Non-fungible tokens – or NFTs – have been around for a while, however their use remains untapped in the construction and architectural sector. Most people will have heard of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ethereum, as they continue to grow in popularity and dominate both tech and financial headlines. Not so many people will know about NFTs.

You could create an NFT from a tweet, an email, a photo on Instagram, or buy a virtual cat as an NFT. The NFT is unique and effectively acts as a smart contract where an address account can own a piece of digital information. This is equivalent to the legal ownership of an artefact.

In the past year, NFTs have been adopted widely by more traditional artists and creatives, who have no care for the inner workings of the blockchain, but have seen the potential it may have for individuals and the wider sector. New marketplaces have been created to allow artists to access and engage with audiences directly, and in some cases enable artists, potentially on the fringes, to have a voice and platform, and much more importantly, to get compensated fairly for their work.

So, what else could be an NFT? Your degree certificate, your right to benefits, or to vote can be represented with a non-transferable NFT, while your 3D masterpiece animation can be represented with a transferable NFT. The economic boom around NFTs has created a lot of uncertainty in this space as people try to grasp the boundaries for the technology and the immutable nature of NFTs.

While this is true for any emerging technology, NFTs have provided the first wide-use case for blockchains with the potential to introduce the technology into everyone’s life, rather than just being for cryptocurrency investors.

Digital blockchain. Supplied/Robert Gordon University

Just as there’s been a lot of excitement using technology to sell digital art, our research project has shown that NFTs can be used to accurately record a building’s design and build. This is significant because the NFTs could be used to provide high quality design documentation to aid the whole lifecycle of a building’s design, from the planning process to the construction contract and final, overall build.

The information could be shared with other architects and best practice replicated elsewhere. In turn, this could improve efficiency and reduce carbon emissions across the sector. The digital documentation could also be used as legal proof of ownership of a building, or within the architectural design, of a particular design solution.

One can imagine global smart contracts that act as registries of ownership of buildings, where complex transactions are simplified by simple transfer of digital tokens between accounts via a blockchain. The blockchain technology could produce an error-free way of building and monitoring contracts.

Embracing new technology such as our blockchain system, is a chance to improve productivity across the construction industry. There’s a growing trend for homes and offices to be built in warehouses with parts clipped together like LEGO. This requires an increase in accuracy and robustness in design data documentation.

These mechanisms radically change the game. A building can be financed in completely new and transparent ways, but also designed and produced by a decentralised group of individuals who can now collaborate from anywhere in the world to create scalable digital designs that can help them better plan their projects all thanks to creative implementations of this exciting technology.

Dr Theo Dounas is leading a research team at Robert Gordon University’s Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and Built Environment, which is presenting its “groundbreaking” project, Archchain, at the EU Blockchain Observatory & Forum today.