Category Archives: Futures

Architecture futures 2

beauty scoreFuture I  Part 2:  Performance enhancement- a dead end

In the last post, I described how performance enhancement is increasingly becoming a core mission of many architectural practices. Performance enhancement, however, goes far beyond being a practical goal; it is an attitude, almost a design philosophy. If the architect is not careful, it becomes the sole design criterion , eclipsing essential but unquantifiable factors such as social, ethical and expressive considerations.

Architects often blithely claim that there is no conflict between maximizing performance and “other” design goals. I’m not so sure. Performance is based on measurable metrics: how many kilowatt hours per square foot per year, foot-candles of daylight, dollars per square foot, etc. Although performance always involves trade-offs (you can’t optimize everything- or even very many things- at once) comparisons among alternatives are straightforward calculations. In this value system, the status of design qualities that can’t be quantified is uncertain. Even if architects believe that some such qualities are necessary for a good building, weighing their value against hard numbers is difficult.

I believe that there is an implicit conflict between performance and other design values.  Performance deprives non-performative values of any rationale, any basis for discussion that could elevate them above questions of individual preference. Performance becomes an ideology, valuing buildings solely on the basis of how well they meet performance metrics. Architecture cannot serve its social and cultural purposes if performance is the metric by which it is judged.

visual preference survey
A slide from a visual preference survey- assigning a number to intangible design qualities.

One approach to this problem is to substitute measurable proxies for non- performance- based qualities. For example, esthetics can be treated as a matter of opinion and measured by polls. This is what “visual preference surveys” do (see above photo). A group of people are shown alternative designs (or design elements) and the one that gets the highest score is chosen. The obvious shortcomings of this particular process are typical of the strategy: a proxy always distorts the quality it’s meant to represent. It places measurability above fidelity to a particular value. This seems to me to ensure the ultimate triumph of performance as the sole criterion for design, and the loss of the intangible qualities that distinguish architecture from mere functional building.

A way out?

Performance enhancement as a goal of architectural design is here to stay. It’s hard to argue with the benefits of better performance when it comes to energy consumption, embodied energy, carbon footprint, lowered cost (up to a point), faster construction, etc. What we need is a way to incorporate performance analysis in a more holistic design process. Parametric design offers a possible answer. As currently practiced, parametric design usually focuses only on a building’s form and structure. However, this is not an inherent limitation of the method. Almost anything can serve as a parameter if it can be made computable. Computability is not nearly as narrow a constraint as being strictly quantifiable. Recursive iteration allows algorithmic systems to seek solutions that are not the product of straightforward calculations but rather “satisfice” many criteria (i.e. come as close as possible to meeting them all while actually meeting none). Many of the explorations in computational design being carried out today can be seen as efforts to understand how the constraint of computability affects design outcomes. This question needs direct investigation. Another insufficiently explored dimension of parametric design is the role of the human designer. A human designer affects the algorithmic design process both in designing the algorithmic system itself and in choosing “winners” for further exploration from a set of algorithmically produced solutions. This allows- compels- a designer to explore her ideas beyond those explicitly embodied in the algorithmic system. There’s a great deal of work to be done to reconceive design is this way.

One way or another, architects must find a way to avoid the performance “trap” and maintain the value of other types criteria in the design process. We can’t be satisfied with simply wrapping a performative object in an interesting form, or dressing it up with nice materials. As problematic and unfashionable an idea as it may be, a meaningful built environment is architecture’s ultimate product. Left unaddressed, the architecture future of performance enhancement will lead to the replacement of architecture by engineering.


Architecture futures

The explosion of technologies that are transforming architecture is changing everything about it- how it is viewed by clients, the services architects offer, the economics of the office, how projects are designed and documented, how architects market their services, the skills architects need to have to be successful, etc. None of this is news to you, I’m sure. There’s an avalanche of information and advice out there about how to handle all this change (often promising to figure it out for you- for a price), but have you stopped for a minute to think about where this is going in the long run? These developments in design and construction are not taking place in a vacuum; they are of a piece with the cultural transformations being created by social media, computer-generated entertainment, online media distribution, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and a raft of other phenomena made possible by ubiquitous, cheap computation. We are only beginning to understand their scope and significance.
In the next several posts, I’ll offer some architecture futures I can foresee under these conditions. They’re based on my 32 years in practice, many years of reading and teaching, my involvement with the AIA Technology in Architectural Practice knowledge community, and finally the research that became The Death of Drawing. These futures aren’t exclusive. I actually think most or all of them- and probably others- will happen. Each has different implications for how we should think about what we do and prepare ourselves for a career that will be very different from the one we imagined when we dreamed about becoming architects.
Net-zero Walgreens in Evanston, IL
Net-zero Walgreens in Evanston, IL
Future I: Architecture as performance enhancement
The current trend

So far, the most common use of new architectural technologies has been to improve the performance of projects. Performance has both technical and financial aspects. On the technical side, various kinds of simulations are becoming both more routine and more sophisticated. Energy and daylighting analysis are probably the most common, and there are many others as well. Other software allows engineers to optimize structural and MEP systems. In fact, with the increasing emphasis on technical performance, architectural design is starting to resemble engineering design in some practices.

From a financial standpoint, both our internal operations and construction economics are affected. Building information modeling is transforming our role in many ways, as has been discussed ad nauseam. As has been frequently pointed out, one general tendency of these changes is to create a more level design team in which information is more freely shared and design decisions are more often taken jointly by several members of the team. This changes workflows in our offices, requiring information on various aspects of a design at different stages and levels of detail compared with traditional practice. BIM also affects our productivity. BIM vendors maintain that this is positive, but the reality is that it can cut both ways depending on how a firm implements the technology and how prepared its staff is to use it effectively. BIM and related software also expand the range of services we can offer, going as far as creating entirely different business models for our firms.

In the past, building owners’ greatest complaint about the design and construction process was the uncertainty about the cost and duration of their projects. Technology has done a great deal to reduce this uncertainty. BIM-based design coordination is important in this regard, but perhaps a more significant factor has been the ability of contractors to play a greater role during design. Automated quantity take-offs provide rapid, accurate cost estimates early and often. Modeling the construction process allows contractors to identify opportunities to save time and money. With all of this cost information available, architects must respond to financial considerations sooner and more stringently than before. These contractor-driven cost savings encourage building owners to give contractors a more prominent role during design. This drives the growing use of project delivery methods such as design-build, CMGC (construction manager as general contractor) and integrated project delivery, all of which involve architects in contractual relationships with builders. The traditional firewall between design and construction is gone. This has enormous potential financial benefits for building owners. It also subjects architectural design to new pressures and changes its priorities.

In spite of these changes, many American architects have seized upon performance enhancement as the salvation of the profession. Phrases like “high performance building” and “evidence-based design” have entered our vocabulary and our marketing materials. After years of watching contractors and construction managers eat our lunch, we finally have something to offer our clients that can compete in tangible value with control of the construction process! A quick look at your inbox (be sure to check your junk mail folder) will confirm this trend. And why not? It makes utter economic sense. It even has an ethical rationale when applied to sustainability or duty to our clients. At long last, it seems, we can honestly say that we have no other goal than to serve our clients’ best interests.

But something about this newfound zeal for performance makes me uneasy. Can architecture be reduced to performance? If not, can other values co-exist with performance enhancement?

Next: Architecture futures: Performance- Can We Have Our Cake and Eat It Too?

Automating architects

sponge-aer-gardens2Replacing human beings with robots is a hot topic in economics these days. Accelerating advances in artificial intelligence and robotics are giving rise to predictions that entire categories of employment are doomed to be automated, including many that are considered skilled. What about architects?

There have been several periods in history when technology has put people out of work by taking over their jobs. Mechanized looms destroyed the cottage hand weaving industry in the early 1800’s, resulting in riots in England. Trains and cars replaced horse-drawn carriages, throwing untold numbers of people employed in carriage-making, parts of agriculture, stables and post houses out of work. In architecture, the introduction of computer-aided drafting threatened the jobs of draftsmen. In every instance, however, the new technologies created new jobs and increased the productivity, and therefore the value, of workers. Many economists think the situation we face now is different.

Many studies have been done to try to assess the likely impact of AI and robotics on a wide range of jobs. All of them that I’ve seen assume that jobs that require creativity cannot be easily automated, and architects fall into this category. Other telltales of jobs that resist automation are a need for negotiation, helping others personally and fitting into small spaces, all of which describe the work of most architects. We seem to be safe.

But are we?

All of these studies evaluate jobs as they are currently defined. They don’t consider how a given job could be redefined to make it more easily automated. Take architecture. Almost all buildings are now unique and must be designed one at a time. It’s part of our ideology that each design problem should be considered one its own terms and that valid design solutions are specific to a particular site, program and client. This is expensive and time-consuming and results in expensive and time-consuming construction. Unique designs mean unique pieces of construction that require extensive negotiation among the parties and create uncertainty as to their ultimate cost. Our clients would clearly benefit financially if the process could be automated to require less time and manpower and entail less uncertainty. BIM and other technologies may increase the industry’s productivity and reduce uncertainty to some degree, but as long as buildings are and must be unique, the process can’t be fundamentally changed. But what if buildings were not unique, or more precisely, uniqueness itself were redefined?

What if our clients decided that they were willing to sacrifice some of the creativity architects bring to their buildings in exchange for a radically streamlined design and construction process? What if buildings could still be responsive to a client’s specific needs without months of design and a long, uncertain period of construction?

Expert systems are already being constructed in many fields (including ours) that search databases of previous case studies and employ algorithms that take into account many variables to come up with solutions that work for a specific problem. Parametric design techniques are being used to improve building performance. For building categories like housing that tend towards a few typical designs, the task is even easier.

Architects’ jobs can be automated if design is defined as satisfying performance goals.

This is a problem computers can solve faster and better than we can. Many architects are already going down this path. Some have the explicit goal of improving building performance. In itself, this is all well and good, but market logic will take it further than they realize. Even architects who are using these tools to invent new processes and create novel objects and spaces are unwittingly enabling the market to redefine architecture so it can dispense with architects. If the market can replace labor with machines, it will.

The weavers entered the history books in 1826. What will be the year that history looks back on and says, “there went the architects”?