5 major technological shifts that will make the future of architecture

robots
prospective
sensors
bim
parametric

(Sébastien Lucas / Future Architect) #1

We have organized since 2013, an event about Architecture, collaboration and technologies called Future Architecture Night. You can find all conferences in French in our dedicated Future Architecture 2015 site.

Future Architecture Night draws us to pay more attention to technological shifts in architecture. We actually found the changes quite impressive. It is not a secret that technology has accelerated at an incredible pace! Architecture is not an exception.

In this post, we will try to draw a general landscape of changes that will impact architecture in the next years and which have already started to be adopted by early adopters Architects.

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Architecture revolution follows technological changes

Architecture is a very old practice. Architects can mix in the same projects highly technical systems and traditional know-how. Architects often play in their project with technical changes, sometimes emphasizing the modernity, sometimes hiding it.

There are indeed the so-called “Hi-Tech” architects like Richard Rogers on one hand, and on the other hand architects who get inspiration from a traditional building tradition like Souto de Moura or Kengo Kuma.

But often traditional know-how is reinvented, and architects like Renzo Piano have produced masterpieces by combining traditional architecture with the most modern techniques like in Tjibaouo Cultural Center in Noumea.

Technical innovation was already at the root of 20th century modernity. The invention of concrete and metallic structures made possible modern architecture. So we can expect with confidence that 21st century technological shifts will open a way to new promising architectural development.

Building a project need years, so changes takes more time than in more immaterial domain. Also architecture involves a network of competencies: architects, engineers, construction firms… The fact that not all team members have switched to new technologies could be a brake to technology adoption.

Nevertheless, technology adoption does impact architecture right now, and here are some of the most notable changes that we estimate could have the most impact on how we design architecture in the next years.

BIM rise

The BIM is already an old idea but it has started to build massive momentum in the architectural community.

The BIM (Building Information Model) is based on several principles that can be implemented with relative independence:

  • we design a project using an unique 3d model which is modified throughout the project’s life
  • this 3d is not only volumetric surfaces, but has metadata attached like the material of the element and parametric modifiers like the height of a wall
  • the 3d model can be stored in a multi-client database and stored in the cloud to be accessible at the same time by several people
  • multi-user permissions on the model can be defined precisely to reflect team member responsibility on the project
  • all construction elements are classified using standard categories, namely the IFC
  • libraries of construction products can be inserted in the model and even get actualisation if the product version changes

All these aspects are promising, though BIM change design practice and relationships between members of the construction may create some tensions and resistance. Architects are not already well trained in BIM, and often do not have the resources to learn it. Also the dominance of one software (Revit by Autodesk) makes interoperability and standard more difficult to set up.

But BIM grows faster and faster, and will probably be the mainstream tool to design architecture in the coming years.

Parametric architecture

Parametric architecture is a new way to design a shape, which eventually ends up a building…
Instead of assembling the volumes “by hand”—for example shaping a complex roof’s facets one by one—the general shape is designed by the software, and you have control over parameters that, of course, you can define.

Parametric architecture uses internally a geometric programming language that can be used directly by coding. Or you can design parametrically using a software extension of Rhino called Grasshopper and make the same operation visually with a User Interface. Grasshopper shows you the shape of the building, and gives you a way to define handles to control it.

If you have practiced 3D modeling before, and have used NURBS (complex 3D surfaces), you should be familiar with the handles concept. The final shape is your choice, though you manipulate it through a medium: the handles.

In parametric architecture, the type of control is much more complex than with NURBS, and is not limited to geometry. You could start for example with a simple paradigm: “draw me a roof to maximise sunlight, and allow me to see this specific detail of the facing building when I am at this position in the building”. The software will instantly adapt the form to your goal.

It allows you to do some once impossible tasks when using traditional 3D modeling software. But moreover it changes the relationship we have with the finished building. We actually don’t build a building, but a shape that is controlled by a series of parameters or constraints. The computer and human imagination play together to design architecture. The second important point is that it moves architecture closer to programming language. As it is code behind the shape, everything we can make with code becomes possible: share the code, fork it, make libraries…

The limit of parametric architecture could be the construction itself: it may not be as flexible as what the software can produce!

Architecture robots and 3d printers

Building construction could change drastically through the use of prefabrication and automation. Again this is not a new technology, as robots have been used for years in construction plants. But whereas the products have been industrialized a long time, the assembly of those products, and a lot of construction techniques, remain manual: concrete, bricks, glass need workers to be put in place on the construction site.

The robots used in plants can be huge, are not very flexible, and generally do a specific task they are fine-tuned to accomplish perfectly.

Another paradigm architects are quite aware of is the notion of a series: the more similar objects of the same series are being produced, the cheaper it becomes. Modern architecture has totally integrated this fact, and used very smartly the repetition of a handful of elements to produce diversity with a limited set of industrial components.

New technologies brought several changes that will probably produce a new wave of industrialization quite different from before:

  • the robots become lighter, smarter, able to multitask
  • the robots can learn with Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  • the fact that a series is cheaper is no more valid as a 3d printer can print all different objects without increasing the bottom line
  • as the robots become lighter and smarter, they can go on the construction site itself and progressively make what humans once did

Of course, robotisation in construction is only at it’s beginning.

Nonetheless, it can change very drastically construction:

  • the speed to build a building
  • the architecture itself reaching a new level of speed
  • the price of the buildings will drop as human time on-site will decrease

While using industrial components for a long time, construction has remained a very manual process, and usually takes years to complete.

With the new robotisation era we are about to enter, the building itself can be an industrial product and its construction site a plant.

The changes in society, architecture and the building economy will be certainly huge.

Smart everything

Smart cities, smart architecture, smart materials… Everything becomes smart nowadays, but what does smart mean in this context?

Two basic things: a sensor, and the internet & software.

Sensors mean things once inanimate come to ‘get conscious’ of external factors like the temperature, the presence of people…

And the internet, or more generally software, means that all once-inanimate things can now take advantage of a mini-computer or a cloud-based server.

So our solar protection can adapt to light conditions. The partitions could become transparent when needed…

But smart also means the interaction we can have with our environment, including architecture, with our standard universal remote control: our smart phone.

So under the term “smart city”, we tend to group all apps that allow the city inhabitants to interact with the city services and contribute to a new information layer that more and more become its double.

The information layer the smart revolution provides will be as important as pipes and wires for water and electricity are for our daily urban lives.

Collaboration, crowdsourcing, co-design

Though more social than technical, collaboration is one of the major game-changers in architecture.

Imagine how software developed in the eighties : more or less what is happening with architecture now!

If you know web development and the importance that open source has now, you can grasp the huge productivity improvements architecture can access.

We all do similar things in our small architecture firms. Why do we so sparingly share what we do? Why do we not build our projects more efficiently on top of others’ elements of projects built by a community of architects?

The projects are already a collaborative work as many professionals work on it from its very start to the finish of the built project.

But why do we not work together on the same files thanks to a shared cloud-based database? We would spare so much time in coordination later.

And even allow non-professionals—inhabitants, futures users of the built project—to interact during the creation phase? They have a really valuable viewpoint that could give a lot of values to the project, if good tools allow to set up a constructive dialogue between the project designers and the project users.

Wiki systems, collaborative apps for architects, co-design experience… Many possibilities exist and the BIM is but one of the possible response.

With Bricks, we develop an app that allows architects to design and share bricks of projects easily. We are building one of the tools to make this collaborative revolution possible.

But collaborative architecture is still to be built! We need to convince professionals that it is a win-win game, as it allows us to design faster and concentrate on our own specificity, not losing time reinventing wheels.

Bricks collaborative app for architect


Sébastien Lucas
Architect, developer, funder of Bricks & Archiref

Sébastien Lucas, funder of Bricks