The architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry is at an inflection point, and how we respond in the next few years will determine how the future plays out for us and for generations to come. COVID-19 turned the world upside down in a matter of weeks, causing the world economy to screech almost to a halt. Twenty years into the 21st century and the building industry invests less than any other sector in research and development (R&D), is generally slow to evolve, and continues operating as if it were still in the 19th century, working in silos that rarely cooperate for the benefit of everyone in fear of losing out to the competition.
“The best way to predict the future is to design it.”
It’s time for innovation in the AEC industry, time to invest significantly in R&D, and time to leap forward in terms of how we build. The AEC industry needs to use R&D to vault ahead.
NASA (Copyright NASA)
On 12 September 1962, President John. F Kennedy set in motion America’s bid to be the first to put a human on the moon. It took just 2,503 days from Kennedy’s speech until Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. The successful landing of a man on the moon was an incredible achievement for humankind. The Apollo program is one of the premier examples of human ingenuity and cross-discipline collaborative teamwork: The average age on this team was 27 years old and the computing power involved less than what we now carry around in our pockets. Today, we face the daunting challenge of climate change. How long before we put our collective energies and digital tools to really address it?
The AEC industry is the third largest sector of the American economy after government and healthcare. Globally, it is a vast ecosystem and plays an essential role in the social fabric of life. Together, building and construction are responsible for 39% of all global carbon emissions, according to the World Green Building Council. Forecasts are that global construction needs to continue to grow at an accelerated pace to meet the needs as we rapidly urbanize, and it all needs to be built sustainably. Despite the warnings from the scientific community, it has only been in the last decade that the industry has started to respond in a meaningful way to this challenge. We are now at the tipping point, and beginning to feel the impact every day and everywhere. Reimagining how we design and build is an imperative. To be successful, we need to accelerate education, communication, and innovation, including through collaboration across disciplines and sectors.
Carbon Emissions (Copyright Joshua Marz-Perkins Eastman)
The third-largest sector of the American economy after government and healthcare, the AEC industry plays an essential role in the social fabric of life. As such, it has a responsibility to reduce global carbon emissions as it meets the needs of our rapidly urbanized world.
How do we in the building industry respond?
Where do go from here? When can we restart? What kind of positive future can we look forward to? How do we adapt? We can and should design responsibly and with purpose for a better future for everybody. Thus far, humans have been so successful, precisely because we can adapt by cooperating and sharing ideas, concepts, and common goals. If the coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything, it is that we are all interconnected and interdependent. We hear a
clarion call to rethink, innovate, and reset. We need to take this opportunity to accelerate innovation towards a better, more equitable and resilient future for everybody. We can either fall back to the old ways and wait for the vaccine and the next crisis, or we can step up to the challenge.
BIM Diagram (Copyright Joshua Marz-Perkins Eastman)
The advance of digital technologies and their gradual infiltration into the AEC industry has been incremental. The promise of the intelligent digital prototype, or “digital doppelganger,” is predicated on a more collaborative and holistic understanding of the complete building cycle and should fundamentally shift the industry toward higher performing buildings. This diagram is a summary— perhaps an oversimplification—of activities and phases involved throughout the cycle.
The exciting advances in the glass industry, particularly in the sphere of structural glass, offers a great case study of how a building material and its use has been developed and transformed through a combination of innovations across disciplines and through research. It started with the invention of the float glass process by Sir Alistair Pilkington in the 1950s. Then it developed through innovations in laminations and plastics by material scientists as well as advances in computer programs that enable engineers to predict stress hotspots, and the CNC fabrication machinery that ensures the precise tolerances necessary for these structures. Clearly, this is an oversimplification to illustrate the trajectory of innovation and the impact it can have. Imagine if the AEC industry were to focus on a more whole scale transformation through R&D taking responsibility for our collective actions in terms of its overall impact on the environment.
Glass Fabrication (Copyright AGNORA)
Advances in the glass industry, particularly in the use of structural glass, offer a window into how a building material and its use has been developed and transformed through a combination of innovations across disciplines and through research. A technician at AGNORA examines and cleans a 2500lb. multi-laminated glass wall that acts as the structural spine for a feature stair at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York City.
Fortunately, some positive signs appear on the horizon, and we have started to build smarter buildings. Rating systems, such as LEED, BREAM, professional organizations, and updated regulatory and energy codes, have resulted in a more intelligent economic accounting of the impact of the built environment. They have started to steer the industry towards a more responsible future. Technology has also played a significant role in influencing this evolution, presenting opportunities for improved analysis, more precise measurement, more informed decisions, and therefore better performing design. We can simulate and model faster, iterating quickly through potential design solutions, optimizing structure, environmental systems and materials used, which all lead to better performing designs and less waste. We now have a better understanding of the embodied carbon of the materials and processes throughout the building life cycle, and this is critical if we are to offset climate change.
Copyright Paul Rivera
Located in New York City’s Times Square, TKTS is the world’s largest publicly accessible structural glass structure—a public space and viewing platform at the heart of one of the world’s most visually dynamic places. The design was the result of a highly collaborative cross-disciplinary process from the early stages through fabrication and installation. The team tested and refined every design innovation and solutions constantly at every stage.
Serious research regarding material science is currently being undertaken to study sustainable alternatives that might offset the carbon released into the atmosphere, such as construction materials derived from plant matter, and aggregate in concrete that can act as a carbon sink. Robots, drones, and 3D printing are gaining ground across the industry from design studios and fabrication plants to the construction site. Large multi- axial robots can now 3D print concrete to very exacting tolerances thereby optimizing material and reducing waste, and it is only a matter of time before their use can be scaled up and appear in some form on construction sites. Robotic exoskeletons, designed to augment construction workers to offset heavy labor, are also becoming more common place. Augmented reality is now playing an increased role in construction logistics and management.
Many of these developments offer tremendous promise. The challenge with technology, however, is sorting through the myriad of options to identify the meaningful and useful. As the world becomes increasingly digitized and enhanced with embedded information, and then connected into the Internet of Things, (IoT), we are edging closer to the “grand vision” of a “digital doppelganger,” a live digital model built up collaboratively across disciplines that encompasses all information and flows within the project and its life cycle. This ideally eliminates or at least reduces risks, pinpoints investments, and optimizes returns. This model would then continue as an essential tool to manage and monitor the building through its life cycles. Denver Airport Authority already works along these lines. Every new project is required to follow strict Building Information Modeling (BIM) protocols and is added into the overall digital airport model upon completion.
Rutgers University-Camden: Nursing and Science Building (Copyright Perkins Eastman)
Rutgers University-Camden: Nursing and Science Building, Southwest façade: These studies illustrate the design team’s exercises to maximize transparency and interior comfort while minimizing solar incidence. The curtain wall utilizes both fully transparent and glazed spandrels in concert with one another. Fully-glazed areas receive full-height vertical fins angled to maximize their impact on interior shading. The fins’ perforation allow filtered views while maintaining their shading benefits. Additionally, high-performance tinted glass was deployed to minimize the impact of glare and solar radiation without compromising overall transparency.
As coding and artificial intelligence (AI) become more prevalent, and as technologies start to offer ways to ensure that multiple teams’ contributions to the digital model are recorded and recognized, the idea of designing and
building a digital version of a project becomes more feasible. Before this workflow can be widely implemented across the industry, however, fundamental changes would be required regarding our current contractual relationships among the various parties involved. We need to think and operate more as partners on a team for the mutual benefit of one another and the project at hand.
How we deliver the projects needs to change
The AEC industry is vast and multifarious, operating at every scale from massive infrastructure to small scale renovations. The appropriate use of technology is a catalyst. Wholesale transformation will be challenging as not everyone can afford to invest in technologies to the same degree. This is also compounded because we, as an industry, invest so little in R&D.
Kieran Timberlake’s “Refabricating Architecture,” published in 2003, presented the case for rethinking how we design and build in the 21st (twenty first) century. It was a blueprint for a more integrated team-centered design and build process breaking down the silos between design and construction. We should be heading in that direction and there are a few notable companies that are trying to rethink the process along these lines. Katerra is a construction company whose mission is to transform the construction process wholesale, using technology as the means to do it including by controlling all aspects of the building cycle “end to end”. Katerra has assembled a team that can provide the full complement of services required, from designers and engineers, suppliers, fabricators, project management, and construction labor. Last year, I was fortunate enough to visit Bau 2019, Europe’s largest building expo in Munich. What impressed me most about the expo, was not only its massive scale, but the palpable passion about the art and craft of building supported through innovation. It was energizing. The trip ended with a tour of Schüco’s headquarters in Bielefeld, to see its technology and logistics centers. Both were impressive for the firm’s commitment to investment in technology and research throughout its whole ecosystem.
TKTS (Copyright Paul Rivera)
The red glowing red steps are a landmark synonymous with NYC and, at the time, it pushed the limits of structural glass and became an immediate precedent for a 21st-century public landmark.
Considering design and building in a more holistic way, and understanding the interconnections, interfaces, and synergy throughout any system provides a broader perspective about where optimization through innovation and collaboration can happen.
The innovations in our industry have been made in small steps rather than large leaps, but this pace will need to accelerate if we are to address the challenges forecast for the future. This has become even more critical now with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exposed the insufficient investment in public infrastructure that supports our cities and communities. We live in an age when we have reached the limits of our environmental resources. We need to get to net zero by 2040. We need to build more efficiently, conserve resources, and design a future that is more equitable and resilient while supporting our social fabric. We can do this by working collaboratively across disciplines and with serious investment in R&D, perhaps from government!
This article was originally published in IGS Magazines Summer 2020 USA Special Edition: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Author: Nick Leahy
Nick is co-CEO at Perkins Eastman, a leading global design and architecture firm with offices in 17 locations around the world. Nick designs, manages, and directs the projects for the Civic & Cultural studio at Perkins Eastman, and his portfolio includes projects across several industry sectors and at virtually every scale, from large-scale urban planning to small-scale exhibits across the United States, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
Nick’s award-winning projects are distinguished by their critical balance of place, program, and craft and his use of appropriate technology. Key to his design methodology is to investigate each site’s relationship to its environment, history, and its intended use. Nick’s work with allglass structural technology, in particular, has advanced the industry through their innovations. This work prominently includes the design and construction of the groundbreaking TKTS Booth in Times Square, the world’s largest publicly accessible all-glass structural building, among many others.