How is information technology changing the nature of architectural practice, and what does this mean for the future of the profession? These questions were addressed by a panel of experts in a round table discussion hosted by AT and Reynaers
In association with
Round Table Participants
Partner, D5 Architects
Associate, BIM Manager, Associated Architects
Information Management Partner, Simpson Haugh
Co-founder, partner, A-VR
Associate director and founder of computational research group, Zaha Hadid Architects
Senior architect, Glenn Howells Architects
Associate partner, Sheppard Robson
Associate, Arup Foresight
International Business Development Product Manager BIM & VR, Reynaers Aluminium
Senior architectural technician, BAM Design
Editor, Architecture Today
Over the last 20 years, technology has fundamentally changed the way architects design and procure building projects. Rapid developmental advances have heralded the arrival of game-changing design tools such as BIM (building information modelling), project management programmes, and more recently AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality), and machine learning. But how are these technological advances impacting on the architectural profession, the buildings that it designs, and its position within the construction industry? Equally importantly, how do architects view a future that places ever increasing importance on digitisation and big data?
How is technology affecting change in today’s architectural practices?
Discussion began with some consideration of the drivers behind, and affects of, technology in practice. Madeleine Dring of D5 Architects and David Simpson of Associated Architects agreed that their practices’ adoption of BIM had been a time-consuming and challenging exercise, but was now paying dividends, often in unexpected ways. “For us, VR started as an end product for showing the building to clients”, explained Dring. “But it’s quickly become a powerful design tool that can be used early on in the design process. Other cutting-edge uses for the technology are also emerging, now that we are comfortable in our ability to deliver co-ordinated buildings. Some local authorities and advanced manufacturing clients, for example, are seeing the benefits of our BIM projects in developing their own digital twins.”
Simpson concurred that the use of AR and VR as a front-end design tool, rather than a presentation device, had been one of the biggest ‘unseen’ benefits of investing in BIM technology. David Moyes of Simpson Haugh acknowledged that the transition to BIM had been more culturally challenging for senior practitioners than their junior counterparts across the industry. “Part I and Part II architects are particularly keen to maximise the digital design tools and learn from their contemporaries as to what they can and can’t do”, explained Moyes. “This is helping to streamline the design process and make efficiencies. Change in workflow has been the one of the real benefits of this technology so far.”
A negative impact identified by Moyes, Dring and Natalia Maximova of Sheppard Robson, was that BIM drawings often lack established architectural drafting conventions, making communication with contractors, clients and other professionals more difficult. “Digital tools only take you part of the way”, observed Moyes. “You need to be able to tell the software what the purpose of such drawing is.”
A somewhat radical view, expressed by Nils Fischer of Zaha Hadid Architects, was that drawings are things of the past.“Technology’s true potential lies in allowing architects to spend more time making design decisions and formulating information about built environments”, said the architect. “Technological information provided in real time is much more relevant to design quality than having a tool that improves the legibility of drawings.” There was a consensus among the participants that technology is and should continue to be used to reduce the time spent on laborious, time-consuming activities, such as door schedules, redistributing it to more important design-led tasks.
If technology is fundamentally changing the nature of architectural practice, will the profession remain viable and sustainable?
Moyes said that the role of the architect was already beginning to change due to the sheer quantity of data that now constitutes many building projects. His view was that the future success of the profession is dependent on architects’ ability to analyse multiple information streams and identify the relevant data quickly and efficiently. According to Simpson, it will become increasingly important to ‘ask the right questions’ when dealing with advanced technologies such as AI. “If you only ask generalist questions you are only going to get generalist answers. It’s knowing what is relevant to a particular location, situation, or social circumstance that will be critical.” Maximova agreed, suggesting that this was something that should be taught in architecture schools, alongside the operation of such technologies.
For Arup’s Alvise Simondetti, the challenge ahead lies with acquiring and managing data. He drew an analogy between airports and shopping centres, where the captured retail habits of travellers are fed into digital business models for the next generation of aviation buildings. Without access to this kind of data, architects could find that they are usurped by AI design and coordination programmes on complex building projects, warned the architect.
Fischer made the point that airports can also be viewed as cultural buildings, representative of national identity, and as such will continue to require an architect’s sensibility to accommodate the ‘human factor’. However, he conceded that that good algorithmic-based design tools could improve building types that currently receive little or no architectural input, such as generic, mass-produced housing.
A-VR’s VR drive-by model of Chiswick Curve in London, designed by Studio Egret West
Are technological advancements making architects’ narrative abilities more important and persuasive
One of the most exciting developments of the last 20 years, according to Felix Dodd of A-VR, is the development of AR and VR. Brought about by the emergence of increasingly powerful and agile datasets, VR has given architects and their clients the ability to ‘feel’ spaces – rather than interpret them from 2D or 3D drawings – for the first time. “We are finding that VR is providing enormous amounts of value in all sorts of unlikely areas”, said Dodd. “On a recent planning application, we were able to ‘put’ people into a vehicle – via a VR headset – and drive them down a stretch of motorway to experience the proposed building from this specifc point of view.”
Nina Timmermans of Reynaers agreed that VR is enabling architects to communicate the human, spatial and storytelling aspects of their designs in more subtle and inclusive ways than before. She added that Reynaers’ Avalon Virtual Reality Cave in Belgium is increasingly being used by architects to persuade clients and stakeholders of the viability of design solutions. As such, the software’s uses are extending far beyond prosaic functionality, such as clash detection.
AVALON, the Virtual Reality Cave at the Reynaers Campus in Belgium, lets users visit future buildings through a shared virtual reality experience. More information about the facility is available here
Simondetti bemoaned the current quality of architect’s VR experiences, including his own, compared to those being developed at the USC School of Cinematic Art and more widely within Hollywood’s movie industry. “Some people are very good at telling stories, particularly on the west coast of America. In a plausible future, clients could bypass architects, taking their ‘stories’ straight to engineers and contractors who will execute them.”
For Fischer it is VR’s potential to engage large project teams on complex international projects that excites. “The technology can facilitate ‘mutual intellectual buy-in’, allowing consultants in different countries to understand what is important about the project. It also allows design developments to be shared and investigated by the whole team simultaneously.” BAM Design’s Tabz Sajawal concurred that VR has the ability to galvanise project teams, providing a shared vision which each member can understand and work towards.
The round table discussion was hosted at the new Birmingham headquarters of aluminium windows, doors and curtain wall systems manufacturer Reynaers
Are emerging technologies creating unrealistic expectations for clients?
The participants agreed that design in the technological era is about using the right tool at the right time. “Project design is not a linear experience, it goes forwards and backwards, explained James Yeomans of Glenn Howells Architects. “VR along with other technologies can be used to control and guide the narrative; asking the appropriate questions at the right time. It’s about giving clients the best information to inform decision-making.”
The discussion returned to Simondetti’s earlier point regarding the lack of big data in the architectural industry. Many of the participants expect benefits from VR as a means of gaining information related to the user experience. Fischer observed that there is huge potential to study how people inhabit and respond to office spaces, resulting in valuable commercial information that can inform future design.
Dodd expressed concerns that highly data-driven design could eschew the nuances and chance discoveries that frquently enliven architectural experiences. Meanwhile, Dring and Moyes cautioned against the dangers of social engineering and the dilution of architectural creativity through over-reliance on datasets.
What aspects of technology are likely to be most beneficial to architects in the future?
Having expressed largely optimistic views on the impact of technology, the panellists each outlined what developments they were looking forward to in the coming years. Dring expressed a desire to see the benefits of technology applied to the building process, facilitating closer interaction between design and construction. Simondetti echoed this point, citing the importance of digital fabrication, and how architects should become conversant with this emerging technology in order to better advise their clients.
For Simpson and Maximova it was AI’s potential to validate the design process through the performance of multiple calculations. “AI can provide instant feedback, rather than waiting weeks for a consultant to respond”, enthused Simpson. “This will help us to develop theories and try out ideas much more quickly.” Dodd observed that tools such as VR are already highly evolved – thanks mainly to the gaming industry – and he expressed excitement at seeing how architects would choose to adopt them.
Several of the participants, including Fischer and Yeomans, highlighted how improved data handling and integration would give architects more time to design. In concluding, Timmermans urged architects to explore the full potential of new technologies as a means of driving future development and functionality.