Technology Enables The Return Of The Master Architect

There is a perception in the construction industry that offsite manufacturing produces boring boxes. This perception has created a subliminal, sometimes primal, objection to the genre in terms of architectural form within the urban environment in particular. But is it real?

Buildings are for people and everyone is unique therefore all buildings should be unique. Verum ipsum factum! So, goes the myth. But of course, people are uniquely composed of standard parts and pieces. Genes have only 23 pairs, we have 206 bones and 79 organs, and these parts and pieces can be combined to form unique entities for 7 billion people on this planet which is estimated to have a capacity of 10 billion in order to sustain human life. Variety isn’t infinite, and neither are the planets resources.

The analogy goes further. The human body has a structure, a skin and a means of distributing energy. It takes in energy and produces waste. It can moderate its internal temperature thru its skin and it has a central brain that controls all functions. It takes in data sources like weather predictions and uses deploy-able systems, called clothes, to minimize the need for temperature moderation. This temperature data input was once a central data source (tv weather predictions) but is now local (smartphone).

Technology is now allowing the human body to have its temperature moderation via smart clothing materials that adjust their insulation value according to external temperature. Soon clothing will change volume as temperature variations between the body and the air vary. One over-layer will do for all seasons, the fashion industry is ready for this.

The amount of resource and technology that is being applied to the human body is truly staggering. Data gathering from wearable devices to ingested emitters will soon enable your Doctor to know you’re sick before you do. In the world of humans, data is king.

In the world of buildings things are running a little behind but for good reasons.

Humans have been around for around 65 million years but buildings only around 1/10000th of that. So, buildings have some catching up to do.

However, the first-time humans decided to build building their first instinct was to make them from standard components. They built Pyramids on the Giza plateau from standard sizes blocks and made standard shaped columns and beams in Luxor. It made sense because repetition ensures quality and consistency of materials and dimensions allowing creativity to come from the means by which they are assembled.

Today, we have reached a point in the evolution of building design in which we have many standard components. We have steel beams and columns which we can buy to standard sizes or even create our own sizes. These also vary by different quality of materials and the size standards relate to the country of use and so vary by nation. The choice is so great that we use software to analyze them and choose the section size that best meets the input criteria which is almost always weight and size. The data at the point of design for one steel element is inadequate because the designer doesn’t consider logistics or cost when the choice of section is made, that comes much later when a steel subcontractor comes into the picture. Then the cost, time and methods really become known and the RFI system creates a means to bring this new data into the decision-making process. The Egyptians’ pyramid designers would be incredulous at this point if they saw what we have done to their process. Steel is just one of hundreds of components for which we do much the same thing.

I often hear people ask how the Empire State Building was built in 13 months. Its 2.2M sq. ft and 1450 feet tall and yet in 2018 Salesforce Tower opened at 1070 feet tall and 1.4M sq. ft and yet took 5 years to build. The answer is repetition, standardization and simplicity.

In the 2018 world of buildings a tipping point has come caused by two things, pressure and opportunity which have created a perfect storm.

The pressure is for shelter for 7 billion people to live, work and play allied to a need to stretch the resources of the planet to increase the 10-billion-person capacity. This capacity problem created the sustainability movement. Tomorrows’ buildings have to be constructed at lower cost, faster and more reliably than today. The construction industry is highly inefficient, less than 50% of site labor hours go into productive work but at the same time labor to build in today’s traditional way is insufficient to meet demand.

On the other side of the equation comes the solution.

Automated building design, whether some form of modular or component-based system will allow significant percentages of buildings to be built by machines. This is not new as steel has been done this way for a long time and building structures were factory built in the 1960’s, but today there are signs everywhere of a rebirth in offsite manufacturing in the built environment.

At the same time technology now allows buildings to be assembled from components and then optimized for time, cost and whole life quality. This changes everything.

Optimization means we can run hundreds of thousands of simulations to determine the best solution against a criteria set we can determine. We can optimize for cost or speed or whole life performance or any combination thereof. We have the power to do this quickly and accurately and this was never before possible. We can also make buildings fit together. No more clash detection. The days of the hammer and the saw as the tools for fixing problems are gone.

Previously building in a factory meant large pieces arriving on site and then (hopefully!) they fitted together. The 1960s precast housing systems suffered water ingress failures because of this lack of fit but today we have live data feedback from site to factory and can ensure correct fit before components are shipped. Factory to site will be like farm to table or hand to glove, that moment of hoping it’s ok is over. We now know it fits.

So, what does this mean for creativity?

Technology is the friend of creativity. An architect today can take full control of the building process for the first time in hundreds of years. The Master Architect is back.

Architects can now design every piece of a building by selecting components engineered to fit together perfectly. They can design with known cost, method and schedule, they can test options and determine value as a balance of time, cost and quality for every single aspect. The architect can see every component in factory or site from their desk and so can know when changes can be made economically or not. Unleashing the power of creativity has never been easier.

But there’s also another layer to this. Data.

Now you know the position of every piece of a building in space, the performance of every component and the way humans use every space, architects can be what doctors are becoming. The day has arrived when architects can tell building owners how best to use their space and they can design based on how people prefer to use their space.

Buildings will also adapt based on the users. Power will shut down when people leave, doors will open when they arrive, shades will deploy when the solar gains cause overheating and vents will open to create nighttime passive cooling. Equipment will order its own maintenance and temperature; humidity and acceleration data will be gathered live all day every day. A building will know how it performed in an earthquake or a hurricane and will tell you. Insurers will use that data to price risk. The architect will be front and center in this world of data.

As the capability for all this is here:

-How are you preparing for a new tomorrow?

-Are your engineer’s data ready?

-Are you aware of how the changing building industry will affect you?

A world of new possibilities is arriving right now. My job is to help you get future ready.


Steve Burrows, CBE, PE, LEED-AP, is a Principal Consultant at Cameron MacAllister Group.  If you are interested in learning how Steve can help your firm, contact him directly at 415-302-3120 or via email.

Posted in