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engineering and technology

Doctoral thesis: modern construction technology is unsustainable

Photo credit: Zuzana Kacerová/Unsplash
Photo credit: Zuzana Kacerová/Unsplash
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Modern construction technology is unsustainable – it pollutes the environment in many ways, becomes increasingly inaccessible to people and future users of the building often have no say in the construction process, concluded Christina Priavolou in her doctoral thesis.

This issue has become particularly topical in the context of declining resources, increasing environmental pollution, increasing urbanisation, population growth as well as the worsening of global inequalities. As our common goal is to move towards climate neutrality, changes must also take place in construction technology and the construction sector in general.

Priavolou, who has lived most of her life in the mountainous region of northwestern Greece, remembers that it was not long ago that people, despite their scarce resources and only with the help of their skills, strength and loved ones, were able to build a family home. Priavolou’s grandparents were no exception.

Durable houses were erected in the villages, which took into account both environmental and cultural peculiarities, although people did not have much money or construction knowledge other than observing existing construction works and using their own improvisation skills.

New sustainable traditions are needed

During her civil engineering studies at the university, Priavolou realised the unsustainability of today’s construction technologies and production methods (i.e. they are costly, polluting, do not take into account the environment, cultural background nor, as is often the case, people’s real wishes and needs). She was skeptical about the activities of large companies, which were dominated by construction activities, but which did not provide for any involvement of future users in the construction process. She also turned her attention to sustainable construction methods.

In her doctoral thesis, Priavolou proposes the concept of human dimension technology as a possible solution, which could become the basis for sustainable practices in the construction sector in the future. This means that construction is carried out autonomously and in a decentralised way, guided, among other things, by national and heritage practices that provide valuable lessons.

It is in view of the emergence of a new real estate crisis that this thesis illustrates how an alternative or human dimension technology could look compared to the technology that has become traditional (but is, among other things, also polluting).

On-site production is needed

As an alternative to traditional construction practices, a model called ‘Design Global, Manufacture Local’ (DGML) is currently being tested, with an emphasis on sharing and solidarity.

Based on the DGML model, the author introduces the concept of Open Construction Systems (OCS), which uses the principle of human dimension technology.

What does this mean? The aim of the OCS is to draw attention to the ecosystem around the building as well, taking into account the tools used to manage the life cycle of the building (such as equipment, information sources and legal aspects) and measures (such as community practices).

Both quantitative and qualitative methods have been used to analyse different aspects of the OCS, ranging from learning and openness to the technological and institutional potential of the OCS.

The main aim of the thesis is to highlight three intertwined aspects that enhance the human dimension potential of the OCS: modularity of design, sharing practices of digital and physical infrastructures, and the potential to adapt to local contexts. These aspects have been selected on the basis of an analysis of the human dimension technology matrix, which in turn is a normative framework, providing a way to assess the social, environmental and economic dimensions of technology development.

People should be able to shape their living environment

In order to increase the human dimension potential of the OCS, further research proposals are needed, in particular with regard to the improvement of building information modelling technology. In the pursuit of the human dimension, lessons should be learned from national and heritage practices that illustrate how the human dimension can work successfully in the construction industry. Creating an OCS framework can help revitalise national and heritage practices by encouraging people to take an active part in shaping their living environment. We need to understand that, in addition to the building, the ecosystem surrounding the building’s structure is also extremely important.

The author also hopes that her doctoral thesis will initiate discussions and experiments on the OCS among engineers and social scientists. However, the final research question posed by the author in the doctoral thesis is how the OCS can offer a more pleasant alternative to the conventional construction approach.

This article was originally published by Tallinn University of Technology.

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