Data as a tool for the architecture of the future

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Håvard Haukeland, co-founder of Spacemaker and senior director at Autodesk, explores what the ‘digital toolkit’ of architects might look like in the near future, and how architects can use this to their advantage

Architecture is currently undergoing the next fundamental shift enabled by technology. New digital tools are transforming the way architects work, evolving from analogue 2D plans to digital, networked 3D representations, data analysis and AI-supported software applications. These new tools present challenges, but more importantly, they open up a wealth of new opportunities that empower architects to design better buildings for a rapidly changing and increasingly complex world.

Architects love to draw by hand. From Piranesi to Pompidou, the pencil has always been the tool of choice for architects. A fun fact: a main image of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’ 1970 winning competition entry for the Pompidou Centre was created in pencil on paper. This is still the fastest and most straightforward way to express an idea – this simplicity is what gives the creative process the freedom it needs.

Pencil and paper have, however, been gathering dust since CAD software and 3D printing came into the picture. CAD has allowed for faster and more accurate ways of working, but it’s essentially a digital drawing that accurately reproduces what used to be communicated manually: plans, sections, elevations, details. But what happens now when this representation is no longer sufficient, when the preferred and most productive tool no longer meets the industry’s requirements? The construction industry is currently undergoing this upheaval, which means that many architects need to familiarise themselves with new digital tools.

Meeting future challenges

The biggest societal challenges we face now and in the coming decades are rapid urbanisation combined with population growth and climate change. The complexity of urban areas has increased massively and, meanwhile, climate change is fundamentally affecting the way people live and work in cities.

At the same time, the economic demands on the architecture and construction industry are also increasing. This means the creativity of architects is being challenged to maximise building density and use of space without negatively impacting people’s quality of life and the environment.

The main digital transformation so far arrived in the shift to BIM, which offers architects comprehensive support in this increasingly complex construction landscape. What makes BIM special is the wealth of information that can be accessed quickly and clearly by everyone involved across all stakeholders and disciplines – not only dimensions and quantities, but also costs, deadlines, materials and much more.

Meanwhile, 3D models, digital renderings and, more recently, virtual reality (VR) technology provide entirely new perspectives on construction plans and the built environment. Later in the building lifecycle, Digital Twin technology comes into play, where 3D digital models of buildings can be used to plan day-today operations based on real-time data. The accuracy, detail and information density of these tools provide the foundation for more efficient collaboration and greater engagement by all stakeholders.


Intelligent insights

Even though BIM has become a natural part of the detailing and construction phases, it has been too cumbersome to be used effectively for early-phase design, leaving architects without intelligent tools, for example, for feasibility and concept studies.

However, precisely in these stages, it’s essential to conduct thorough analyses; after all, this is where the cornerstone of up to 50% of the ultimate value creation is laid.

Until now, such measures have been time-consuming and corresponding work approaches counter intuitive for architects who typically design first and then analyse, not the other way around.

Thanks to cloud computing and the availability of digital data, this familiar workflow can suddenly be turned on its head: starting in the early design phase, technology becomes an enabler to supercharge architects’ intuition and experience.

Data is game-changing as it gives architects detailed insights so they can make more informed decisions during an entire project starting from feasibility studies to evaluating building performance. Previously selected data was available to architects but in manuals, books – now it’s all around us and up-todate: think BIM databases, IoT devices, weather and traffic data, user feedback.

AI, the next evolution in the architect’s toolbox is a tool that excels at completing specialised tasks, thinking along with architects to make light work of normally time-consuming, tedious tasks. Data and AI help architects move towards a more outcome-based way of working to achieve better end results.

Technology now enables architects to digitally test a wide variety of scenarios and find optimal solutions within the chosen parameters. This risk-free testing environment, integrating design and analysis in one single platform, inspires the discovery of new creative approaches. Designers can test and incorporate factors such as sun, daylight, noise, microclimate in real time right from the start. This lays a solid evidence-based foundation for a more sustainable project and cost-efficient construction phase later down the line.

Expertise remains irreplaceable So what’s next for the architect’s toolbox? It’s an exciting time: architecture is moving closer to a data-driven, collaborative way of working. As mundane processes become more standardised thanks to technology and more effective workflows, this frees up more time for architects to design. The humble pencil and paper will remain the go-to tools for architects for testing ideas — but now they work comfortably side by side with sophisticated digital tools. Only by making data a tool for every architect can we meet the global challenges we currently face.

The one constant in this development is, and remains, the intuition and expertise of architects – they will never be replaced. It is the architect who has a keen understanding of local specifics and needs — be they cultural and aesthetic values, local and regional building codes, or the complex web of multilayered relationships that are key to real estate development today and in the future. In the words of renowned architect Sir Norman Foster, “The pencil and computer are, if left to their own devices, equally dumb and only as good as the person driving them.”

Caption: Architectural design has come a long way since the 1970s when competition entries for the Pompidou Centre were created with pencil and paper 


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