What is Architectural Technology? How Technology is Changing the Industry
Professionals in the AEC industry are well aware of the issues that grapple the built environment. That the construction industry is the largest consumer of materials and is responsible for 40% of all carbon emissions is a commonplace fact. Construction work is also a large waste generator and could greatly benefit from circular design principles. Almost three-quarters of all construction projects tend to be over budget, and nearly half of the spending on buildings goes into the overheads. In a fast-paced world with multi-faceted challenges, technology, and digitization seek to deliver significant solutions.
The construction industry has notoriously been slow to adapt to the wave of digitization spreading across various fields. In 2015, McKinsey’s published their digitization index and placed the design and construction industry at the bottom in the progress toward digitization. The workforce in the construction sector is aging, an increase in project demand and complexity are growing, and employee productivity is falling. Even as reluctance and uncertainty plague the industry, a digital push is intensifying.
What is Architectural Technology?
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Recognizing the criticality of harnessing technology in the digital age, architectural technology has emerged as a field of study that examines how technology and design interact. The relatively new discipline deals with the anatomy and physiology of buildings and of their production and performance. At the intersection of design, engineering, and science, architectural technology seeks to automate and augment the design process to quicken construction, support management, and ensure high-performance of materials, systems, and structures. The digitalization of the architectural process relates to production, performance, environmental sustainability, and economic efficiency.
Architectural technology is a vast discipline in itself. At present, innovations like Building Information Modelling (BIM), computational design, robotic fabrication, building performance analysis, and artificial intelligence dominate the discipline. Several topics of research are underway, exploring a future where technology is inherent to the design process.
The use of technology to achieve complexity in architectural forms, improve professional collaboration, and use cost-effective design approaches are notable advantages. Future applications will increasingly need to handle large amounts of complex data, predict design models, account for regenerative systems, and blend augmented reality with the physical world.
“As technologies multiplied in number and complexity, the building profession started to fragment”, writes Stephen Emmitt, pointing to the inception of the new discipline in his book Architectural Technology: Research and Practice. Emmitt elaborates on the relationship between design and technology, tracing it back to the Industrial Revolution. The invention of building materials like steel and reinforced concrete as well as mechanical accessories like elevators sparked the influence of technology in 21st-century architecture.
Some practitioners date the birth of architectural technology to the time of Vitruvius’ theories on the topic. His classification of building typologies, styles, materials, and construction techniques had a significant impact on the development of numerous disciplines, including civil engineering, structural engineering, architectural technology, and other practices.
Brick, stone, timber, and steel were the main building materials utilized until the turn of the twentieth century. Construction methods relied on manual labor, less sophisticated tools, and regionally obtained materials. Modern building techniques are far more intricate, with the walls, floors, and roofs of a building made of numerous components and layers. As architecture methodologies advance, a shift towards designing with technology is vital.
Technology is Changing the Architecture Industry
Technology is radically changing the AEC industry as we know it. The data-driven design has enabled buildings to be built to implement user- and contextual data to efficiently achieve performance metrics. This approach allows for structures to be constructed more effectively, decisions to be made more quickly, and residents to be made more comfortable. Data forms the backbone of WeWork’s design process. Decisions about sites of new buildings, proximity to amenities, construction sequence, and interior design are guided by acquired information.
Further, traditional architectural business models, delivery methods, and systems of communication have been oriented toward meeting specific requirements and outdated deliverables. As a result, architectural services face difficulty in scalability while maintaining quality and project timelines. Technologies like BIM and visualization tools have become standard practice in the industry. Rather than fundamentally altering the design process, they have gradually enhanced the current design services and business models.
While thousands of new business models are possible, currently the industry is noticing a significance in ventures focused on providing buildings as on-demand products – like Blockable and Wikihouse, bringing end-to-end construction processes – like WeWork and Katerra, and creating a knowledge market for the AEC industry – like Hypar and BuildX.
Technology is also democratizing design, making it accessible to wider audiences. By automating and augmenting traditional tasks in the design process, operating costs go down thus allowing design services to become more affordable. In the future, citizens may have the power to influence design and city planning through user data, reversing the top-down model many cities are built on.
Technology is altering not just the architecture industry but the role of an architect. Practitioners who were otherwise occupied with design, drafting, and detailing are more engaged in building performance, production, and processes. Architectural technologists possess a specialist understanding that underpins the design of buildings, relating to both the process and the final product. They seamlessly merge efforts between the design and engineering worlds, advocating for holistic thinking and bridging conceptual ideas with design execution.
Technology demands new skills that cross over multiple disciplines such as data analysis, coding, and visualization. The role of the architect becomes broader, allowing them to easily collaborate with supporting industries. Data and performance coexist with intuition and creativity in the design process, owing to technologies. Digitization helps optimize traditional workflows by automating repetitive tasks and breaking down tasks into highly specialized expertise. The design thus becomes involved at every stage of the building lifecycle rather than just the beginning.
As digitization revs, the industry is headed to a future where performance data on every building is available, professional knowledge is open-source and encoded, and design operates on interoperable platforms. The people who inhabit the built environment will have more authority in influencing building designs. As a result, designers will need to become more proactive and use a critical eye to ensure that architecture and design remain honest to its principles. The architecture industry’s next major challenge is ensuring that disruptive technologies will enable the creation of places and spaces for the public good.