Planning ahead

Editorial Type: Technology Focus Date: 10-2020 Views: 1,257 Tags: Comment, CAD, BIM, Planning, Building regulations , Housing Market , Autodesk, Autodesk PDF Version:
Matt Keen, Senior Industrial Strategist, Autodesk Construction Solutions, explains why technology should be at the heart of England's planning reforms

In July, the UK government outlined changes to England's planning laws that were billed as the most significant since the second world war. All land in England will be designated for growth, renewal or protection, with planning applications based on pre-approved design codes automatically approved in growth zones. Meanwhile, the changes mean it will be easier to demolish and reconstruct unused buildings and add extensions to homes.

The focus of the changes is clear: addressing England's housing shortage, which some estimates put at 1.2 million homes. However, it's critical that the emphasis on building housing quickly doesn't lead to compromises over quality and environmental sustainability. Simply put, if we're building more houses, with fewer resources, we need to do it better.

For true reform, we cannot continue on the same path of the last century. Right now, the planning rules don't adequately incentivise comprehensive information sharing or using the latest design and construction methods. But technology could help to revolutionise both the planning process and how we approach housebuilding in the UK as a whole.

With the Construction Industry Council calling for the reinvention of construction over the next one to two years in its Roadmap to Recovery, it's time to shape a planning process that reflects the latest technology. This will ingrain best practice throughout the industry - and shape the next generation of housebuilding.

REINVENTING THE PLANNING PROCESS
As a critical early stage in any housing development, the planning process sets the tone for the wider building lifecycle. But compared to many other processes in the construction industry, the adoption of digital technology for planning applications is still in its infancy.

The current approach to planning reinforces the mindset of providing minimal information about the building, which is often poorly created and poorly handed over. While data-rich tools like Building Information Modelling have been embraced elsewhere, the planning submission process still depends on basic 2D drawings - limiting the amount of information that can be included by applicants.

As a result, planners often lack the information they need to make the best decisions. It can be equally difficult for local stakeholders to understand, let alone approve, planned developments. Using new technologies could not only improve the planning application process, but also benefit the construction industry, homeowners and local communities by underpinning better quality housebuilding.

A GOLDEN THREAD FOR EVERY HOME
A key concern with the current proposals is that accelerating housebuilding will compromise quality, at a time when 97% of newbuild homeowners already report a snag to their builder. A focus on accurate, comprehensive information sharing during the planning process can help to underpin the quality of new homes.

If housebuilders are required to submit information-rich planning applications, for example using BIM data, this will not only enable planners to make more informed decisions, but mean that firms are preparing good asset data, right from planning and design through to construction and eventually the handover to the homeowners.

Information-sharing is already a part of the Building a Safer Future legislation; from next year, all multiple occupancy housing projects will require a golden thread of information from design through to handover to guarantee safety and quality. By incorporating this measure throughout the housing market, we can give homeowners greater control over their data and confidence in the quality of their houses.

Creating a comprehensive digital record will also improve the sustainability of housing in the long term. Currently, construction accounts for 39% of carbon emissions worldwide - and very few building materials are reused. The proposed planning reforms will also make it even easier to demolish buildings in England. But with a record of which materials were used and where, it will be easier to reclaim building materials down the line, reducing the environmental impact of demolition.

IMPROVING STAKEHOLDER ENGAGEMENT
Another criticism raised against the proposed planning changes is the lack of public oversight of developments. But incorporating digital technology like 3D models into the planning process could actually support better stakeholder engagement.

For example, a challenge with the current reliance on drawings is that it's difficult for members of the local community to understand what's being proposed - and respond either positively or negatively. If developers put a new housing estate in the context of the local urban or rural area, with multiple views - even allowing people to navigate it in a virtual environment - they would be able to understand it more easily. With greater understanding, there would be a better chance of positive responses to submissions and better buy-in for changes to the local area.

GENERATING THE OPTIMAL DESIGN
The changes to the planning process are also an opportunity to revolutionise how we approach house design. Generative design is a technology that enables a user to take a plot of land and run multiple scenarios to find the best option against set factors: essentially, optimising the design. Algorithms don't determine the final decision, but instead provide several options that are the best fit against the criteria.

Importantly, using generative design can increase the sustainability of homes even before they are built. The position of houses can be optimised to minimise heating requirements and facilitate solar energy, for example. Designs can also mitigate against environmental considerations, with water run-off checks to reduce the risk of flooding.

Generative design is already available within widely used tools today and is being used by housebuilders worldwide. For example, Daiwa House Industry in Japan is using generative design to optimise building on small housing developments.

Planning applications that incorporate generative design could help to demonstrate why the submission is the best option for the area. Spider diagrams clearly display how well each design measures against each factor - to help to illustrate why the selected design has been chosen. Generative design could arm planners with better insight to make better decisions for the local area - delivering housing suited to the local market and residents.

OFF-SITE MANUFACTURING
It's not only the design, but the construction process that can be improved, by incentivising options like off-site manufacturing (OSM) through planning reforms. Manufacturing homes off-site significantly increases the speed and quality of construction, because homes are produced in a purpose-built, controlled environment. There are fewer errors and less waste, and the process is more energy efficient. With buildings only assembled on-site, construction has less of an impact on the local area. And with a higher quality end product, there is less need for rework and renovations later on - again improving sustainability.

Off-site manufacturing offers benefits for the industry as a whole, including attracting new talent to address worker shortage in the sector. The factory environment could offer an appeal to both young people and employees less able to work on a site, such as people with caring responsibilities or disabilities.

Many major housebuilders are already considering disrupting their operating models by adopting OSM. By incentivising the use of OSM in its planning reforms, the government could support the adoption of this transformation method and deliver benefits for houses - and the construction industry - as a whole.

PLANNING AHEAD
Addressing the housing shortage is vital for the future. But in turn, that means we need planning reforms that will actually address the shortfall, rather than simply reducing housing's quality. As the most significant reforms to planning rules in nearly a century, this is an opportunity to do things better. We have to reinvent our approach and set a new baseline for housebuilding.

Technology can support better planning decisions, whether it's richer information sharing or optimising designs. It can improve stakeholder engagement, to improve relationships with local communities. And critically, along with new construction methods, technology can protect the quality and sustainability of homes, to ensure the next wave of housebuilding delivers for the country. This could be a transformative moment for construction - and it's important not to miss it.

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