The Future of Construction: How AI is Transforming the Industry

Is construction ready for AI? Is AI ready for construction? I have no idea. There is a gigantic gap between people like me (technology optimists) who think AI will have many use cases in our outdated industry and the construction veterans hoping to make it to retirement before they need to adopt any AI tools.

As AI continues to improve and mature, I believe it will reshape the way we approach construction projects, from design and planning to execution and maintenance. Here are some of my thoughts on where I see transformation happening and some of the mindset shifts that would need to happen along the way.

Use #1 - Querying Existing Data

Construction companies are sitting on a ton of data. Most companies I've talked to have a server that is a version of a folder or file structure split up by projects products and employees. There are pdfs of construction plans, submittals, quotes. Separately there are emails, text messages, phone calls, and dozens of other potential sources of construction data.

Today, this data lives isolated and siloed. Need the submittal for the fans for the school project you've been working on? Locate your projects folder, find the manufacturer, find the submittal, open it and review its approved status. Make a Todo of the next task you need to complete.

In the future, this will be a single query to your AI platform "is the submittal for the school project we're working on approved". The AI systems will use RAG processes to pull context from all your data sources and provide a natural response:

"A submittal has been generated by Brian in your office, but it has not been approved by the engineer yet. You emailed the submittal to the contractor one week ago, would you like to follow up on the status?"

It is hard to explain how powerful connecting all these data sources will be. It will create a Jarvis-like experience: "Do we have enough money to purchase new computers for our employees this month?".

Queries like this, with enough existing data, will be responded to intelligently, faster than any employee ever could.

Use #2 - Generating New Data

Generative AI will also disrupt construction. Every document and data source we just mentioned is typically manually created in construction. As a salesperson and mechanical engineer I would manually create equipment schedules, budgets, submittals, quotations, and less obvious data sources like writing all of my own emails.

Other construction professionals like MEP firms do this on an even grander scale manually generating (with the help of tools) complicated construction plans and specifications.

Many of these data sets will be generated using niche construction models, like how LLMs generate language today. Ingesting millions of sets of mechanical drawings will help generative AI "predict" construction document variables and help generate designs more quickly.

There is lots of low hanging fruit to tackle before we see generative construction plans:

  • Taking emails from engineers and extracting data to auto-populate forms
  • Using OCR on construction plans to generate material lists
  • Summarizing project RFIs and change orders into digestible updates

AI will help with this type of generation first (generating form data) and in the future be able to help generate construction's more complicated models.

Use #3 - Learning

I've often heard rumblings about the brain drain in construction as the most experienced professionals retire and aren't replaced by the younger generations.

This problem extends beyond knowledge workers to labor and installers as well.

I don't think AI will replace these humans in the coming years, but it can replace a lot of the lost "knowledge" in the form of construction knowledge bases more easily queryable.

My first days in the industry were spent reading equipment installation manuals and learning how to interpret plans and specifications. I bothered many of my extremely patient colleagues for their insights constantly. I wish I could have asked AI questions like:

"What is the difference between hot gas reheat and hot gas bypass?"

...when those words didn't mean anything to me.

I think AI will help the newest employees make up that gap of knowledge lost as experienced construction workers retire and aren't replaced. We will have "Khan Academy" style AI bots for construction workers, from engineering students all the way through to retirees.

Construction AI: A Gradual Progression

I expect adoption of AI in construction will be a gradual process, similar to the development of full self-driving (FSD) technology in the automotive industry:

FSD LevelFSD DescriptionConstruction AI Description
0No automationNo AI assistance
1Driver assistance for steering or acceleration/decelerationBasic AI-assisted tasks
2Partial automation - system has combined automated functionsPartial AI Assisted Systems
3Conditional automation - can perform most driving tasks but human override requiredAI handles most tasks, human oversight needed
4High automation - fully autonomous in limited conditionsAI fully autonomous in specific conditions
5Full automation - driverless operation in all conditionsAI fully autonomous in all conditions

Construction AI will progress through various levels of autonomy, dependent on the level of human involvement required. Currently, AI tools in construction can be compared to level 2 or level 3 FSD systems, assisting humans in specific tasks but not yet capable of complete autonomy.

It may take years or even decades to achieve "level 5 construction autonomy," where AI can handle all aspects of a construction project independently. Keep your hand on the wheel and your eyes on the road.