Viewing the Future of Construction in 3D

Accustomed as we are to urban sprawl and the bigger, grander structures it engenders, it may come as a surprise to many of us that the construction industry hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years. There are bigger and grander projects now, of course – larger skyscrapers, longer bridges, and other marvels of engineering – but the basic process of construction, which involves brick-laying, wood framing, and concrete casting, has remained pretty much the same. Some, or all, of that may change if 3D printing and robots arrive on the scene to deliver on the promise they show in research laboratories and experimental projects around the world.

We have been hearing of the use of 3D printing, automation, and robots in construction for some years now. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich unveiled a brick-laying robot in 2015. The Eindhoven University of Technology showed off a 3D concrete printer the same year. At DARPA Robotics Challenge, humanoid robots used power tools to try and complete certain tasks. There are a few commercial players in the U.S., China, and some other countries, who employ the use of robots and 3D printing for brick-laying, and for building prefabricated walls, roofs, and floors.

All these researches and experiments aim for the same thing – to make construction safer, cheaper, faster, and more creative. The market for this technology, while still very small, is gaining ground in some developed countries. Dubai, in fact, has set a target for 25 percent of buildings to be 3D-printed by 2030. Although 3D printing technology still has a long way to go before it becomes commercially viable, it provides food for thought to architects and engineers, who can now re-examine the relationship of a building with its people and its environment. For, 3D printing allows a home to be customized to its local environment, using the available resources more efficiently.

Is this the future of housing construction for nations plagued by the severe shortage of quality, sustainable and economical housing for its vast populations? India, for example, may not be the first adopters of newer construction technologies, but the industry has come a long way in its design and delivery of homes. National developers, especially, are beginning to incorporate these newer technologies – not just limited to smart features in homes, but also in manufacturing techniques like prefab and 3D prefab today and perhaps 3D printing within the next decade. While the successful integration of technology would likely ultimately bring down costs for consumers – not just in the design and build phase, but also in operating and maintaining spaces through smart home technology. Notwithstanding the significant environmental and cost benefits, these techniques will likely have a significant impact on a country where mass housing is the need of the hour.

There are other benefits too. 3D printing requires less material for making structural components, as compared to concrete-forming techniques. And whereas curved concrete structures that are poured into forms are solid, those made using 3D printing can be hollow, if needed. It can also create useful gradients, such as reducing wall thickness from the bottom of a wall toward the top. 3D printing also promises reduced spends and faster delivery than traditional manufacturing units. What’s remarkable is that a 3D-printing robot can produce a building that’s completely in tune with its environmental factors such as soil moisture, temperature, wind direction and radiation levels.

As with any promising technology in its early stages, 3D printing faces its own unique set of challenges. For one, a lot of research projects that involve digital construction often don’t work on an architectural scale. And if they do, they usually either use a process that cannot be easily integrated into a construction site, or materials and process that cannot be easily code-certified. Also, quality control represents a major challenge; to be viable, any printed building technique will need systems that constantly monitor and inspect the materials as they are being produced. These are critical areas, which must be addressed for 3D printing to harbour any hopes of breaking into very slow and very conservative construction industry.

At present, it may be far-stretched to seriously believe that 3D printing could ever completely replace traditional construction techniques or relegate construction firms to irrelevance. But there is no doubt that, we will see some fascinating experiments and developments along the way. So, regardless of what direction 3D printing takes, the roleplay of automation in the future of the construction industry will make for an interesting story – the kind that deserves front-row viewing.

The key to real estate regulation lies in the execution

The much-discussed Real Estate Regulation and Development Act, 2016 (RERA) came into effect in May 2017. And while it has had some teething problems, there is no doubt that this new regulation will bringing transparency and accountability into the real estate sector – something that consumers as well as responsible real estate developers will welcome. For far too long, consumers have viewed the real estate sector through a cloud of mistrust. To be fair, their apprehension isn’t wholly without reason. Delayed projects, overpricing, and ambiguous project specifications in the past have left homebuyers feeling frustrated and helpless. Ethical real estate developers are therefore as excited about RERA as homebuyers, because it will help reinstate consumer faith in the industry.

Why is RERA necessary?

Homebuyers invest a huge part of their life earnings in buying property. They are therefore entitled to be aware of all relevant details such as carpet area, car parking facilities, floor plan, and fixtures, and to be informed of changes to any of these elements during the project’s construction. RERA puts an end to the possibility of ambiguity in this matter – among many others – and tilts the balance of power in favour of the consumer.

For instance, by mandating that developers disclose and update project details on the State RERA website (failure of which will attract a penalty of up to 10 percent of the project cost), RERA ensures that there are no unnecessary delays in delivery.

Similarly, by prohibiting developers to advertise, sell, or invest in projects without a RERA registration, RERA weeds out unscrupulous builders who could otherwise use loopholes to sell projects to investors without approval of plans – a situation that might lead to litigations later.

The institution of RERA thus holds the promise of organised growth for the sector and unprecedented levels of reassurance and clarity for homebuyers.

Inconsistent and inadequate implementation could undermine all the good intentions

Despite all this, there remains a certain amount of scepticism about how RERA will be implemented. The main problem arises from the fact that there will be different regulatory bodies in different areas as land is governed individually by the State or Union Territories. And even though all States and Union Territories were supposed to have notified their RERA rules by 31st July 2017, some of the twenty-nine States failed to meet this deadline. Moreover, many States have diluted certain aspects of the Act, while some others have not placed due emphasis on its provisions in their rules. These include important areas such as definitions of ongoing projects, penalties for non-compliance with RERA, payment schedule, and liability in case of structural defects.

Self-regulation: A lesson worth learning from the mutual fund industry

The key to the success of RERA lies in its implementation. It may be worthwhile to learn some valuable lessons from the mutual fund industry in India, which, to protect the interest of retail investors, established a self-regulatory trade body called the Association of Mutual Funds in India (AMFI) in 1995 after the capital market regulator – the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) – allowed the entry of private sector mutual funds in 1993.

AMFI operates as a representative of the industry and conducts regular investor education initiatives. Not only that, it has been instrumental in mandating registration for financial intermediaries, and establishing a code of conduct and an appropriate fee structure for distributors. And in recent times, AMFI has played an active part in the introduction of SEBI Investment Advisors Regulations.

The real estate industry regulator would do well to take a leaf out of the mutual fund industry’s book, and establish an organisation for developers that would be self-regulatory in nature. Like AMFI, this organisation could play the important role of establishing a code of conduct for real estate intermediaries. Furthermore, it could mandate a minimum standard of certification registration under RERA, and introduce a standard of professional ethics in the real estate business.

The real estate sector will benefit from recently introduced regulations and policy interventions

India’s real estate has, in recent times, experienced what can be described as a ‘reboot’. First, the demonetisation exercise undertaken in 2016 clamped down on cash transactions. Now, the implementation of RERA has lent further accountability to the sector. One now has the right to expect that the real estate will operate professionally under the aegis of an able regulator hereupon. These developments will brighten the outlook for the sector, and encourage many fence-sitters to become homeowners soon.