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AI and the construction industry

AI and the Construction Industry

The construction field may seem far removed from the abstract world of artificial intelligence (AI). After all, construction is about building physical things—not manipulating invisible elements in cyberspace. 

But the truth is, there’s much more to the construction industry than erecting buildings. There’s planning, designing, engineering, problem solving, cost estimating, risk assessment and communication, to name just a few essential activities. In all these areas, AI can provide helpful tools that increase productivity while minimizing errors and wasted time.

How to Use AI in the Construction Industry

How exactly does this emerging technology relate to the construction trade? For those of us not immersed in the world of AI, a definition is a good place to start … 

Britannica defines AI as “the ability of a digital computer or computer-controlled robot to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings.” Those tasks generally fall into one or more of five categories: learning, reasoning, problem solving, perception, and using language.      

That last category is best exemplified by the emergence of chatbots—programs that simulate human conversation. We encounter them routinely when we contact a customer service portal and hear—or read—the words, “How can I help you today?” 

The technology took a large leap forward with the launch of ChatGPT by OpenAI in November 2022. (ChatGPT is short for Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer.) This AI language model was “trained” with the input of text-based data—570 gigabytes in all—that included articles, books, website copy and social media posts. As a result, it can “converse” in a way that users might not mistake as human, but rather resembles “a friendly and intelligent robot.” Google responded to the emergence of ChatGPT with its own program, Bard, which incorporates many of the same features, but goes a step further by allowing Bard access to the live Internet. 

These programs respond to “prompts,” which are word formulations (otherwise known as questions) designed to get a precise response. Prompt engineering, the art of forming effective prompts, is fast becoming a highly useful skill, because the better you are at asking the questions, the better the answers you can get. 

For example, asking ChatGPT a poorly engineered prompt like, “What is the price of concrete in Tulsa, Oklahoma?” would elicit a long, polite answer that basically means “I don’t know:”

I’m sorry, but I don’t have access to real-time or location-specific pricing information, and my knowledge only goes up until September 2021. The price of concrete can vary widely depending on factors such as the type of concrete, the quantity needed, the supplier, and market conditions. To get an accurate and up-to-date price for concrete in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I recommend contacting local concrete suppliers or contractors in the area for quotes. They will be able to provide you with the most current pricing information based on your specific project requirements.

On the other hand, a better question would be, “What are some alternatives to safety glass?” This prompt is better because it is specific, but doesn’t rely on real-time information that can fluctuate daily. It elicits this very thorough response—in about a second:

Safety glass is designed to reduce the risk of injury when it breaks by shattering into small, less dangerous pieces rather than sharp shards. There are several alternatives to safety glass, each with its own unique properties and applications:

  1. Laminated Glass:
    • Laminated glass consists of two or more layers of glass bonded together with a layer of clear plastic (usually polyvinyl butyral or PVB) in between.
    • When laminated glass breaks, the plastic layer holds the broken pieces together, reducing the risk of injury.
    • Commonly used in windshields, skylights, and areas where security is a concern.
  2. Tempered Glass:
    • Tempered glass is heat-treated to increase its strength. When it breaks, it shatters into small, relatively harmless pieces.
    • Commonly used in shower enclosures, glass doors, and side windows of vehicles.
  3. Wired Glass:
    • Wired glass has a wire mesh embedded within it, which helps to hold the glass together when it breaks.
    • Often used in fire-rated doors and windows to provide fire resistance and safety.
  4. Polycarbonate:
    • Polycarbonate is a durable and impact-resistant plastic that can be used as an alternative to glass.
    • It is commonly used in safety goggles, face shields, riot shields, and some windows.
  5. Acrylic (Plexiglass):
    • Acrylic is another plastic alternative to glass that is less brittle and shatter-resistant.
    • It is used in applications where transparency and impact resistance are important, such as aquariums, signs, and aircraft windows.
  6. Polylactic Acid (PLA) or Polylactic Acid Glycol (PLAG):
    • PLA or PLAG films can be used as an alternative to glass in certain applications like greenhouse windows, storm windows, and protective barriers.
    • They offer transparency and some impact resistance.
  7. Glass Cladding:
    • In some cases, traditional glass can be made safer by adding safety films or coatings that hold the glass together when it breaks.
  8. Polymethyl Methacrylate (PMMA):
    • PMMA, also known as acrylic glass, is a transparent thermoplastic that can be used as a glass alternative in applications where transparency and impact resistance are required.
  9. Safety Film:
    • Safety films can be applied to regular glass to improve its shatter resistance. These films are designed to hold the glass together when it breaks.

The choice of alternative to safety glass depends on the specific requirements of the application, including factors like safety, impact resistance, transparency, and cost. Different materials are suitable for different situations, so it’s essential to select the one that best meets your needs.

Saving Time with AI

One way to view the practical use of AI is that it helps us think–especially about things that are time-consuming, complex, boring, or just unappealing. Most of us have an auto-correct feature for text messages on our cellphones; we schedule reminders for important events on our calendars; and we rely on virtual assistants such as Siri or Alexa to help us order our activities. These tools take care of tasks that would otherwise occupy big swaths of our time and attention. They free us to focus on more creative tasks—ones that require real human intelligence.   

AI is already helping construction firms in most of the areas that don’t involve actual physical labor (and robotic programs are even taking on some of that).

Builders can now access AI-driven computer programs that help with: 

  • Design Assistance
  • Project Planning
  • Cost Estimating
  • Risk Assessment
  • Supply Chain Optimization
  • Sustainability Integration
  • Client Communication (chatbots)

The benefits of AI for any industry, including construction are many:

  • Time savings
  • Higher productivity
  • Lower labor expenses
  • More data to work with
  • Better planning
  • Fewer mistakes
Female construction worker using phone

Want info pertinent to the construction industry? AI can help.

If you’re still skeptical about the usefulness of AI for the construction industry, you might pose a challenge to ChatGPT, as we did.  We texted, ““Can you give some examples of how ChatGPT can help people in the construction industry and provide a list of the five most useful prompts for this industry?”

That’s a pretty challenging two-part question. Most humans would probably have a hard time answering it cogently. 

Here’s the response we got:

Certainly! ChatGPT can be a valuable tool for individuals and professionals in the construction industry by providing information, assistance, and guidance in various ways. Here are some examples of how ChatGPT can help people in the construction industry:

  1. Project Planning and Design:
    • You can ask ChatGPT for ideas and best practices for architectural design.
    • Seek advice on optimizing space, layout, and functionality of construction projects.
    • Request assistance in creating project plans, timelines, and budgets.
  2. Material Selection and Sourcing:
    • Inquire about the best materials for specific construction projects or applications.
    • Ask for recommendations on sustainable or cost-effective materials.
    • Get information on suppliers and sources for construction materials.
  3. Safety and Compliance:
    • Seek guidance on safety protocols, OSHA regulations, and best practices.
    • Ask for advice on ensuring compliance with local building codes and permits.
    • Request tips on creating a safe working environment on construction sites.
  4. Construction Techniques and Methods:
    • Obtain insights into various construction techniques and methods.
    • Ask for tips on improving efficiency and reducing construction time.
    • Get advice on specialized construction tasks, such as foundation work or roofing.
  5. Problem Solving and Troubleshooting:
    • Describe construction-related challenges and seek solutions.
    • Ask for troubleshooting advice on common construction issues.
    • Request tips on managing unexpected problems on construction sites.

Now, here are five useful prompts for the construction industry:

  1. “Provide best practices for optimizing the layout and design of a residential construction project.”
  2. “Recommend sustainable and cost-effective materials for a green building project.”
  3. “Explain key safety considerations and compliance requirements for a commercial construction site.”
  4. “Describe efficient construction techniques for building a strong foundation for a new structure.”
  5. “Offer troubleshooting tips for resolving common issues encountered during concrete pouring on a construction site.”

These prompts can help you get started when seeking assistance or information related to the construction industry, but feel free to adapt them to your specific needs and projects. ChatGPT can provide valuable insights and guidance based on the information available up to its knowledge cutoff date in September 2021.

If you’re thinking that sounds a lot smarter and more thorough than any answer I’d get from a human! —you’re not alone. And it took about a second to receive it. 

On the flipside, ChatGPT also has helpful guidance on what doesn’t work. If you ask the question, “Can you give a few examples of construction industry prompts that are not designed to get the most out of ChatGPT?” you’ll get something like this:

Certainly! Here are a few examples of construction industry prompts that are not designed to get the most out of ChatGPT:

  1. Vague Requests:
    • “Tell me about construction.”
    • “What can you say about building houses?”
    • “Give me some information on construction materials.”

These prompts are too broad and lack specific details, making it difficult for ChatGPT to provide valuable information.

  1. Overly Technical Queries:
    • “Explain the geotechnical properties of expansive clay soils in construction.”
    • “Discuss the application of BIM in lean construction management strategies.”

While technical questions are valid, overly complex or specialized queries may exceed ChatGPT’s ability to provide accurate and detailed responses.

  1. Long Lists of Specific Questions:
    • “List the top 50 construction equipment brands, their features, and prices.”
    • “Give me a comprehensive guide on construction safety regulations, best practices, and case studies.”

Such extensive lists of questions are likely to result in incomplete or overly brief answers due to the complexity and volume of information requested.

  1. Incomplete or Ambiguous Requests:
    • “I need help with my construction project. Tell me what to do.”
    • “Explain construction management.”

These prompts lack context and specificity, making it challenging for ChatGPT to provide relevant guidance.

  1. Personal Opinions or Subjective Queries:
    • “What is the best construction technique?”
    • “In your opinion, what’s the future of construction?”

These prompts seek subjective opinions, which may not align with ChatGPT’s capabilities, as it aims to provide objective and factual information.

  1. Unrealistic or Infeasible Requests:
    • “Design a sustainable skyscraper for me.”
    • “Calculate the exact cost of building a dream house without knowing any details.”

Such prompts require extensive expertise and specific project details that cannot be provided without thorough analysis.

To get the most out of ChatGPT for construction-related queries, it’s essential to frame questions that are clear, specific, and within the scope of the model’s general knowledge and capabilities

(You might be thinking, If only my high school algebra teacher had explained things this clearly!) 

Needless to say, it’s impractical to rely on AI for everything. Moral questions, judgment calls, questions about the future—these you’ll have to handle yourself. And beware of “AI hallucinations,” which are responses that don’t really make sense or are just plain untrue. They often  occur in response to prompts that are unclear, incorrect or unintelligible. But sometimes they just happen. 

Like humans, AI is fallible! There is a notorious case of an attorney who cited several cases as precedents in a lawsuit for his client. But it was soon revealed that the cases were nonexistent, and he confessed to using ChatGPT for his research. That didn’t sit well with the presiding  judge. 

Like all information-based resources, It’s important to verify the accuracy of any information conveyed by AI. But if you’re in the construction industry, your colleagues and competitors are likely already using AI to save time and streamline their processes. You should too.

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