8 things set to change the future of architecture
By Ballast Point director Mat Wilk
Fifty years ago, an architecture studio was likely to be a large office, mostly full of men — in Australia mostly white men – sitting at drafting tables with pencils and pens. Today, that’s not so much the case. But whilst most architects moved away from drafting tables more than 20 years ago, it’s only in the last few years that 3D drawings have become the default for even the smallest practice. It’s more economical than ever to produce set of 3D plans, although arguably more work when it comes to planning and dealing with consultants, councils and compliance. Sitting with big screen Macs, tablets and iPhones seamlessly integrated, working from home at times and sharing documents effortlessly with others in your team, it might seem like we are at the end of a digital transformation. But those in the industry who think the future has arrived may be in for a rude shock. In terms of a tech revolution, things are only just beginning in most industries, and architecture is neither special nor exempt from some major upheaval — if anything it is behind other industries. Here are eight things that I think will disrupt architecture over the next decade.
1. AI and machine learning
The first, and arguably most significant, change is the rise of artificial intelligence. Here’s a tip for you – if you find yourself in a room full of software engineers, don’t start a conversation about the future of AI – the discussion will be as heated as it will be inconclusive. Expect to hear anything from “it’s here now” to “it’s 100 years away”. I don’t think robots are going to make architects redundant anytime soon, but architecture is an art form that also involves a significant amount of data processing, and there is little doubt that AI will take on some of the basic algorithmic tasks undertaken by architects today. Here is one scenario – we input data such as the number of bedrooms, minimum sizes, the position of certain rooms, council constraints, services that can’t be moved, then the algorithm can run six billion options and choose 20 that fit the parameters to present to us. We can then choose one of these to refine, or adjust the parameters and run the program again. AI will also make menial tasks such as setting out a bathroom, including tiles and fittings, effortless with built-in design principles and settings. Humans will tweak what the algorithms produce and machine learning will then create the next design, based on what the human has changed in the last one. This will impact the way buildings are designed, filtering down to the smallest project.
2. Integration between architects, consultants, engineers and builders
Anyone who knows about the history of architecture knows that this was not always the case. In past centuries, the architect and the builder were one and the same. It’s pure speculation, but the division of labour seems to have occurred during the industrial revolution. There was a time not so long ago when architecture, measurement, engineering, quoting and project management was labour intensive. It required reams of A1 and A0 drawings being sent to the engineers for design, the quantity surveyor for measuring, and the builder for pricing. He then sent the drawings to subcontractors. Firstly, you don’t need to do that anymore, because all the data is embedded in the drawing. I can easily extract information, such as how many tiles will be needed for the bathroom, out of the 3D model. This eliminates several steps and makes it more efficient for the architect to integrate specification, measurement, selection and placement of orders into their tasks. In the future, there will be tools that make this even easier. Designers will be able to place orders within the design software. This is something that became apparent in our design and build business Ballast Point. When our designer selected the tiles, for example, he had already been in contact with the supplier and knew the quantity. It made sense for them to verify and place the order, rather than passing on the information to someone else from the construction team to do it. Not only does this make practical sense, it also eliminates mistakes along the way.
3. Integrated services for customers
The future might be an integration of construction, engineering, management, architecture, quantity, surveying and other services because of technological advances, but there is another reason why architecture and construction can be provided in one service. When Ballast Point stopped being a building company and became an integrated design and construction firm, we found the model worked for customers a lot better than we anticipated. I think this is because modern consumers are conditioned to buy things from one entity and prefer integrated services — if you think about it for a minute, it’s a real anomaly in society when someone needs to engage separate parties to deliver one product, which is usually the case in home design and build. When we buy a new car, we drive it out of the showroom complete. We don’t hire a car designer to create a supercar for a manufacturer to build. The same will apply to building design services in the future.
Looking at some building methods, particularly domestic and architectural construction, the way we’re building has changed little in 100 years (apart from the power tool and laser revolution). Some companies do better than others, but overall, the process is highly inefficient – particularly for custom architectural projects. In Australia, production has largely been on-site, but that’s changing quickly, particularly in multi-residential and commercial construction. It will also change in housing, and the industry as a whole. Prefab housing has been promised since the days Jorn Utzon was drawings the sails of the Sydney Opera House, and like flying cars has never really taken off. Prefab by its nature relies on volume for economies of scale and repetition, so is hard to adapt to bespoke projects and particularly renovations. Builders and designers have tried to modify prefab technology to bespoke and small projects, with limited success. The cost to produce shop drawings and the lead times make it prohibitive. Nonetheless, the days where a pack of timber, a brick pallet or a shipment of trusses arrives on your site are numbered, and there will be leaps in technology, with prefabricated lightweight panels in prefabricated sections. One of the problems that will be solved with the help of robotics is a quick turnaround. The reason we use timber and bricks is because it’s malleable; we can create any size wall and if the joining walls are out of square, we can adjust and commoditise the materials. It’s only a matter of time before technology solves the problem of measure, order and deliver, and we have overnight production with delivery in the morning.
Measurement has come a long way. We can now get a building to be square, level and plumb with the help of laser technology, whereas if you look at any house more than 80-years-old (and to be fair, some new ones), then it’s not a matter of “if” but “how much” it is out of square. The future is a system that allows us to scan and map quickly and with precision — whether it is to prepare a set of new drawings for a renovation or verify what is built. There are companies doing this now, but it’s not cost effective yet, and applicable only to large projects where the stakes are high, such as oil and gas pipelines and refineries. The future of measurement may be a drone flying over the site with the guidance of reference points. It will verify what’s there within millimetres, identify what’s out of plumb, what’s missing, what’s different to the plan. It will report back to the architect or builder (which have converged by this stage to one entity) in real time. This gives the architect the chance to either spot a problem that needs to be rectified, or adapt plans to the existing site. They can also execute orders, or adjust existing orders based on the site measurements.
6. Augmented reality site visualisation and quality
Since the beginning of bricklaying, I have no doubt that bricklayers have been laying bricks on the wrong side of the string line, and they’re still doing it today. I think technology will fix that problem and allow us to verify that what’s been built is in the right place. One of the big innovations in that space will be integrating existing buildings with precise measurements with the virtual reality and augmented reality, so we can see with precision what needs to be built and where it sits on-site. It’s only a matter of time until calibration allows us to do that.
7. Fast design and design sprints
Design sprints are a concept that software engineers came up with in Silicon Valley in the last 10 years. A team clears the calendar for a specific timeframe and takes something that is typically a long process and turns it around quickly, usually in five days. After taking part in a design sprint and studying this system of design, I believe there’s no reason why a building design is any different and why it should take six months to design something. With today’s technology, the time that we spend drawing and designing is actually quite minimal. This will be aided by AI to a large extent to cut down the variables. Zoom meetings have become mainstream. Architects don’t need to be physically in a location, they can also work on a project remotely. What this means is that what now takes six months will be done in 10 days, which is revolutionary. The cost of architecture can also decrease substantially. What’s more, the evidence suggests that condensing the time something takes to design should not lead to a worse outcome; if anything condensing the timeframe leads to better outcomes.
8. Remote working and the disruption of accreditation systems
It takes six years to train to be an architect, and architecture practices in Australia are protected by legislation and a regime of registration. But then again, so was the taxi industry until recently. It didn’t take long for the regulations and protection to unravel. The reality is that great architecture is not available to all people – it’s something exclusively provided to the upper and middle classes. If architects think what happened to taxis can’t happen to architecture, they are wrong. It is easier than ever to outsource design work and integrate professionals from overseas. Architects can provide services anywhere in the world using existing technology, and this will only be helped along with all the tech that’s yet to come. Architects may worry about falling standards, but that’s not what evidence suggests happens when industries are deregulated. Quality and service levels tend to rise. The architectural establishment can learn from the Uber experience and evolve to meet this coming market, or it can keep its head in the sand and pretend that things won’t change, possibly risking a similar fate to the taxi industry. There’s no doubt that the architectural industry is ripe for disruption. Some industries have been massively disrupted already, while those such as architecture ain’t seen nothing yet.