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How digital transformation & climate crisis is shaping the architecture industry

Article-How digital transformation & climate crisis is shaping the architecture industry

David Manfredi, Director – Architecture and Building Engineering, KSA, at Atkins, a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group, speaks to Cityscape Intelligence about the climate crisis, technology, and the evolving role of architecture.

What do you think the biggest trends and developments will be in architecture over the next 5 years?

Architects are aware of a shift in context and we need to think about integrating the influences of the wider world and connected or adjacent industries into design now more than ever. Architects are very good at innovating and multi-tasking and we need to embrace this further by digesting and processing multiple influences.

On a global scale, we all know that the construction industry is massively behind on advancement, I believe this is because only individual fragments are moving forward, not the united whole. Contractually, collaboratively, legislatively, we are quite disparate. Architects need to be informed, especially in terms of where construction can go, namely modular and off-site (DfMA) and 3D printing. We need to push harder.

Other areas of course are the smart and resilient city models. Technology has leapt forward even in the immediate past so now we can truly drive out value, connected services, and optimisation of digital systems and infrastructure.

Then there are the more tangible agendas of liveable cities, the 15-minute city, urban farming, vertical cities, health, wellbeing, and wellness – not the least of which has been influenced by what we’re all dealing with through Covid-19. They all impact how we plan buildings, features, and aspects of those buildings. In their separate ways, they influence design, technology, and how they connect to the immediate and wider context.

ArchitectureTrends (1)

How are architects designing for the current climate crisis?

The building takes around 40% of the global energy which plays a major part on the climate crisis. We take this seriously at SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business not only in the architecture discipline but across all our service lines, and this has encouraged us to develop core elements of standard practice in our work. These not only assist with climate issues but also improve the wellbeing of the end-user through:

  • Reduction of the human footprint, for example, efficiency in spaces through utilizing multi-functional and multipurpose spaces
  • Local materials in construction
  • Understanding the material behaviour in response to the context and time
  • Energy-efficient design and renewable energy approaches

Moving into a more urban context, we are looking at designing for less movement as well as more efficient and sustainable built form and transportation solutions such:

  • 15-minute cities that provide functions needed within one ecosystem in the urban block
  • Smart cities that provide connected and integrated services and intelligent information at your fingertips

How will design standards change to prepare for future recessions?

Economic events such as recessions are cyclical, and these cycles are affected by different characteristics. It is often asked if the cycles be avoided, but they cannot complete. But we can potentially consider flattening the curve, to lessen the impact, and diversify the effects by building cities that are more adaptive, flexible and resilient.

City development is possibly too reactionary in considering the economic cycle, focusing on the growth and expansion of the city when the market is growing and focusing on improvement, enhancement, fine-tuning and incentivizing when the market is falling. The more that we are efficient, smart and sustainable the more we can become resilient to the changes and prepare for future events.

Perhaps it is about design standards, but it is as much about planning policy and encouraging legislators to connect with the professions, including cross-industry, government and the financial institutions, to seek out opportunities that not only solve problems but create new ways of thinking and provide the necessary elements for the evolutionary push that is needed.


How is the role of architecture evolving in terms of designing for the end-user?

I think it’s been evolving for some time and certainly, we are eons away from the ‘architect as master’ historically. We live and work in a much more collaborative environment, more so than ever before and as the world gets more complex, architects come into their own. Why do I say that? A well rounded and experienced architect must be able to have deep conversations and solve complex problems from ‘the façade to the core’ – to put it in simplistic building terms. There are 100 conversations and 100 different and competing interests and the architect must navigate a course through them. It is really a game of compromise and holding true to a certain line of highest value and service.

As related to the end-user, the success of a project is built on having a good client who actively joins the design process and who articulates or allows access to the end-users. Getting to know the needs of the client’s customer is key to this. Then the architect can bring their best to the project and focus on success elements rather than be burdened by preconceived ideas or cookie-cutter solutions.

We need to focus on the benefits for the end-user and the surroundings. We need to let the architecture reveal itself in a deeper understanding of a flexible future and we need to forecast the experience in all four dimensions of space and time. That might sound overly poetic, but the most sustainable results come when the building can let us grow with it, and can grow with us and our changing needs, as well as economic and cultural change.

How will technology and digital transformation impact design?

From the recent experience of Covid-19, we can see that forward leaps are made when we need them, or perhaps force them. The advances we’ve seen in the past 12-24 months in communication and design-related technology are the culmination of the journey of the recent decades and they’ve broken us through into a new era. The culmination is probably an unfair word, surely, it’s more of a stepping stone in a longer journey. Sensors, data, processing power all connecting with adjacent industries such as transport, with its autonomous vehicles and the increased accuracy and durability of drones; even the gaming world with developers like Unreal Engine.

But the key here is that technology is a tool. Yes, it can help us better understand X’s behaviour with Y factor, and that adds another dimension in the design process. But the designers must use these tools for more efficient and sustainable outcomes. There’s no point knowing more to then only continue doing the same, as goes one of my favourite quotes: ‘the lightbulb did not come from the continuous improvement of candles’ (Oren Harari).

What does this mean for design? I think enlightened designers are already across the tools and are searching for ways to better use them. It’s the nature of the design and construction industry to test new things. Mature clients are ready and familiar with what can be produced and expected, how to use the information to make decisions and how to engage with their consultants for the benefit of the project, some contractors are also in that place. But as soon as parts of that group are not, misalignment happens, inefficiencies occur, and the industry finds a way to lag at the bottom of the innovation league table. At SNC-Lavalin, we have a dedicated team that wholly focusses upon digital and technology. Our business is becoming more and more about data and how we manage this data in the way we operate, the way we design and the way we behave as a business. We have been using BIM on our projects for well over a decade now but developments in 4D all the way to 7D are starting to impact on the way we design our projects.



Photo Credit: Rabih Shasha on Unsplash

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