by Marc Margulies
Design of the built environment is changing radically for three fundamental reasons: improved technologies, improved products, and improved processes. These transformative drivers have revolutionized all facets of the construction industry and every aspect of how and what we build.
Gone are the days of delivering a set of drawings to a contractor who builds according to the plans and specifications. The distinction between design and delivery has progressively been dissolved. Contractors and subcontractors now participate in the design phase through a variety of delivery methods and contract types, including design-build, design-assist, and component-assist. Previously, architects and engineers illustrated their intent in 2D representation. Now, all design documents are in 3D, and most components are downloaded in 3D from product manufacturers, complete with parametric data on performance, maintenance programs, and infrastructure requirements. While this allows designers to take advantage of the detailed expertise of product manufacturers, it can also prejudice their selection based on the quality of the available downloads.
Through the collaboration of architects with contractors, subcontractors, and manufacturers, buildings and interiors can now be fully constructed virtually. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies can create immersive environments as convincing as those used in the gaming industry, blurring the lines between visualization and documentation.
Manipulation of scripted mathematical algorithms to autogenerate complex forms allows the exploration of every possible solution, not just the few that designers and contractors can sketch. Multiple schemes can be tested for appearance, fit, performance, and cost. Documentation is now dynamic, with the static sheet of drawings replaced by computers, iPads, headsets, and other electronic supports that permit builders to view, query, and coordinate such that conflict and waste can be eliminated.
Implications for architects include the expectation that subcontractor shop drawings will arrive electronically, prepared by those most knowledgeable about and responsible for their trade. The vastly more complex products and systems require expertise that no single source can provide, and collaborative technologies (BIM 360 and others) allow each professional to refine this marvelous building model in advance of beginning actual construction. Improvements in innovation, communication, cost control, risk reduction, and outcomes assurance will be momentous.
Modularity is increasingly sweeping aside field assembly. Traditionally, buildings are constructed piece by piece, brick by brick — regardless of rain, snow, or temperature. Would you buy a car built that way? Of course not; the quality would suffer too much. More and more of the components of a building are being delivered to the construction site ready for placement. These components range in size and complexity from light fixtures and unitized exterior building façades to whole buildings.
Improved technologies also facilitate CAD/CAM production directly from the design drawings. Sprinkler piping, for example, instead of being measured and cut in the field, can be shop fabricated to the precise dimensions and delivered to the exact intended location for installation. CNC machines, essentially robotic manufacturers, produce cabinetry ready for final assembly and require limited human intervention for production.
Modular housing is built in a factory efficiently and safely, delivered complete with finishes, appliances, plumbing fixtures, HVAC, and sprinklers fully tested to unequalled quality standards. Factories can actually sequence and assemble differently than what’s possible in the field, altering traditional responsibility-by-trade paradigms.
The use of mass customization is on the cusp of becoming routine practice. Why must all bricks be rectangular? Instead of using rectangular molds, what if molds could be easily and inexpensively created via software/robot interface such that bricks could be any shape we want? Materials will be 3D printed more often as printers and printable products evolve and designers discover more opportunities. Building mass was previously part of how material performance was measured; now lightweight, highly engineered assemblies and materials are crafted according to highly specialized characteristics at a nanotechnology level. Building integrated photovoltaic glazing (BIPV), which transforms entire surfaces of buildings into solar energy collectors, is an example of the highly integrated multidisciplinary nature of materials that now combine the characteristics of transparency, insulation, waterproofing, building protection, and electrical integration in ways that simpler materials never did.
By its very nature, the traditional model of design-bid-build tends to cultivate mistrust. Today, clients want to work with building teams focused on delivery of the best product for the best price. More innovative contract models, such as integrated project delivery (IPD), create a relationship where the owner, designer, and contractor are all legal clients of the project, sharing liability and reward. There are many other team formats — design-build or design-assist, for example — that establish relationships that are highly collaborative and mutually respectful. While the architect used to be the “master builder,” the ubiquity of the owner’s project manager (OPM) now means that traditional roles have been upended. Some companies will even assume responsibilities for everything from leasing of premises to delivery of furniture, IT, and AV in addition to design and construction. New FASB accounting rules dictate recognition of construction costs far earlier than previously done. The response by corporate tenants (who represent 50% of building users) has been to negotiate that building owners assume responsibility for design and construction through turnkey deals that further blur the lines of direct accountability. If the relationships between industry professionals are contractually different, altered processes must result.
Architects wonder about the future of the profession. The adoption of innovative technologies, incorporation of specialized products, and embrace of more-collaborative processes can either help the discipline flourish or relegate designers to the junior position of façade decorator. Creating unique, one-of-a-kind buildings can be inefficient, risky, and expensive, yet construction is one of the greatest and most noble creations of humankind. How will we choose to build in the future?
Marc Margulies, FAIA, LEED AP, is a principal and senior partner at Margulies Perruzzi, one of New England’s top architectural and interior design firms.