The construction industry is yearning for a sustainability and CO2 reduction revolution. However, the relationship between digital design and its physical output has never been more loose. New AI design strategies and automated smart manufacturing will change our industry for good
Despite the current “green hype” from regulators and industry, 99% of buildings are still being built to the lowest common sustainability denominators.
Einstein allegedly said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results, and the same is true in construction.
If we keep planning the same buildings, we will end up with the same results.
Sustainability cannot happen on a local basis. A “green” house, school or even neighbourhood which do not prove a cost effective and scalable model are many times a part of the problem, also known as “greenwash”.
In order to effect true change, we must see the industry as a whole and provide models that can work for the mainstream instead of one-offs.
The architect does not stand alone. Gone are the days where architectural design can be dispatched from its means of manufacturing and footprint analysis. New technologies now allow us, like never before, to create unified methodologies that blur the boundaries between disciplines. But to grasp the potential, we first have to understand the problem.
So how big is this problem?
You’ve all heard this one before: the construction industry is responsible for 40% of global CO2 emissions, making it the most polluting industry on earth.
In fact, reducing emissions for this sector alone can achieve the global benchmarks for preventing global climate change.
Add to that a geo-political turmoil caused by external energy source dependency, and you have the most burning issue of this century. The coin of the future is, therefore, not the Dollar or the Bitcoin, but the Kilowatt.
Bridging the gap
As demonstrated in my previous articles, the planning world has not changed fundamentally for thousands of years, relying mainly on pure geometric representations, very far from their actual manufacturing details and eco footprint. Yet, it is clear that industrial manufacturing holds the key to improving performance, reducing waste and using smart materials – the main factors affecting a building’s sustainability.
The biggest challenge is in matching the restraints of these in early design stages.
Today, “real world” data leading to CO2 calculations can only be extracted at the last 20% of the planning stage, after planning is pretty much complete, making it practically too late to change and optimise.
So how come in a world of BIM, digitation, and open knowledge, we are so far behind?
Compare today‘s AEC planning firms with those of 50 years ago, and you see something remarkable. Planning costs, times and complexity have gone up due to extra BIM experts, consultants – and rising software license fees (more on that in Martyn Day’s article “Prisoner of Vendor), yet the overall detail level has not seen significant changes for the mainstream. In other words, we have digitized the same problem.
The solution: optimise early on
Design for manufacturing (DfMA), the holy grail for the construction world, is often overlooked by AEC firms due to complexities. However, it is now becoming more feasible than ever.
According to the latest reports by bodies like McKinsey, Deloitte etc. adopting industrialisation and automation for the construction world can not only reduce CO2, but also cut costs by 15-25% when applied at scale. Yet, this requires all stakeholders to “play by the rules” in all stages.
Looking at other industries like furniture, automotive and aerospace that have managed to revolutionise their manufacturing, we can see the large role that designing to the screw level holds. The equation is simple: the more data you have, the better you can optimise.
It is, however, unrealistic to expect an architect or engineer to know how to write machine code, analyse CO2 footprints and be acquainted with all the latest building technologies. So how do we bring all this together?
A new state of mind
Using AI, a radical mindset shift is now available. No longer should architecture remain isolated as a ‘soft’ discipline, ending its role upon design completion. New architecture is deeply rooted in its environmental and social impact.
Planners must take full responsibility of what they design above its local usage.
On the other hand, manufacturers, contractor and regulators must provide the infrastructure and data for its adaptations.
The amazing possibilities of data analysis for AEC that can be achieved through digitation are immense and growing by the day. Just to name a few: daylight analysis, CO2 calculation for materials, thermal insulation with Finite Element Analysis (FEA), Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD)-based wind calculations, Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), manufacturing supply chain optimisation – all these, when combined together, can help us create greener, smarter and more cost effective buildings.
From my personal experience with Foldstruct, working with corporates in the manufacturing field, it is all about data collaboration. A true open book approach from all sides can digitally dissect the project in ways that are not seen to the naked eye.
In a recent project, we were able to not only reduce CO2, but also cost, by optimising the design according to a specific system. The main challenge was to reverse engineer something that has already been designed. However, using AI and parametric logic, it was possible to make slight adjustments that were non-intrusive to the original design, yet proved to be of great benefit in terms of performance. It is indeed an ongoing journey to digitize the construction industry, but the path has been set with more and more corporates joining the game.
As more analysis tools spring up and regulations demand more sustainable buildings, we will see a unification of all disciplines in a “building as product” approach. It is a time where AI, robotics and smart materials are no longer buzz words, but the future of the AEC industry.
About the author
Tal Friedman is an architect and construction-tech entrepreneur active in automated algorithm-based design-to-fabrication. His work explores new possibilities for transforming the built environment through innovative use of materials and creating new typologies for architecture and structural purposes. Tal has also presented at NXT BLD.