Innovation surrounds us constantly. As a product of that constant innovation, new trends emerge that can change an entire value chain seemingly overnight. Here, Phil Bernstein helps us understand the technological trends and disruptions in building design and construction that are setting the stage for a new, monumental era.
Looking ahead, how do you see technology changing the design process for architects in the coming years?
Now that building information modeling (BIM) has become mainstream, the AEC process is finally primed for real improvement through technology. The use of digital representation, once relegated to drawing generation and rendering, will become a part of every element of making buildings: design, construction and operation. In design, architects will leverage computers to generate new ideas through computation, evaluate the performance of their designs before they are built through simulation and analysis software, and collaborate with other designers who are also empowered by digital tools to solve problems and create more beautiful and practical solutions. The information they create will be transferred to builders who will increasingly rely on manufacturing techniques and automation on the project job site. The resulting buildings will be both physical and digital – architecture with digital nervous systems that control their operation and function. Information from the sensors in that system will collect data about how well that building is operating; which will return to the architects and engineers to use to improve the next building they design.
What are some of the specific challenges design professionals will face, and what do you think will be the biggest disruptor to the overall A/E/C industry going forward?
Two challenges, distinct but related, will face architects as the digitization of building accelerates. First, as buildings become technically and functionally more complex, and need to perform better, architects and builders will have little choice but to move closer together, collaborating to integrate the design and building process to get better results. Digital tools like modelers and analysis software – which both represent and evaluate the design – will be at the heart of this new relationship as we work together on a digital “prototype” of a building before beginning the physical process of construction of the project. Second, the business models of the industry are not compatible with the sorts of results that such high-performance building projects will demand. Clients have always had high expectations of buildings, assuming that they can be delivered at high quality, on time, and on budget. Digital capabilities will give architects and engineers a much better chance at understanding, predicting, and accomplishing these aims in the future, but the current models of delivery give them little or no financial incentive to do so. The entire industry is predicated on financial relationships measured only by lowest cost – low fees, low bids, and too many failures. The lowest first cost mentality optimizes just that, and the results are often not satisfactory. If we can align both the performative opportunities of digital design and construction with business arrangements that award performance (but not failure) the quality of the built environment will improve dramatically.
From your perspective, what can architects start doing today that will help them remain relevant in the digital future of tomorrow?
There was a time when that was an easy question … get your firm up and running on the latest BIM tools of your choosing. But in 2017, BIM has become “table stakes” for practice and most firms are already quite capable. So that suggests perhaps a two-pronged strategy for relevance in the digital age: first, find someone in your practice (if it’s not you) who can keep an eye on the developments in the field. There’s lots of stuff happening out there – cloud computation, augmented reality, 3D printing, machine learning to name a few – and they’re all coming at the industry at various rates of speed and maturity. Even though you might not decide to engage in any way with these things, its important to understand them so you can follow the second prong: thinking carefully and deeply about what your practice is really good at – better than anyone else – and how technology can help you accelerate your competitive advantage. William Gibson, the author, used to say, “The future is already here, it’s just not very well distributed.” Every firm has to decide what part of that future can truly help them to do their best work.
Written by Phillip G. Bernstein FAIA, RIBA, LEED ® AP