From Dubai to data – what’s next for architects in 2020

3 January, 2020

Just how well architects fare in 2020 and beyond will partly depend on their ability to be heard and make the arguments that matter, for example how cities can best flourish including the need to decarbonise buildings.

It will also depend on the profession being more willing to invest in immersive technologies to change the way architecture is communicated and thus approved. There are many reasons why the UK is failing to provide enough homes but one major barrier is public mistrust of developers and wariness about their product that is often badly designed. Augmented and virtual reality that allows people to walk around new developments will help remove the suspicion they are being sold a pup and, if they are, demand something better.

People may also start insisting on more information about the lifetime carbon footprint of buildings as pressure builds on all industries to react more quickly to counter climate change. So far construction has avoided the scrutiny meted out to the energy industry but it’s surely next in line. The charge will be led by local governments and mayors who are already  pushing through ambitious rules to reduce the harm buildings have on the environment.

We know that Boris Johnson is instinctively attracted to shiny new toys like bridges; at least he was as mayor of London. But Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, has different priorities. The people he wants around him are data scientists, software developers, economists and ‘weirdos and misfits with odd skills’, according to his blog post this month.

This is a clear mission statement that the old ways of doing things haven’t worked. Not everyone agrees that this is the time to shake-up the Civil Service, pointing out that Brexit still has to be delivered. But the Government is looking for swift answers to long-term problems and architects who have new ideas will be in demand.

As we enter a new decade, here are our predictions for the year ahead.

Immersive Technology

According to a recent report on the UK’s immersive economy, 35% of UK architects now use at least one form of mixed, augmented or virtual reality immersive technology, with that figure expected to grow to 64% in the next four years.

Currently architects use VR to explain projects to clients. But it’s at the planning stage where immersive tools could significantly improve the communication and approval process by allowing people to ‘walk’ around new developments.

The authors also say that many of the industry’s problems such as late delivery, directly correlate with the inability of site workers, architects and engineers to fully visualise a project before it is built. With immersive technology all parties can step inside a finished development from the outset therefore identifying potential conflicts at the design stage, they say.

Architects cite cost as the main barrier to VR/AR adoption in terms of software, time and training

Some of the biggest suppliers of immersive technologies are likely to be gaming companies. One of these is Epic Games who, off the back of a massively successful game release (Fortnite) a couple of years ago, have a lot of cash to invest in architecture and construction and are hoping to make a splash in the sector.

AI

For some time architects have feared that AI may limit their services but as we enter a new decade the thinking has changed. Rather than being something to be feared, AI will allow architects to reorganise how they spend their time or as Spacemaker’s co-founder and CEO Havard Haukeland (who trained as an architect) puts it: “AI won’t replace the architect. But it might be that architects who use artificial intelligence could replace architects who do not.”

Spacemaker, an Oslo-based start-up that raised $25m funding last year is described as “the world’s first” AI-assisted design and construction simulation software for the property development sector.  Its software – which can crunch everything from building regulations to noise and sun levels – allows developers and architects to ‘sense check’ designs, for example to ensure that new developments are making the biggest difference to people’s health.

 Dubai Expo 2020

Visitors to the UK pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020 opening in October, will enter through an illuminated maze featuring augmented reality-enriched exhibits of British advances in artificial intelligence and space exploration. Created by set designer Ed Devlin, the female-led project addresses the under-representation of women in science and technology.

But with growing interest in ‘hyper-local’ food production, it’s the ‘vertical farms’ being built next to the Dubai Expo 2020 site that may grab visitors’ attention. That’s because Dubai imports most of its food but for the Expo all the salads and herbs served will be grown on site and the farm will use 99% less water than crops grown outdoors. The Dubai farm is a tie-up between CropOne, a Silicon Valley company, and Emirates Flight Catering.

Meanwhile food tech company, Vertical Futures is planning to build two new ‘ethical plant factories’ in London, one in Mayfair the other in Hackney, while expanding its current facility in Deptford.

 

Consumers want to know how food’s production and sourcing impacts the environment.

Carbon data tools

The emergence in 2019 of the concept of flygskam, Swedish for “flight shame”, could be extended to construction in 2020 and more particularly shine a spotlight on the carbon embodied in what and how we build. Until recently, data on embodied carbon was often either missing or too complex to evaluate but a new tool developed by developer C Change Labs and jointly seed-funded by Skanska and Microsoft will allow users to compare the carbon impacts of the most common building materials from structural materials like concrete and steel, metal framing to gypsum board, ceiling tiles, and carpet.

Modular

The modular housing market is proving a perfect place for technology-focused start-ups to showcase their potentially disruptive ideas. However, as architects have pointed out the designs are often crude and the developments are only possible because they are on plots that do not have to take account of neighbouring buildings. Into this category falls the “contemporary collection” of 47 new ‘energy positive’ homes built by entrepreneur Joseph Daniels and Project Etopia.

In 2020 new entrepreneurs will enter the market who may have a more bespoke approach to modular housing that will need architects involvement from the very start. The sector will also be boosted by problems in recruiting skilled workers such as bricklayers and carpenters and joiners as a result of the UK leaving the EU.

Blockchain

Blockchain technology is set to transform relationships in the construction industry creating an era of transparency and, just perhaps, more opportunities for creativity and collective action. That’s the claim anyway. The problem is we’ve heard the hype before so will anything change in 2020?

Blockchain could end copyright disputes such as the one that broke out over Tokyo’s new Olympic stadium.

Some day, architects may rely on blockchain to root out copycats and clients to keep tabs of their supply chain but we’re not there yet. Expert Balint Penzes, Associate & Blockchain COI Lead at PwC UK, and one of the speakers at a recent blockchain roundtable, says if BIM is combined with blockchain technology it could prevent miscommunications and provide accountability and understanding when mistakes happen. “One can see an opportunity for architects to add and link information through blockchain technology to a BIM model, which will have an effect through the whole lifecycle of a real asset,” he says.