Geospatial and construction: When will the twain meet?

Geospatial and construction: When will the twain meet?


geospatial and constructionConstruction is big business and big business means big money. Considering the fact that cities are growing at a fast pace — 54% global population were in cities by 2014 and a growth rate of 1.84% per year till 2020 is predicted by WHO — the need is for the best planning and management technologies. But at times the needs of development become overpowering, overpowering enough to cut corners to save money and time.

An interesting story from CBS News is about the Millennium Tower in San Francisco, an up market building housing million dollar condominiums. It was found to be sinking and leaning — 17 inches and 14 inches towards the northwest. The reason — the tower is resting on sand and rubble of the 1906 earthquake 80 feet down and not on bedrock which is at 200 feet. Yet the plans were approved as the engineers estimated a sinking of 4 to 5 inches over 100 years. The city supervisor’s summing up is classic: “Everybody is afraid to tell the truth. Because if we get to the bottom of this, they are worried that it is going to, in some ways, slow down the building boom that is happening in San Francisco.”

A contrasting story is that of Boulder, Colorado which appeared in the November issue of National Geographic as a part of its article on ‘Happiest Places’. Decades ago, the narrative goes, the City Council decided to allow high rises downtown, but the citizens objected as this would block the view of the mountains and successfully overturned the decision. This and many other people friendly decisions, like bicycle paths makes for happy lives of its citizens.

Sensible use of Geospatial

Which brings up the topic of sensible use of geospatial technologies in the construction industry. It is of concern that such a big industry has the lowest investment in R&D as well as the lowest growth rate. Technologies like BIM have collaborated with geospatial to provide added value to construction planning and execution. Now, a building can be visualized in the context of its environment and analysis of the impact of the building on topics such as water supply, sewerage, parking, vehicle load and even the quality of life can be assessed even before a single shovel of earth is turned. Today these are further augmented through technologies like reality mesh and augmented reality. In fact, technologies like Hololens from Microsoft can allow multi-agent collaboration in a augmented reality environment.

Now imagine how these technologies could help in the two examples quoted above. While the Millennium Tower might not have had the benefit of these technologies then, future high rises can definitely learn from the Millennium Tower experience and make them safer and better while lowering costs. In the case of Boulder, AR, reality mesh and perhaps even Hololens could help the community and builders to come to an acceptable solution. I am reminded of the classic case of the alignment of the Richmond Parkway of Staten Island on which the community raised many objections. Landscape planner Ian McHarg, used the technique of map overlay to find the route that would have the least objection from the community. McHarg’s work would become the basis of the evolution of GIS, one of the key geospatial technologies. If a solution could be found with such a simple process imagine what could be done with the plethora of technologies we have today.

Oh, and by the way, the world’s three happiest countries are Costa Rica, Denmark and Singapore. The US, where Boulder is located, is not even in the top ten.