Accelerating Architecture’s Digital Revolution
Architecture’s digital revolution is well underway, and yet, still far from complete. Luke Christou finds out how architects’ ways of working are changing, and asks if tools such as augmented reality could one day see the same level of adoption as BIM or cloud computing
Some 39% architectural practices say they are still in the early stages of digital transformation according to Digital Transformation in Architecture, a joint report published by Microsoft and the Royal Institute of British Architects. That is compared to just 5% of firms that believe they are well on the way to completing their digital transformation journey and 0% that say they have reached their destination.
Some 70% of firms are already using building information modelling (BIM), to generate virtual representations of their buildings and designs, for example. Likewise, more than half of firms are also using social media (82%), collaboration tools (66%), cloud computing (59%) and mobile apps (56%).
Yet there is still plenty of potential to be unlocked. Immersive technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality, for example, are often tipped as the ‘next big thing’ in architecture due to their potential to bring 3D design concepts to life. Currently, 35% of firms are using these technologies and an additional 29% plan to invest in mixed reality within the next five years. However, 36% are uncertain that their use of immersive technologies will increase within the next five years.
Cost, for 69% of firms, is the biggest barrier to adoption. However, a lack of support from senior management (46%), an unwillingness to radically change operations (46%) and slow decision-making (44%) is also holding architecture back.
“Across the industry, its basic and common misconceptions that are hindering the adoption of technologies and a shift in mindset is needed,” Richard Hyams, founder of London-based firm astudio, believes. “Technology is often seen for its risks, rather than the beneficial applications that can enhance our design. Familiarity and better understanding of some of these tools will go a long way towards their wider integration into the industry.”
Coronavirus: Forcing firms out of their comfort zone
The Digital Transformation in Architecture study found that many were already seeing their way of working change as a result of technological advancements. Some 52% were already using technology to communicate with clients, while 29% expected remote communication to increase in the next five years. Interestingly, however, 17% did not expect technology to change the way they communicate with clients.
In recent months, those firms have had no choice but to rely on technology for communication as the coronavirus outbreak forced offices to close and limited travel both nationally and internationally.
“A digital revolution within the industry has been underway for quite some time, and while the sector has not been the fastest in adopting this change, it could be said Covid-19 has forced some architects out of their comfort zone,” Hyams says.
Many have struggled with this sudden change, with 30% reporting that they faced new communication difficulties according to a study carried out by RIBA.
“ A digital revolution within the industry has been underway for quite some time, and while the sector has not been the fastest in adopting this change, it could be said Covid-19 has forced some architects out of their comfort zone. ”
However, coronavirus has helped to accelerate “the industry’s adoption of technologies that enable projects to progress, even without face-to-face interaction,” Hyams says. “Positively, it has made many within the industry realise the efficiency, cost and quality implications of embracing these technologies.”
For astudio, the lockdown has highlighted the value of real-time rendering, which makes it easier for architects and clients to visualise and test their designs collaboratively and remotely. Using BIM software plugins such as Enscape, architects can render visuals in a matter of seconds that update instantly if changes are made to the CAD file.
The firm has also been testing a beta version of the Grasshopper plugin for Revit, which provides live time and cost analysis in line with every change made to the design.
“Information like this has the potential to be linked to the factory process and support scheduling, to deliver a project efficiently,” Hyams explains.
astudio created a 360-degree virtual environment for the Ebury Bridge Estate project that enables clients and residents to get a feel for the space before the project commences. Images courtesy of astudio.
Full-speed remote working
With architectural practices reporting reduced cash-flow (57%), increased business costs (11%), and unrecoverable outlays (10%) as a result of the pandemic, tools designed to improve efficiency and monitor cost could prove more valuable now than ever.
Remote collaboration, however, requires effective communication channels in order to be effective. For many, lockdown has allowed for the implementation and refinement of remote working, providing a base to further the implementation of technology.
“ Some meetings have actually improved, as we can’t avoid but be taken through a subject clearly. ”
For London-based firm Nissen Richards Studio, the lockdown period has allowed it to improve its remote practices, using video conferencing and collaboration softwares such as Zoom, Webex, Slack and Microsoft teams to maintain communication between both employees and clients.
“They have transformed meetings, in particular with our clients,” directors Pippa Nissen & Jim Richards say. “Some meetings have actually improved, as we can’t avoid but be taken through a subject clearly.”
A long-term impact
Governments will continue to ease lockdown measures, and firms will eventually return to the office when appropriate, necessary, and safe. However, coronavirus is likely to have a lasting impact on the way technology is used in the architecture industry moving forward.
“Recent conditions have encouraged the use of digital tools and hopefully helped to change mindsets, and in doing so substantiate a long-term positive impact on the industry as it starts to make progressive steps in an increasingly inter-connected world,” Hyams explains.
“ Recent conditions have encouraged the use of digital tools and hopefully helped to change mindsets. ”
Firms such as Nissen Richards Studio are already exploring how the technologies adopted during lockdown can assist the firm moving forward.
“We are really interested in how we can move this technology to our international work in particular - how we won’t travel so much for meetings, as we have proved with our clients that we can have really easy, useful and productive meetings, although remotely,” Nissen & Richards say.
The future of technology in architecture
The architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector has often been picked out as a digital laggard. In a recent survey of 200 industry decision-makers, 54% of those in the construction industry admitted that they had been slow to adopt digital technologies, while 49% of architects believe architecture is behind other construction professionals in adopting digital technologies.
However, architecture’s use of technology is improving. By 2023, 24% of firms expect to be using some form of artificial intelligence and machine learning, for example. AI technology offers plenty of potential in architecture, from valuable, long-term user testing, to its use in construction through robotics and 3D printing.
The use of smart digital assistants and Internet of Things will also see adoption increase considerably, climbing by 12% and 22% respectively. However, the biggest jump will be in the use of immersive technologies. Mixed, virtual and augmented reality use is set to climb by 29%, with 64% of firms expected to have adopted the technology by 2023 according to Microsoft and RIBA.
“ We are keen to think about how we can make use of virtual reality software more, with
programmes such as Unreal. ”
With the long-term impact the pandemic is set to have on international travel undetermined, this is a technology that Nissen Richards Studio will continue to explore moving forward:
“We are keen to think about how we can make use of virtual reality software more, with
programmes such as Unreal – where we can inhabit spaces in 3D, walk around, and test out ideas with clients, collaborators and wider teams,” the firm says.
“We are discussing buying the scanning software to enable us to do more remote working with clients at the initial stages – and how we might use virtual reality to lead clients through projects where it is more practical to work remotely rather than travel for meetings.”
Providing solutions to long-standing issues
Aside from seeing firms through the pandemic, technology is also helping to solve longer-standing issues, such as the “performance gap between design intent and a building’s fabrication,” Hyams says.
“Real-time testing of intelligent models, incorporating performance criteria would ensure that all information can be considered at the earliest stages possible, allowing the architect and design teams to ‘design out’ this gap.”
“ New design processes are quickly emerging as new generations enter the industry, so we expect this sophisticated software to continue to evolve. ”
astudio’s Ebury Bridge Estate project – a regeneration project to bring 750 new homes to the Westminster, London area – offers an example of this in practice. The firm has created a 360-degree virtual environment, accessible over the web, that allows clients and residents to visualise and test the space before the project commences. This, in turn, helps to ensure that the eventual outcome matches the initial intent.
“With a lot of new digital applications developing from gaming platforms, new design processes are quickly emerging as new generations enter the industry, so we expect this sophisticated software to continue to evolve,” Hyams believes.
Incorporating technology into designs
Aside from how technology is used to improve architectural practices, the industry must also consider how best to incorporate new technologies into their builds. The pandemic has altered what we want and expect from shared spaces, and technology offers potential solutions to these new concerns.
“Disease prevention will inevitably form a significant design factor in the construction of new buildings, especially in workspaces,” Marco Abdallah, head of engineering at Drees & Sommer UK, explains.
“ Smart buildings not only make lives easier for occupiers, they also make them safer. ”
Buildings are likely to become smarter as a result, with contactless technologies and increasingly sophisticated AI systems deployed to trigger features within the building.
Rather than manually controlling lighting using switches, for example, these systems would be able to detect when somebody enters or leaves a room and turn lights on and off accordingly. Not only will this help to improve the building’s efficiency and subsequently reduce its environmental impact, but it will also help to eliminate a number of high-contact points, including elevator buttons, taps and door handles, that cause germs to spread.
“Smart buildings not only make lives easier for occupiers, they also make them safer,” Abdallah says.