of the team’s work was done outside.

LiDAR scanners were used to document and digitize Porta all’Arco, the oldest standing Etruscan arch in the world dating back to the fourth century B.C. and the main pedestrian access into Volterra (yes, still used today!).

LiDAR scanners were also used to document a Roman theatre, which alone required 120 individual scan locations to capture the site fully. Constructed in the first century B.C. and originally housing 3,500 spectators, it was excavated in the 1950s and sits just outside the city’s medieval wall.

After reviewing their data, the team found that this particular Roman theatre did not follow the archetypal Vitruvian architectural design that so many other theaters from that time period follow. Individual pieces of the marble decoration, found in various places and often in multiple pieces, were post-processed in 3D and then virtually restored to their original location in the 3D model. The complete catalog of the decoration fragments was developed in collaboration with the Soprintendenza Archeologia in Florence. The 3D model of the reconstructed theater was rendered in 3DS MAX as well as processed in Revit® Live and Stingray software to create a virtual reality (VR) experience that can be accessed through tools such as the Oculus Rift and Samsung GearVR as well as through holographic displays.

A southward panorama of the Roman Theatre site. The theater was constructed in the first century B.C. and had a capacity of approximately 3,500 spectators.

In addition to these notable sites, the team scanned architectural details from around the city using high-resolution digital cameras (and even iPhones, which illustrates the advances of everyday technology) and then converted them to 3D models.Every evening, the team processed data captured during the day, taking the point clouds and creating a mesh, which turns the point cloud into a 3D model. With hundreds of scans to register and drone flights to process into point clouds, the team used multiple software programs and created a workflow akin to an assembly line. Data was collected from scanners and drones by one person and then distributed to two or three people to register. Additional team members would then process the data into 3D models.

“From there, we can take the mesh data and incorporate it into Autodesk® Civil ٣D® or Revit® to create an as-built model,” noted Sinclair. “We can truly recreate the space—put details in, tag it with data, etc. All the measurements of the BIM were based off the point cloud or mesh we created.”

“It was hectic but efficient,” Celender remarked.

After leaving Italy, the team continued the initial nine-month adventure analyzing and modeling the captured data. In June 2017, some team members from the workshop returned to Volterra with a few interactive models and 3D-printed replicas for a presentation in the town hall. The team treated Mayor Buselli, his staff, city residents, and representatives from UNESCO to a virtual reality (VR) demo that mimicked walking through Volterra’s historical sites, including a chance to experience the fully recreated Roman theatre in its original glory. The public was invited to experience the models throughout the following month.

The processing of data continued in the months that followed the workshop. The models of the museums’ artifacts began to be used in virtual exhibitions, for research, and for conservation efforts, with the option of being replicated using 3D printers for educational purposes.

 

The SECOND Adventure: The First Ancient European Amphitheater Discovered in 150 Years Teaches an Important Surveying Lesson

In April 2019, the workshop reunited for a second trip which lasted for two weeks. New construction in Volterra had inadvertently unearthed evidence of more ancient architecture. Incredibly, what was identified as the remains of an ancient Roman wall turned out to be the first ancient amphitheater discovery in Europe for the past 150 years.

This time around, the Workshop team was significantly expanded, consisting of 15 members from eight countries and included Sinclair and Bainbridge (Celender was unavailable due to other project commitments). The primary equipment employed included two UAVs: the DJI Phantom 4 Pro and the DJI Mavic Air; six pieces of LiDAR equipment: the Leica Pegasus Backpack, two Leica RTC360 scanners, two Leica BLK360 scanners, and a Faro X350 scanner; various cameras, including a Ricoh Theta 360 Camera and a Matterport camera; a Leica Viva GS16 GPS system; three VR systems: an Oculus Go, an Oculus Rift, and an HTC Vive; and a Hexagon Geosystems Stream C ground-penetrating radar unit (GPR).

Bainbridge’s role was performing terrestrial laser scanning (using the phase-based Faro laser scanner as well as Leica BLK360 and RTC360 time-of flight scanners), establishing geodetic control with the Leica GS16 GNSS receiver and Leica Infinity software for areas scanned throughout the workshop’s tenure, and kinematic LiDAR capture of the Volterra streets using the Leica Pegasus Backpack with Simultaneous Location and Mapping (SLAM) technology. Sinclair’s primary role was capturing aerial mapping data via drones with mounted cameras. They uploaded point clouds to Cintoo, which triangulated that data and turned it into a solid. Team members then moved that data into Civil 3D® and Revit® to create models.

“It was surprising how accurate the point clouds from the UAV cameras were using photogrammetry when compared with precise ground-based LiDAR scanning,” Sinclair commented.

Unfortunately, due to significant ground moisture and depth of the ruins, the GPR scan results were not as successful, leaving much of the unexcavated extents discernible only by the surface topography.

“Surveyors always say we don’t have x-ray vision—GPR didn’t change that in this case,” Bainbridge commented. “One of the most difficult things we run into in the surveying profession is determining the location of things that we can’t see.” This served as a healthy reminder that surveyors don’t always get all of the data they’d like.

However, this second trip certainly wasn’t in vain. In addition to the data capture and modeling of the amphitheater, the Workshop completed subsequent scans on many of the same historic features from the first trip. Not only is the team documenting these artifacts and ruins in ways that allow the public to interact remotely through VR platforms such as Matterport, Cintoo, and Unreal, but the team has been able to make real data deliverables; for example, using the team’s laser scan information, Sinclair and Bainbridge produced a Civil 3D® surface and cross sections of the amphitheater, which allowed the city engineer to assess existing drainage structures and plan for upcoming excavation work.

 

What’s Next?
Many of Volterra’s historic sites are now digitized. The Roman amphitheater is currently on the “Tentative List” for Heritage Site classification from UNESCO.

“The opportunity to collaborate with an international team of architects, engineers, historians, and students to digitally record Volterra’s architectural history from the first century B.C. was amazing,” Celender remarked. “The support we received from Mayor Buselli was critical in our efforts. The access we had to the city, the Roman theatre, etc., to fly drones and to perform scanning missions was incredible. The wine and grappa [a grape-based brandy] were pretty memorable, too!”

“One of the most rewarding parts of this project has been using data we’ve captured to benefit the ongoing preservation efforts in Volterra,” Bainbridge said. “It’s easy to get caught up in the photo-realism of reality capture data and gloss over the fact that all of those beautiful colorized data points are actually survey-grade measurements. Before this workshop, my experience with GPR and magnetic line location had been in determining the approximate locations of utilities; I had never thought of applying this technology in the field of archaeology. We’ve come pretty far compared to the old days, which wasn’t actually that long ago—the days when surveyors made calculations in a notebook without the use of a calculator, and wrote down angles. Look where we are today!”

This advanced technology—and this team’s novel yet crucial use of that technology—is quickly becoming a game-changer in our industry.

 

Source: American Surveyor

The global modular and prefabricated buildings market is set for growth over the next six years, as offsite construction gains traction thanks to its sustainable approach, according to Frost & Sullivan’s recent analysis

A global uptick in construction activities and significant cost, labour, and time savings in offsite construction are key factors driving market revenues toward $215bn (£167bn) by 2025.

With a constantly evolving regulatory landscape, adopting more environmentally sustainable and regulatory-compliant construction practices will boost prospects and revenues in the more mature markets of Western Europe and North America. Frost & Sullivan expects the market to expand at a sturdy CAGR of 6.3% from 2018-2025.

Prathmesh Limaye, senior analyst of chemicals & materials in infrastructure & mobility at Frost & Sullivan, said: “Despite increased construction costs from an offsite construction, a net saving of up to 7% is possible because of shortened construction periods.

“In addition, prefabricated buildings are increasingly being perceived as sustainable solutions for construction projects due to a growing usage of materials, such as timber and aluminium composites, that are more energy-efficient than concrete.

From a regional perspective, the recovering economies of Latin America along with high-growth markets of Eastern Europe, India, and Southeast Asia are expected to provide lucrative market opportunities. Slower growth is anticipated in North America and Europe due to increased construction activities in developing regions.

From a competitor position, the market is highly fragmented with several regional and smaller suppliers with wide market coverage due to the relative ease of setting up a business in this space. The offsite construction industry is, therefore, slated to experience consolidation with multiple merger and acquisition activities occurring in the foreseeable future.

Limaye added: “Many small and regional participants influence the overall pricing and distribution patterns in regional markets, especially in Latin America, the Middle-East, and Asia-Pacific.”

To gain a competitive advantage, Limaye recommends players emulate innovative companies such as Katerra and Welement, and adopt automation and design tools to increase the quality and precision in their construction.

Additional growth opportunities participants should aim to secure include:

  • Manufacturers promoting more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable solutions that are compliant with regulations mandated by international organisations.
  • Gaining wider coverage by improving their portfolios with products that can be customised to end-user specifications and also promote ease of installation.
  • Expanding operations into high-growth regions such as Asia-Pacific due to the region’s growing infrastructure and construction development.
  • Offering products that are comparative with those offered by regional and local manufacturers.

Limaye concluded: “Despite significant market expansion prospects, perceptions surrounding the high initial cost of construction and transportation, design rigidity, multiple stakeholder involvement, and lack of skilled labour are key factors slowing adoption rates and hindering market growth.”

 

Source: PBC TODAY

 

Recently, headlines were made when an Australian team published a study finding that there was more than enough pumped hydro storage resource locations to satisfy all future needs for storage in a 100% renewable grid. As the global resource map site hosted at the Australia National Museum says:

 

“We found about 616,000 potentially feasible PHES sites with storage potential of about 23 million Gigawatt-hours (GWh) by using geographic information system (GIS) analysis. This is about one hundred times greater than required to support a 100% global renewable electricity system.”

 

In other words, we only need to use about 1% of the global pumped hydro resource locations to satisfy our needs. Furthermore, pumped hydro can store energy for weeks and the round trip from electricity to elevated water to electricity is 80% to 90% efficient. It’s already by far the largest form of utility-scale storage in the world, with more than 160 GW of rated capacity of pumped hydro in operation as of the end of 2016.

NREL published a report on the value of pumped hydro in 2018 that’s worth quoting a couple of bits from:

“PSH is a highly flexible, low-marginal-cost, and fast-acting generation asset, and in the market simulations, it was shown to reduce system-wide operational costs in both the day-ahead and real-time markets”

“In all market simulations, the addition of PSH significantly reduced the annual operating costs for the test system. Cost savings ranged from 1.2% to 2.8% in the day-ahead market simulations and between 3.9% to 10% in the real-time simulations.”

Sounds like we have a winner. It’s a rock solid technology, first deployed in the 1890s. It may be dull, but it works, it’s simple, and it’s effective. It saves money on the grid. And as the Australian study showed, there’s absurdly more of the resource than we possibly need.

 

So why are there regular claims that pumped hydro won’t suffice?

 

I published The Short List Of Climate Actions That Will Work, and pointed to pumped hydro as a primary storage mechanism that needed to be developed. Comments on that piece included derogatory comments about pumped hydro. Similarly, in my assessment of the climate action plans of the leading Democratic candidates, none call for pumped hydro, but for more R&D into storage, with the intent to reduce costs below battery storage. Since pumped hydro is already below battery storage costs, it’s a head-scratching situation.

Recently, a South African representative of an innovative company in the space reached out to me based on my piece, Joi Scientific’s Perpetual Hydrogen Illusion Comes Tumbling Down. As with many of my clients, the company wanted an independent read on its technology to understand how it fits and whether they are missing something in their analysis.

The premise of their innovation is straightforward. If you use a big rock or concrete plug in a shaft full of liquid, you can use pumped hydro technology to move the plug up and down. Imagine a missile silo that’s generating electricity, instead of hiding an ICBM. This allows a much bigger weight with fewer mechanical construction challenges. I did a little due diligence to see if there was any way that I could add value. I reviewed their material, their patent, asked a few questions, and realized that their solution was solid.

The discussion triggered me to think about the Boring Company and Tesla Energy, and the characteristics of Tesla’s Powerpack battery solution. It’s an excellent same-day solution for fast response energy, but the characteristics that make it good for duck curves with solar don’t make it good for longer lasting storage. It’s getting cheaper, but it’s still not a cheap form of larger scale storage.

When I did an assessment of the viability of a large-scale, carbon-neutral, secure greenhouse in Canada for a client this year, the Powerpack component of the solution was the most expensive portion if the solution had to remain off grid, and that solution included a 100,000 sq ft high-tech greenhouse, 3 MW of LEDs, a few acres of solar panels and a very big ground-source heat pump, all of which are capital intensive components by themselves. Powerpack’s 4-hour efficiency is 85%, but it’s not so good at 72 hours.

I asked Jim Fiske, the founder and CEO of Gravity Power and the person whose name the patents are in, about the Tesla connection. They had had conversation with Musk about this, but among other things, the shaft diameter that the Boring Company drills are too small for economically viable models.

“The net result of all these considerations is that very large Gravity Power Plants (multiple gigawatt-hours) are extremely cost effective, while very small ones are generally not cost competitive. When I say “cost effective,” I mean the levelized cost of GPP storage is roughly five times lower than li-ion battery plants.”

 

 

Between the conversations and the publications, I decided it was time to go deeper on the global study that had come out of Australia recently. Among other things, I was curious to see if it was another example of machine learning in the climate solution space, something I’m digging into as a series leading to a formal CleanTechnica report. The peer-reviewed paper on the global study isn’t out yet, but it’s an extension of an Australia-specific study published in 2018. That study is Geographic information system algorithms to locate prospective sites for pumped hydro energy storage by Lu, Stocks, et al., in the journal Applied Energy.

I realized quickly that there was a disconnect between how most people think of pumped hydro and what the study was saying, a disconnect that might be leading to dismissal of pumped hydro as a large-scale solution.

Outside of interesting innovations such as Gravity Power, there are three types of pumped hydro. One of them has characteristics that mean that it can take 15 years to gain approvals and build. Two of them don’t share those characteristics and are much faster to approve and build. The study focused specifically on the latter two, meaning that the 100x more resource than required is specifically for easier to site and faster to develop resource. That’s a very good news story.

Let’s look at the first type of pumped hydro, open-loop, to gain an understanding of the challenges. That form of pumped hydro is continuously connected to a naturally flowing water feature. That means building a dam, creating a large reservoir, and diverting water that flowed through the environment to power generation. That has a large number of environmental impacts, and is also highly subject to strong pushback from the public downstream and upstream of the facility, who typically and reasonably like the water flowing the way it is and the land unsubmerged. The large majority of the 160 GW of pumped hydro storage that exists today is open-loop.

That’s the form that takes 15 years to build, if it manages to get built at all.

However, the authors of the study focused on two types of closed-loop pumped hydro, dry-gully and turkey-nest.

 
Image RE100 Group Austrailian National University

 

The top diagram shows a dry-gully pumped hydro siting. As the name suggests, this is a land feature that is suitable for damming, but one that has no water running through it. As such, upper and lower reservoirs can be created and filled without impeding water flow, damaging streams or damaging habitat and wildlife that depend on the flowing water.

The bottom diagram shows the turkey’s-nest pumped hydro cross section. It’s called that because turkeys make their nests on the ground, building up the sides. The turkey’s-nest option is suitable for flatter land, where a dry gully doesn’t exist. Flatter doesn’t mean flat as a pancake of course, but one with a gentler decline from a higher elevation to a lower elevation, so that two turkey’s nest reservoirs can be excavated, the earth used to build up the walls and connected with a bored tunnel for two-way flow of water.

The study’s authors refer to this type of pumped hydro as short-term off river energy storage (STORES), and their modeling is based on this. They explicitly looked for resources with excellent characteristics for rapid development.

“STORES is located away from rivers and has little impacts on the environment and natural landscape due to: (1) no interaction with the ecosystem of main stem rivers, (2) no conflicts or competition with nature reserves and intensive land uses and, (3) medium-sized reservoirs located within close proximity to electricity infrastructure and renewable energy resources.”

Being in British Columbia, I’m familiar with reservoir sizes for hydroelectric sites, and know that they are very big indeed. The 800 MW capacity Site C Dam that’s being developed in northeastern BC on the Peace River near the border with Alberta, for example, will have a reservoir that’s 93 square kilometers, or 36 square miles. That’s an area that would cover most of San Francisco, and one that’s quite a bit bigger than Manhattan for perspective. It’s a fifth the size of Lake Tahoe.

The reservoir needs to be that big to enable a sufficient head — the vertical distance between intake and discharge  — for effective generation. When most people think of hydroelectric, that’s what they think of, huge reservoirs that inundate a lot of land that often had people, culturally significant elements, or agriculture on it, lots of concrete, and a downstream that’s radically altered. But that’s not what STORES is.

“PHES system with twin 100 hectares (ha), 1 gigalitre (GL) reservoirs separated by a height difference of 500 m is able to contribute 1 gigawatt-hour (GWh) of storage capacity (assuming an usable fraction of 85% and an efficiency of 90%), or 200 MW of power with 5 hours of storage to the electricity system – equivalent to a large gas-fired power plant.”

They looked for very high-head sites, where the vertical head makes a big difference for the amount of energy that can be stored. After all, it’s a gravity system, and the higher the head, the higher the potential energy of water. It takes more energy to lift a kilogram 10 meters than 1 meter, and you get more energy back.

The minimum head that they looked for in the study was 300 meters. Site C, for comparison, has a 50-meter head. That means that the reservoirs can be a lot smaller. The example above, at 100 hectares for each reservoir, is only a square kilometer or about 0.4 square miles. That’s a tenth of a percent of the size of the Site C Dam reservoir. That’s less than a third the size of Central Park in NYC or a quarter of the size of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The dam walls were modeled at a maximum of 40 meters (130 ft) for the dry-gully sites and 20 meters (65 ft) for the turkey’s nest sites. These aren’t trivial structures, but for comparison, the Oroville Dam in California is 234 meters (770 ft). By hydroelectric standards, they are modest.

So these are small reservoirs that don’t block rivers or streams, that are sited away from nature reserves and parks, that are sited near transmission lines, that are sited near high renewable energy resource areas and are capable of providing GWh capacity storage. The round trip efficiency is 80% to 90%, and storage can be for days or weeks, although typically its most economical for next day grid balancing per the NREL study. This contrasts to Tesla’s Powerpack which is currently very effective at in-day balancing, soaking up mid-day solar for end of day peaks.

There are two observations. The first is that siting approval for sites like this should be a lot faster and less controversial than for hydroelectric dams in general. Among other things, I wondered if the global siting study was able to have access to detailed data on sensitive or preserved natural areas of the same quality as the Australian study. I reached out to one of the study’s primary authors, Matt Stocks, and he told me:

“We use the World Protected Area Database for environmental exclusions. We haven’t had any issues with this brought to our attention. The land use is more difficult.  Our only land use exclusion is regions of high urban density.  It is not perfect with a number of smaller towns around he world inundated.”

I was reassured that the environmental approvals would not be challenged outside of Australia. The smaller town challenge should be trivial to resolve given that there are 100x more sites than required, so as the resource database is assessed by countries, they can eliminate sites with towns using country data. There’s also a proviso in the online mapping resource that geological, tectonic, and engineering work still needed to be done to validate each potential site. Many won’t be viable for reasons of slope stability and the like.

I was also curious if he had a perspective on whether siting approval was faster with STORES.

​”The individual states in Australia manage the main approvals and have regulatory responsibility for the electricity system.  NSW has released a pumped hydro road map and SA are supporting a number of proposals there.  The approval processes for wind and solar have been significantly streamlined through the states formalising the approval process and this appears to be emerging in Australia for pumped hydro.

In other words, yes. Standardizing on STORES gets us on track and allows streamlined approvals. Since we need a lot of movement by 2030, this is excellent news and something that’s replicable in every country.

Is it enough for the US? Well, what are the requirements? Per ANU:

“An approximate guide to storage requirements for 100% renewable electricity, based on analysis for Australia, is 1 Gigawatt (GW) of power per million people with 20 hours of storage, which amounts to 20 GWh per million people. This is for a strongly-connected large-area grid (1 million km2) with good wind and solar resources in a high-energy-use country.”

And what is the resource size for the United States? The study shows that the United States has about 4,500 GWh of potential STORES sites per million people, over 200 times what is expected to be required.

And those stores are close to major population centers for the most part. If some of the flatter states would like pumped storage, Gravity Power is happy to oblige. They are excellent for flat land siting and have even lower environmental impact concerns than STORES.

What else is true about a lot of those locations?

There are a lot of coal workers in those regions who know how to work rock. Building pumped hydro is strongly aligned to their technical and engineering skill set. And there are 60,000 or more of them who want good work, and would prefer it be not too far from where their families are. I keep suggesting that Democratic candidates should make this a campaign plank, but I haven’t seen any uptake yet. I’ve asked this question of Ike Kirby, PhD and Kamala Harris’ environmental policy advisor, but haven’t had a response yet.

But back to Elon Musk. As I pointed out earlier, the Boring Company isn’t well suited for Gravity Power’s large-diameter shaft requirement. But what about closed-loop pumped hydro as identified by the STORES study? Pumped hydro requires tunnels, not a huge shaft. The tunnels range from 4.5 to 8 meters per existing sites and a Springer study.

What does the Boring Company do? It bores 4.3-meter finished shafts. What does Tesla Energy do? It does energy storage. Start at the bottom, point the Line-Storm upward to the upper reservoir, start it up and use the resulting tunnel rock and soil in the earthen bulwarks of the reservoirs. What else is good for closed-loop pumped hydro? Covering material of some sort to reduce evaporation so that you don’t have to top them up that often, which strikes me as an excellent use case for Tesla’s commercial solar panels, floating on the placid waters of the upper and lower reservoirs. Seems like a no-brainer. So I reached out to Elon.

No response yet. If he does respond, I’m sure that will make for an interesting discussion.

Closing off, when I started reading the detailed study, I was curious to see if the approach used took advantage of machine learning or not. And it doesn’t. It’s a geographical algorithmic search process that first excludes a bunch of areas first, then does specific calculations about potentially viable spots. It’s computationally intensive, but using classic techniques, not neural-net techniques. This isn’t to say it doesn’t embody a good deal of insight and innovation, just not that specific type. I asked Matt Stocks why machine learning hadn’t been used for this particular solution.

“Machine learning works really well for large data sets where the machine learning algorithms can learn from one set of data and extrapolate to another. I don’t think there are sufficient examples of closed loop schemes to be able to train the algorithms. And once there is a reservoir there, we can’t see what the land underneath it looks like anymore since the elevation measurements will refer to the water level instead of the ground.”

This aligns well when compared to the CoastalDEM machine learning effort I covered recently which found much larger coastal risk of extreme water levels than had previously been understood. That study had both a global NASA SRTM dataset equivalent to what Stocks et al. used, but they also had a high-quality set of lidar data readings for much of the United States and Australia’s coastline to train it with. The number of existing dry-gully and turkey’s nest pumped hydro sites is small and there’s no equivalent to the lidar data set to correct the elevation and find similar features elsewhere.

So there we have it. Pumped hydro is a highly viable storage technology, it overlaps nicely with the characteristics of Tesla’s existing battery technology, the Boring Company has high-speed tunneling equipment suitable for penstocks, and there are a lot of excellent coal miners who could be repurposed close to home in the United States. Seems like a winner to me indeed.

About the Author

Michael Barnard is Chief Strategist with TFIE Strategy Inc. He works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth and cost takeout in our rapidly transforming world. He is editor of The Future is Electric, a Medium publication. He regularly publishes analyses of low-carbon technology and policy in sites including Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, CleanTechnica and RenewEconomy, and his work is regularly included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. Much of his work originates on Quora.com, where Mike has been a Top Writer annually since 2012.

 

Source: CleanTechnica

Two industry reports, published today, suggest that Brexit is not wholly responsible for the slow down in construction projects, but rather the quite reversal of louder government project announcements.

 

MINERAL PRODUCT ASSOCIATION

Following a broad-based weakening in the first half of 2019, construction market demand for mineral products, including aggregates, asphalt, ready-mixed concrete (RMC) and mortar, improved in 2019Q3 compared to the previous quarter. Growth in mortar sales was the strongest, up 5.2% compared to 2019Q2, followed by asphalt (4.1%), aggregates (2.7%) and RMC (1.4%).

Whilst welcome, this improvement has not been sufficient to lift the market performance for 2019 so far. In the first 9 months of the year, markets for asphalt and mortar remained broadly flat compared to the same period in 2018, while sales of aggregates and RMC declined.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates that construction output increased by 2.6% over Jan-Aug 2019 compared to the same period in 2018, with growth driven by housebuilding and new infrastructure work. Work on commercial sites, including retail and office buildings, continues to decline. Aggregates and RMC are ubiquitous to any type of construction work, and are usually used early in a construction project timeline. Hence, given the weakness of these markets, it suggests that recorded construction output reflects continuing activity on existing sites rather than new sites.  Following two years of subdued mineral products market conditions in 2017 and 2018, flat to negative sales volumes this year are precursors to a further slowdown in construction in the near term.

Despite initial expectations of work planned to pace up on Highway England’s roads programme this year, asphalt sales volumes saw a marginal decline by 0.6% over Jan-Sept 2019 compared to the same period in 2018, with falls particularly pronounced in the South West and East Midlands. The Mineral Products Association (MPA) members continue to report significant delays to the Road Investment Strategy (RIS 1) delivery. Highways England has now indicated that 37 of the 112 projects set to be carried out over 2015-20 have now either been pushed to the next Road Investment Strategy (RIS 2), covering 2020-25, or put on hold altogether for review. Of the 75 remaining projects to be delivered by the end of FY2019/20, 30 are planned to start during the current financial year, mostly in 2020Q1. Given past delivery records, the industry has little confidence in Highways England’s capability to ensure these projects are delivered as planned.

Simultaneously, the RMC market remains decisively weak and is heading for a third consecutive year of decline in 2019. Sharp declines in sales volumes continue to be recorded in both London and South East, which together account for a third of the total (GB) market. The general decline is closely tied to falling investment in commercial buildings, which have been impacted by the ever-increasing domestic uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the economy. It also reflects slower housebuilding activity in the capital.

Mortar sales are a straight forward indicator of housebuilding activity, especially in regions outside London where constructions are more likely focused on ‘bricks and mortar’ rather than high-rise towers. After a year of consecutive quarterly falls, mortar sales volumes resumed growth in 2019Q3, up 5.2% compared to the previous quarter. Yet again, the annual trend for 2019 remains weak: sales volumes increased by just 0.4% in the first 9 months of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018, a significant slowdown from two years of double-digit growth in 2017 and 2018.

Current construction forecasts, such as from the Construction Product Association, suggest housebuilding will pick up again from 2020, given continued support from Government’s Help to Buy scheme. Weakness in the commercial sector is expected to remain until at least 2021, as investment in the sector is being hindered by the ongoing Brexit negotiation process. More realistically, any growth prospects for construction and its supply chain is more dependent on what happens in infrastructure. If delivered as planned, major infrastructure projects in roads, rail and energy should boost activity on the ground over the next few years, but concerns are rising over the delivery of these projects, notably in the rail and road subsectors. The government-commissioned review into HS2 is likely to add further delays to a project already beset by them, whilst work on RIS1 looks unlikely to be delivered as planned, even after the revisions made by Highways England.

Aurelie Delannoy, Director of Economic Affairs at the MPA, explains: “Government cannot overestimate the significance of the current infrastructure pipeline of work for both construction and its supply chain, and for the UK economy as a whole. At a time of great reckoning for the UK’s political and economic future, repairing local roads, building houses, schools, hospitals, and upgrading major rail and energy networks provide the means to lift both short-term and longer-term productivity and growth prospects. It is a great opportunity to put our own house in order.”

“Government often asks how they can help businesses; the answer is simple: provide clarity over future policy and investment and stick to it. Regardless of any Brexit outcome, it is in the power of the UK Government to ensure planned infrastructure investments are being delivered in a robust and timely manner.”

 

IHS MARKIT / CIPSUK CONSTRUCTION PMI®

October data pointed to a sustained decline in UK construction output, with overall volumes of work falling for the sixth consecutive month. The latest survey also revealed a sharp drop in new work, although the rate of contraction was the slowest for three months. Meanwhile, construction companies continued to reduce their workforce numbers in October, which was linked to weak order books and concerns about their near-term business outlook.At 44.2 in October, the headline seasonally adjusted IHS Markit/CIPS UK Construction Total Activity Index registered below the crucial 50.0 no-change threshold. The latest reading was up from 43.3 during the previous month, but still close to the ten-year low seen in June (43.1). Construction companies noted that client demand remained subdued in response to domestic political uncertainty and the economic backdrop. In some cases, survey respondents noted that unusually wet weather in October had acted as an additional headwind to construction output. Lower volumes of work were recorded across all three broad categories of activity. Civil engineering was the worst-performing area, with business activity falling at the sharpest pace since October 2009. House building also decreased at a faster rate in October. Latest data pointed to the greatest drop in residential work for over three years. At the same time, commercial construction fell for the tenth month running, but at the slowest rate since May. New orders dropped for the seventh month in a row during October, but the rate of decline was the least marked since July. Construction companies noted that clients continued to defer decision-making on new projects in response to political uncertainty and concerns about the economic outlook. Survey respondents also suggested that intense competition for new work had resulted in more widespread price discounting to secure contract awards. Softer demand conditions and a lack of new work to replace completed projects resulted in another fall in staffing levels across the construction sector. Employment numbers have declined in each month since April, which survey respondents mainly attributed to the non-replacement of voluntary leavers. Input buying dropped again in October, but weaker demand for construction products and materials did not prevent a further lengthening of suppliers’ delivery times. The latest downturn in vendor performance was the sharpest since June, with construction firms commenting on stock shortages among suppliers (especially plasterboard and insulation materials). However, input cost inflation was the lowest for just over three-and-a-half years.Meanwhile, business optimism towards the year-ahead outlook for construction work remained among the weakest seen since 2012. Some construction firms noted that contract awards related to large-scale civil engineering projects had the potential to boost workloads in the next 12 months, although political uncertainty continued to cloud the outlook.

 

 

The Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) welcomes the release of the report following the first phase of the Public Inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire and will comment further once the findings have been examined in greater depth.

It is well documented and understood that the major failing of the building was due to the cladding material, and the ASFP looks forward to phase 2 of the Public Inquiry when the circumstances that led to its inclusion in the building will be determined.

The report’s finding that ‘effective compartmentation was lost at an early stage’ as a result of the fire on the outside quickly entering many flats via the windows due to the failure of the glass is not unexpected, nor is the failure of some key fire protection measures inside the tower. The ASFP has long highlighted the potential for failures in compartmentation in such blocks due to lack of maintenance and poor workmanship.

In fact, such failures were first highlighted in 2003 in a Government sponsored ASFP report on passive fire protection in buildings, which stated somewhat prophetically:

“Public safety is being impinged by incorrect passive fire protection measures and we feel that a disaster caused by accelerated or unexpected fire spread could follow if no action is taken to improve initial standards and to define the responsibility of building occupiers.”

The ASFP believes the failings of the building (and others like it) are the result of decades of a prevalent culture in which fire safety has not been considered as seriously as is required. The race to the bottom culture in the construction industry, which extends from design through to final construction, was clearly identified in the Hackitt Report on Building Regulations. The ASFP has long campaigned for passive fire protection products to be third party certificated and for installers also to be members of third party certified installation schemes. This is a condition of membership of the association

While the report suggests that the fire service bears some blame for loss of life at Grenfell, the ASFP believes that this is a somewhat harsh conclusion. The fire service personnel who fought the fire worked tirelessly in the very challenging environment which this very severe and almost unprecedented fire presented.

 

And while it is legitimate to question why the stay put guidance was not rescinded earlier, such guidance has served firefighting operations well over the years. In fact, last year there were over 5,000 fires in purpose built blocks of flats where stay put policies were successfully implemented and compartmentation was effective. We should not lose sight of that.

ASFP CEO Niall Rowan states:

“ASFP, along with many other stakeholders, has been concerned at the lack of serious consideration of fire safety since the 1980s. As fire deaths fell – mainly due to the fitting of smoke alarms, improved upholstered furniture and the decline in smoking – there was a culture in Government that fire safety was ‘solved’ and we must not do anything to make building more expensive.

“Changes in building materials and construction processes have transformed the way in which our building stock behaves in fire and poor workmanship and light touch enforcement of building regulations has frequently resulted in buildings that offer poor levels of fire protection.

“London Fire Brigade and other fire services must be confident of their procedures to realistically evaluate the effectiveness of stay put and must be equipped with an adequate knowledge of the structure of buildings to enable them to do this. This will require owners and responsible persons to regularly undertake audits of compartmentation to ensure passive fire protection systems that combine to create this vital life safety system are correctly specified, installed and maintained.

“We hope that Grenfell will be the catalyst for change to ensure such a tragedy can never occur again and we will continue to work with Government and the construction industry to achieve the extensive and lasting culture change necessary to ensure the safety of our existing and future built environment.”

Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP)

Beware of bats this Halloween as over the winter months bats hibernate to stay out of the cold weather and residential buildings, in particular, present an ideal warm roosting site for female bats to rear their young.

Leading property consultancy Galbraith reports that bats in buildings are an ever-increasing problem when it comes to undertaking renovation works.

Scotland is home to nine species of bats and all have European protection. As such, special consideration has to be given to them when undertaking building projects where bats have taken up home, as not only do bats have strong legal protection, their roosts do too.

Bats are woodland animals, but many species have come to use roosting sites in buildings as the availability of natural roosting sites in trees has fallen. They have well established traditions and tend to return to the same sites year after year. Bats use buildings such as houses, churches, bridges and schools.

Galbraith has advised a number of clients on how to deal with bats and other protected species whilst undertaking building projects, particularly in the rural sector where bats thrive. Special measures have to be implemented to adhere to ecological legislation and project design has to be carefully considered where bats have been found to be occupying a building.  Failure to comply with legislation can lead to criminal prosecutions.

In many cases a series of ecology surveys will be required to be carried out by specialist ecologists, over a period from May to August when bats are out of hibernation. Before works can commence work may need to be licenced by Scottish Natural Heritage.

James Taylor, of the Galbraith building surveying team, said: “When planning any project that creates a risk of disturbance to bats, or indeed any other protected species during their breeding cycle, it is vital to start preparations early and plan ahead.

“There are a range of measures that can be undertaken including the timing of the work to avoid the breeding season, installation of bat boxes to re-house any bats found during the work and specifying the installation of lead slates in new roofs to maintain access for bats in future.

“The use of under slate breathable membranes can be problematic where bats are present as bats can become entangled in the membrane. Therefore, the design of the roof has to be carefully considered and the introduction of alternative roof felts and roof ventilation factored in, depending on the roof structure and design.”

 

Ecologist, Sabina Ostalowska of Bowland Ecology, said: “We have worked with Galbraith on building projects where protected species, most commonly bats, have been found to be roosting. The understanding of wildlife legislation and responsibilities with regard to protected species is an essential component of managing projects. The awareness of bat conservation issues by property firms along with the ‘can do attitude’ not only ensures that the project is completed on time and on budget but also helps to conserve this important protected species.

“Bats are quite commonly found in houses, both new and old and it is very rare for bats to cause any damage to properties. In most cases, people don’t even know that they share the house with bats. However, maintenance and alteration work to buildings can adversely affect bats and their roosts.

“Bats and their roosts are protected by law, which means that it is illegal to disturb, kill or injure them or to damage, destroy or obstruct access to a bat roost. Having bats does not mean that work to buildings cannot take place, but expert advice will be needed on how to proceed. Early engagement with a licensed bat ecologist is essential to avoid extra delays and costs to the project.”

The Galbraith building surveying team has recently advised on:

 

  • Domestic property extension project in PerthshireActing as project manager and working alongside the client’s architect, Galbraith helped ensure collaboration between the findings of ecologist report and the architects designs to deliver roost disturbance mitigation requirements of the bat licence. During the project bats were observed with the ecologist engaged to handle to bats and relocate them into earlier positioned bat boxes. The final design of the building incorporated slate vents to maintain access to potential roosts in the future.

 

  • Category B listed chapel re-roofing project in Midlothian – this involved the replacement of the defective roof covering with new Burlington Blue/Grey slates. In this instance the client of Galbraith appointed its architect to obtain Listed Building Consent and Planning Permission with Galbraith project managing the procurement of the works and management whilst on site. Galbraith worked closely with the ecologist as they prepared the mitigation plan, licence application and oversaw all works on site. No bats were uncovered during the work however new access slates were provided to retain access to the likely roost locations.

 

  • Cawder Golf Club, Bishopbriggs – Category A listed building which required an extensive programme of external fabric repairs in 2017. Bats were found to be roosting in the external features of the building associated with roof including under slates, behind lead flashings and in cervices within stonework at the wallheads. Before work on this project could commence, a full mitigation plan was required which included an ecological survey conducted by Bowland Ecology and SLR Consulting. Disturbance was kept to a minimum during works; there was no loss of roosting opportunities in the area and there was no detriment to the favourable local conservation status of bats. Bat boxes, suitable for the species identified on site, were erected in advance of works in mature trees to compensate the loss of roosting sites. The works were carried out under European Protected Species Licence issued by Scottish Natural Heritage.

 

  • A demolition project of a dilapidated farm steading in the Scottish Borders the steading was not suitable for modern farming and had deteriorated to such an extent that it had become unsafe. As part of the instruction, Galbraith organised for bat surveys to be undertaken and ensured that the correct mitigating action was taken to rehouse the bats to bat boxes prior to the demolition.

GAILBRAITH

The Government has made a commitment to more new homes being built in England using modern methods of construction (MMC).

A centre for excellence is to be created for MMC across the North of England and Homes England is providing £38.2 million to help build 2,000 new homes in the sector.

According to Housing Minister Esther McVey the region has the potential to become a world leader in the creation of modern, high-quality homes using MMC. During a visit to Factory 2050, part of the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, she met with major developers, small businesses and academics.

The funding from the Government’s housing agency will be spread across six local authorities to speed up the construction of 2,072 homes across the country.

 

 

The deals are the latest to be awarded through the government’s £350 million Local Authority Accelerated Construction programme, which was launched to accelerate the delivery of local authority housing schemes and encourages the use of MMC.

‘We must invest in this new technology. It’s as simple as that. The benefits are clear. Some modular homes can be built in a factory over a week. And assembled on site in a day.
Industry has told us some homes built using modern methods can have 80% fewer defects and heating bills up to 70% lower,’ McVey said.

‘Homes built using modern methods can be of higher quality, greener and built to last.
I want to see a housing green revolution. In the north of England where the first industrial revolution began,’ she explained.

‘With our emphasis on safety, quality and beauty, we could be the global leaders in housing standards. And if we get it right, once the industry matures it could be worth an estimated £40 billion to this country. A new post-Brexit industry,’ she pointed out.

‘To build all these new homes we will need a brand-new workforce to make these homes offsite. Skilled, high quality jobs, for life. The north of England has the potential to be the construction capital of the country for this new technology, and we need to fully embrace this,’ she added.

She also pointed out that it could see the creation of a ‘construction corridor’ and that in order to ensure that the industry has the skills it needs to keep up with advances in technology coming down the line, the Government will encourage business to link up with academics across the North – sharing expertise and working together.

According to Nick Walkley, chief executive of Homes England, there are enormous benefits to MMC from allowing high quality homes to be built more quickly to addressing labour and skills shortages and improving energy efficiency.

‘It is vital that there is continued investment in it. The Local Authority Accelerated Construction programme supports local authorities to prepare sites for the construction of much-needed new homes and prioritises the use of modern methods of construction to increase the build pace by an average of 40%,’ he said.

Mark Farmer, chair of the MMC Working Group, believes that the UK has a fantastic opportunity to become a true world leader in the advanced manufacturing of new homes. ‘We urgently need to better assure building safety, improve quality, reduce carbon and offer much more consumer choice and protections,’ he said.

‘These improvements will only be achieved if we fundamentally readdress the way we design and deliver new homes. As part of achieving this aim, the establishment of a centre of excellence for modern methods of construction in the North of England will leverage what is already a growing part of the regional economy,’ he explained.

‘I am pleased that Government is driving this important initiative and I look forward to helping make this a success in coordination with all key stakeholders,’ he added.

Network rail looks to engage commuters in it’s design plans with the help of an app

 

Use of AR – a first for Network Rail – puts architects’ designs into passengers’ smartphones.

Network Rail has contributed its design data to an app that enables passengers to use augmented reality (AR) to see replacement footbridges at stations. The app will support Network Rail’s engagement with passengers while delivering footbridges across the network throughout Control Period 6 (1 April 2019 – 31 March 2024) and beyond.

The app, called ARki and developed by Darf Design, provides 3D visualisations of planned buildings in situ. Thanks to the collaboration with Network Rail and Wood, ARki now incorporates the footbridges, helping passengers and local communities see their future as Network Rail rolls out its new generation of signature footbridges. Available in the Apple app store from 16 October, the app’s cutting edge AR technology gives Network Rail a new level of engagement with rail users.

Network Rail has developed three footbridge designs that blend forward-thinking architecture with creative engineering, bringing a new level of quality and a distinctive identity as the current, standard model is replaced in the years ahead. The three designs are:

The Beacon – a fully glazed bridge featuring lantern-topped lift towers and a dynamic articulated engineered structure

The Ribbon – an update of the classic arched footbridge with an elegant floating canopy spanning the track, featuring 30-degree lift and stair rotations

The Frame – a radical expression of minimalism that offers a range of flexible, functional configurations. Winner of the Network Rail and Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) footbridge design competition of 2018, this design by Gottlieb Paludan Architects of Denmark was judged best among 120 entries from 19 countries.

“The app will give our customers a glimpse of their future station, using new technology to give a level of detail we’ve never provided before,” said Anthony Dewar, professional head, buildings and architecture at Network Rail. “As well as keeping local people informed of changes to their station, it provides a fitting, high-tech showcase for our exciting new footbridge designs. We’re very proud of the three new designs and want as many people as possible to be aware of and appreciate them – the app is the perfect way to showcase the footbridges to as large an audience as possible.”

The app integrates the architects’ design files into a smartphone’s video footage through ARKi. “Our vision is to allow designers to share their 3D models in the real world,” says Sahar Fikouhi, founder of interactive design studio Darf Design and developer of ARki – recently shortlisted as one of the 10 companies to join Digital Catapult’s Augmentor programme, which is helping to accelerate UK investment in immersive technologies such as AR.

“It’s very rare for the public to have this access to genuine architects’ drawings and this is one of the first examples of one-to-one scale visualisations of future projects. The app is helping to democratise the way structures are designed and built by giving the public this access at early stages of design selection,” added Fikouhi.

Wood has taken on the role of technology integrator, building on their work with Network Rail and in stakeholder engagement. “Wood is proud to assist Network Rail in its mission of engaging the public during introduction of high quality design and engineering into its estate through this transparent process. The integration of such technologies for our clients helps keep all interested parties engaged,” says Charles Humphries, Director – Built Environment at Wood.

“Having managed stakeholder engagement on a number of major infrastructure projects, we are fully aware of the importance of community involvement. Showing passengers what their bridge will look like is a great way of winning over the hearts and minds of rail users,” says Humphries.

 

Modular construction, home-sharing platforms and rental tools could be the answer to housing challenges in the US, believes Nate Loewentheil of venture capital firm Camber Creek.

At a time when macroeconomic and political forces are aggravating the challenges of affordable housing in the US, a new set of technologies, including modular construction, digitally enabled home-sharing and new financial tools for renters, are helping reduce housing costs and expand housing access.

There are a number of reasons why city policy-makers should encourage these new companies by inviting them to pilot new technologies, using city contracting power and reducing regulatory burdens.

 

Worsening problem

According to Harvard’s Joint Centre for Housing Studies, approximately one-third of US households are cost-burdened by housing, and more than a quarter of US renters spend more than half their income on housing. Current trend lines suggest the problem is getting worse.

According to an analysis of home prices by the National Association of Realtors, every single major metropolitan area grew less affordable between 2017 and 2018 (the latest year for which the housing affordability index is available).

Depending on your perspective, you can ascribe the challenges in the housing market to general economic conditions, to local regulations, or to federal policy. The market for new housing is shaped in large part by the costs of construction, especially wages. During a booming economy, construction wages increase sharply.

 According to the Federal Reserve of St Louis, hourly construction wages have risen more than 20 per cent since 2012, from $25.50 to $30.75. At a broader level, wages for millions of working Americans are simply too low to meet the prevailing costs of safe, adequate housing.

Starting during the New Deal, the Federal government stepped in to fill this gap and subsidise housing for lower-income Americans. For the past few decades, however, federal policies have generally shifted against low-income renters, aggravating the affordability crisis.

Just in the past few years, according to the Urban Institute, the share of low-income renters with housing needs receiving federal assistance dropped from 24 per cent in 2005 to 21 per cent in 2015.

 

Local regulations can severely aggravate (or ameliorate) the challenge. For example, San Francisco has some of the most restrictive zoning policies in the country, which has led to a crisis of affordability. To afford to buy the median home in San Francisco, a family has to be making $198,000 per year.

 

 

Lessons from history

Across time and geographies, technology has served as a counter-weight, consistently driving down housing costs, improving quality and expanding access.

As historian Kenneth Jackson explains in the book Crabgrass Frontier, balloon framing, a new construction method developed in the 1830s, allowed amateur carpenters to use standard schematic models, standard wood products and mass-manufactured nails to quickly build long-lasting, stable homes, dramatically reducing housing construction costs during the middle decades of the 19th century.

After World War Two, builders like Levitt & Sons applied new industrial techniques of mass manufacturing to home production, with each worker taking responsibility for a single task and working across multiple building sites, like an assembly line in reverse, again driving down costs.

Other technological innovations – like steel and reinforced concrete – made it possible to build larger and taller apartment buildings, bringing down per-unit costs.

Today, new technologies promise similar benefits for homeowners and renters, especially modular construction and home-sharing platforms. New financial tools are also helping more individuals access quality rental homes and build financial stability.

As the New York Times recently reported, in high-end markets, building a unit of low-income housing can cost as much $500,000. One alternative is modular housing, where standardised panels, rooms or apartments are built offsite. Modular housing can reduce the costs of quality control and inspection, avoid weather-related slowdowns and provide certainty for developers concerned about the timing of project completion.

 

Chicago-based construction company Skender, for example, is deploying modular homes for developers around the Windy City. They are one example among literally dozens, including Blokable, Factory OS, Boxabl and Indwelligent.

City and county governments can encourage modular construction by ensuring that building codes allow for modular buildings and by providing expedited permitting.

 

Relevance of the sharing economy

 

New construction is one part of the puzzle but there is a vast untapped resource: spare rooms in existing homes. Homeowners have been letting rooms for rent since there were homes but historically the transaction costs to rent out a room were high: advertising, screening and collecting rent.

The rise of the sharing economy has reduced those costs. Companies like PadSplit and Nesterly are helping homeowners split up their homes into multiple units or rent out spare bedrooms – of which there are at least 50 million in the US. In the process, they are creating new low-cost rental inventory, often of higher quality and in better locations than the alternatives. Cities can encourage room and home-sharing by updating regulations around rental properties and through tax policies.

For low-income renters, the biggest challenge may be accessing housing in the first place – and keeping a home once it is rented. A new set of companies are helping low-income families navigate the rental landscape at every step of the journey. OneApp provides renters with a list of apartments that will accept their credit and criminal background status, helping avoid costly application fees.

RentLogic gives renters new tools to evaluate buildings before they rent, avoiding absentee or derelict landlords. Jetty offers landlords a surety bond that allows potential renters to pay a one-time fee instead of a security deposit, helping lower-income families access a broader range of apartments.

The fee is usually around 20 per cent of the security deposit. Till, a company founded in 2018, provides short-term loans to renters to meet rent and avoid eviction on terms far cheaper than traditional payday loans.

Together these companies and others are offering a new rental roadmap that can meaningfully improve the lives of low-income Americans.

Modular construction, home-sharing platforms and rental tools are only three examples of the technologies that are helping to lower costs, improve quality and expand access to housing in the US.

Even as labour markets continue to tighten and federal support for low-income housing grows scarcer, cities and towns around the US can encourage these new companies and others like them to start making housing more affordable today.

 

Source: Smart Cities World