Automating reuse in the construction industry

Combining circular principles and digital technologies

Flanders has a number of promising circular construction projects. However, the industry is static and engages in little cross-sector communication. This makes it difficult to make circular principles commonplace on a large scale. Additionally, the construction sector is not quick to adopt digital innovations. Yet, new digital methods such as BIM, blockchain technology, robotics, artificial intelligence, etc., can help dismantle buildings much faster, cheaper, and smarter than before.

Through this research project, Prof. Dr. De Wolf and her team aim to combine digital technologies with circular principles to automate data-driven decisions about material reuse. For instance, within the project, we worked with a digital platform that virtually represents buildings using real-time data throughout their life cycle. This data is useful for communicating with all stakeholders, from construction workers to architects.

We believe that a global implementation of a circular model in the construction sector has not yet been successful, but a fundamental shift is certainly possible at the local level

Key results

Key lessons learned

  1. We created an overview of existing scanning technologies and concluded that LIDAR scanning and 360-degree cameras provide sufficient detail and accuracy for scan-to-BIM operations.
  2. Within scan-to-BIM, we developed a methodology (for beam-column systems) that extends the scope of reconstructed elements. Structural elements will play an important role in large-scale reuse in the future.
  3. Through an umbrella project using reused materials from a demolished building, we applied certain innovative design algorithms in practice. It also provided dissemination, as the project received a lot of attention from the press and other universities.
  4. We tested a track-and-trace system with QR codes to link reused materials with their material passport.
  1. Communication is key for circular construction. However, more research is needed to connect the various actors in the construction sector and share information.
  2. Automation through data is progressing smoothly, but the method with robots is still in its infancy. Material passports will be easy to create in the future. Fully automating everything is more challenging.
  3. The legal aspect is still a major obstacle: no one wants to assume liability for a project with reused materials. It is difficult to find an engineering firm that can work with this.
  4. Computer vision is a promising sector for automating reuse. We will conduct further research on this.

What will the future bring?

In the Circular Engineering for Architecture Lab, we continue to research and test digital technologies on reuse projects in the construction sector. Thanks to this project, we also developed certain research questions around which two PhDs have now started: one on the use of blockchain technologies to manage material passports, and one on the use of computer vision to identify materials for reuse.

Catherine De Wolf

Partners ETH Zurich, UGent, Universiteit Antwerpen