Where to From Here: Embracing technological change

Ceilidh Higgins , 15 June 2016

Is architecture on the verge of the greatest change in centuries? Ceilidh Higgins looks to the future and predicts disruption of epic proportions. This is part of the ACA's Where to From Here series, which invites reflections on the recent ACA – SA State of the Profession research.  

2 - Ceilidh Higgins

The architectural profession could be sitting on the brink of the largest shift in how we practice since the Middle Ages and the time of the master builder. Alternatively, we could become totally irrelevant to anything except the boutique house. The scary thing is that much of our profession seems totally unaware this seismic shift could soon occur.

Architecture and construction are slow and inefficient. The world of 20th-century production and manufacturing still hasn't really made it to the building site and, in many ways, even to most architects’ offices. While architects use CAD or maybe even a building information modelling (BIM) software to document projects, the process and the output is most often still the same as it has been for hundreds of years – paper drawings and specifications. Even if printed as a PDF, the contractual deliverable does not really different much from paper. The biggest difference becomes the time frame of when it is received – via email or aconex, your client or builder gets the information straight away instead of two hours or even days from now.

Can we really expect that architecture can continue in this way? Last year, I wrote a blog post about the possibility of disruptive innovation in the construction industry – and the fact it is yet to happen within architecture and construction. More importantly, I pondered whether it could even come from within the industry itself. My own opinion is that it probably can't – for a number of reasons, but largely due to the cost and complexity of funding innovation at a scale that could impact beyond the single residence. An interesting suggestion was made in the online comments that perhaps the logistics industry would be a potential rainmaker in this space. What happens if Amazon decides to design, fabricate and build?

Knowing how architects think, I can guess many would expect that this wouldn’t affect their job. Won’t Amazon still need someone to design the prefab buildings? Maybe not. Maybe it won’t be Amazon but Google that takes your job. Last year’s hot online topic was: "Will a robot take my job?". You could take quizzes or enter your job title to determine if a robot would replace you. I decided to investigate how this applied to architecture more thoroughly. You might be aware of the increasing use of robots in manufacturing and even on construction sites. But could robots take the jobs of architects, designers and engineers? The answer is probably not, but that a computer probably will. 

BIM is just the tip of the technology iceberg. It has started out as architects modelling the designs, but what if information or data starts to drive the design itself? It's already happening – firms such as SHOP, Gehry Partners and many Australian architecture firms including PTW and BVN are using algorithms to generate design options. These can be based upon aesthetics or functional considerations such as optimising the use of materials or enhancing acoustics.  

Google has taken this further. Google Flux can design a building based upon all the applicable codes and standards. Move the site and the building morphs to suit the planning codes. The building has all the stairs, lifts, toilets and air conditioning. They are all optimised and code compliant. At this stage the buildings remain pretty blocky and ugly. This software isn't going to replace the design architect just yet. (Read more and see a video here) However, straight away it is going to significantly reduce the number of documenters. No more students drawing or modelling all those toilets, no more checking code compliance. So, why are our universities training 40% more architects than 15 years ago? It’s sure not due to industry demand. 

One of the main points of the research by the ACA – SA State of the Profession Survey is that traditional architecture fees are already shrinking. If fewer architects are needed to supply traditional architecture services, we need to look at ways we, as architects, benefit from the time and cost savings the technology can bring. We need to ensure that the benefits don’t flow elsewhere, and architecture doesn’t become a boutique handcrafted offering. We need to be the ones working with the machines. We also need to diversity our services and sell what we are best at, and what our clients actually value most – design.

Perhaps all those architecture graduates could help address the demand for design thinking. While there could be a good case for this (assuming it isn't just a fad), that means more architects need to work in the world of corporate big business. It is frequently acknowledged that business is not generally the strong point of architects. However, it’s not just our weakness in business, it’s also a reluctance for the profession to change at all. Anthony Bourke, one of the authors of the recent report Measuring Up: Innovation and the Value Add of Architecture , is paraphrased as saying that “one of the biggest criticisms of architects is that they identify too narrowly in their profession, and have a culturally stereotyped, stubborn image of what the role of the architect is.” (Interview with Louisa Wright)

This report identifies some of the ways our profession is already adding value to fields as diverse as manufacturing and tourism. As practitioners, we know that the true value of architecture and design cannot be measured in hours, so why do we charge that way? For architectural fees to increase, we need to look not only at what services we provide – a building is not always the best answer to our clients’ needs – but how we charge for our services. Value-based fees are an uncommon approach in architecture, but perhaps one that we should all be considering. 

For architecture to remain relevant, the first step is that we need to realise the profession has to change. We have to embrace business and technology and more multi-disciplinary collaborations. Architects often seem to think that architecture can change the world, but we can't do it on our own. We need someone to pay for it. Technology and data can help us to prove the value of good design that we, as architects, already instinctively know to be true. We have to be willing to work with technology for the best design outcomes and not to view architecture as artistic expression alone. However, we do need to value ourselves and the contribution that we make to a project.

I'd like to think there is a place in between the big egos and the competing race to the bottom on fees. But where do we find it? While I don't have all the answers, I am pretty sure we can't just keep doing things the way we always have and hope that will work. Technology won’t replace architects, but I’d like to think that technology will allow us to get rid of the drudgery of architecture and allow us to focus on the best parts of our jobs. It will allow us to realise the true value of design.

Ceilidh Higgins is an interior designer, GreenStar accredited professional and BIM specialist with a background in architecture. She is a Senior Associate at Daryl Jackson Robin Dyke Architects where she leads their interior design team delivering a range of project types from workplace to education to multi residential. Ceilidh's blog, The Midnight Lunch, discusses "collaboration on the practice of interior design, architecture and multi disciplinary consulting".

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