Does new technology mean that the age of mass production and homogeneity is over?
Architects have a 2% chance of being made redundant in the future as a result of computerisation, according to the study ‘The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to automation?’ by Oxford University academics Michael Osborne and Carl Frey. New technology is ‘quite unlikely’ to destroy the architect. By comparison, for the many of the trades that work with architects on site, 60% to 70% can expect to be replaced by offsite manufacture and robotisation.
The original paper, published in 2013, was motivated by John Maynard Keynes’s frequently cited prediction of widespread technological unemployment ‘due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour’. In recent decades, computers have indeed replaced people in a number of jobs, including bookkeepers, cashiers and telephone operators. Most recently, poorly performing labour markets in advanced economies have intensified the debate about technological unemployment.
So while there will be industry changes around construction and property – even estate agents have a 68% likelihood of being replaced by automation – questions remain over what architects will do and how they will work. AluK’s first roundtable took this as its subject, asking: ‘To what extent does new technology mean that the age of mass production and homogeneity is over?’ Discussions addressed how this third industrial revolution will affect the production of construction information and the way buildings look.
It is within our capability now not to have monotonous repetition; we can have mass customisation and greater variety
For much of the 20th century, shortly after Henry Ford initiated the use of assembly line manufacturing, architects imagined a similar future for architecture. Enter the International Style, the machine for living in, and later the 1960s obsession with prefabricated buildings. Ever since architecture has moved toward greater levels of global homogeneity – which still attracts major criticism.
Yet today, technological advancement has turned a corner, progressing to such an extent that the loss of individual identity in the 20th century may be reinstatable while retaining the benefits of the second industrial revolution, including the assembly line.
‘It is within our capability now,’ said Nigel Ostine, the roundtable’s chair and project delivery director at Hawkins\Brown, ‘We can avoid monotonous repetition; we can have mass customisation and greater variety.’
What is the current technology we have, how is it being used and what is coming up?
For all the potential and discussion of a mass customisable future, participants at the roundtable felt overwhelmingly that this future has not arrived.
Friedrich Ludewig, founder of Acme Architects, said: ‘Independently of what we do in the office – all the things we see going out, all the things we send – architecture and construction is still an incredibly handmade industry.'
Nevertheless, it wasn’t felt that it would be fair to put a judgement on whether or not architecture and construction are behind the curve. It was pointed out that few designers have cracked the digital production of, for example, T-shirts, where repetition is high – rather that it is more effective to ship the manufacturing to sweatshops in Bangladesh.
‘Even with unitised facades, there is a lot of hand labour putting them together and they are then installed by people control,’ continued Ludewig. ‘So far every time we have gone with a very digital product to the market, we have hit a brick wall where it is costed double the price of doing it by hand.’
Every job is different
The reason for this was not just put down to tooling up costs. Around the table, everyone agreed that architecture is a different game; each project is different, always tailored to a site, programme and orientation.
‘We are often unfairly compared to the car industry,’ said Tim Partington, director at Chapman Taylor. ‘Every building we do is essentially a prototype. It responds to context, textuality, the client’s requirements. Architects do not have the luxury to test a product then refine and refine it. When we developed something similar for the schools programme, as soon as we took it out to commercial clients, it had to become much more flexible, responding to individual needs.’
Additionally, if practices have invested in R&D, working with technologically advanced software or systems for a long time, it has not been matched by real achievements – the programmes are there, but they lack a real-world translation so stay virtual. While Tom Murphy of David Miller Architects thought BIM was able to provide that by ‘cutting out so many potentially wasteful processes between design stage and construction on site’, Alan Shingler, partner and head of residential at Sheppard Robson Architects, disagreed.
‘We are working on a civic centre in Hounslow, producing it in Revit and standardising components as much as possible,’ he said. ‘The problem arises when going out to procurement: our client doesn’t want to go down the nominated supplier route because of cost, so now we are devising three different ways to fabricate the panels.’
The biggest obstacle was seen as the supply chain – even with a Lego-like kit of parts.
‘It has been 30 years since the first computer came my way,’ said Simon Appleby, design director at Berkeley Homes Central London. ‘It was in a room on its own. We have got to a point where we can go to site and hold up an iPad to see what should be there, so it is baby steps. These days you can draw things in 3D and hand them to a manufacturer to take into their software, but getting that back into your software or into a client-friendly end-user maintenance manual is a nightmare. Everybody has built it in a different system. We need one platform.’
Speaking on behalf of McMullen Facades in Belfast, Ronnie Mills insisted that it is now possible to create the same building physics but adapt them to every design: ‘It is about getting balance, not designing from scratch. Getting on a job early is when manufacturers can bring the most value.’ Objections to this were that it would prevent clients going to the open market, and that the computing power needed to organise all the subcontractors would still require a room at the end of the corridor in which to carry out the complex calculations occurring even, for example, from changing a door height.
So what is on the horizon?
As the participants focused mainly on pitfalls in the supply chain and making side of architecture, Murphy identified that to become more efficient in the future, the process needs someone on the project – client, architect, contractor – to drive it through, tying all these different systems together.
‘In my office,’ agreed Shingler ‘there is a gap between those who really understand what, for example, Revit can do, and those who understand what they want Revit to do. I’m learning Revit, but I rely on other people to do it. For me it will be about not where the tools are, but how to use and apply them to the process we all understand; not to try to force something that’s not set up to the changes.’
Yet some members of the group did feel the software was still not up to scratch and would welcome improvements to iron out problems that obstruct its fundamental use anywhere along production.
‘What we have at the moment cannot do options, is not instinctive and does not understand at different points in the design that the architect hasn’t made up its mind, that there is more than one way of doing it,’ explained Ludewig. ‘Software is not set up for mass customisation. It is necessary to work back and forth between different software to get the result we want, filling in all the corners along the way. There are no curves in Switzerland because architects there have been using ArchiCAD for 10 years – the constraints of the programme end up in the design.’
These problems materialise again at a manufacturing level, with Mills, Partington and Appleby agreeing that it is not possible to run a factory in Revit and that it is necessary to spend a lot of time optimising drawings. A way around this should be on the horizon.
Mills raised a further last minute issue: that soon it would be necessary to address the contractual position of a building model. ‘This is non-existent at the moment. As a sub-contractor who is signing up to take design responsibility to deliver a facade in a building, right now the building model has no status in our contract documents. It doesn’t exist in that legal framework. We have to look at how to deal with that as it will move from designers towards fabricators. We must be very careful how we use the model because it is not contractual and it is always live.’
Should we customise just because we can?
The jury was out on whether mass customisation was positive. For some architects around the table it meant constricted designs and flawed processes, but others saw it as a major asset, particularly for certain types of buildings including residential, hotels and schools.
‘One of the biggest advantages we have seen with the early implementation of BIM is that it allows you to create bespoke solutions for essentially the same price as a standardised building,’ said Murphy. ‘You are producing information that goes straight to a CNC. It cuts out the ambiguity that was there with 2D drawings.’
But real potential was seen was in architectural expression and a shift to greater ornamentation through implementing bespoke elements crafted using machinery such as CNC machines and digitally printed glazing – Here East in London by Hawkins\Brown was cited as a key example. Technological changes such as 3D printing to create prototyping and grow metal parts would make customisation affordable. The key will be about using standardised systems to produce customised objects. Ostime explained: ‘Now it seems that the International Style was just that, a style, and we are getting to something more culturally rich.’ There is an appetite for ornamentation from clients – and that’s where the creativity of architects, so essential to the process and reliant on people power, comes in.
Who was there
Nigel Ostime project delivery director, Hawkins\Brown (chair)
Nigel Headford, head of sales - major projects, AluK
Interested in producing a system that works in a systemised manner to create bespoke solutions and to start using BIM all the way through the design and construction process.
Alan Shingler, partner and head of residential, Sheppard Robson Architects
Fascinated by how to use BIM and technology in later stages, and in parametric modelling to design and inform components and form at an early stage.
Friedrich Ludewig, founder, Acme Architects
Young practice that works with contractors to create customisation, and sees little repetition in architecture.
Simon Appleby, design director, Berkeley Homes Central London
Interested in how systems and armature added to buildings – facades, bathrooms, etc – can be improved by technology.
Ronnie Mills, technical director, McMullen Facades
Concerned with how building facades that can go through a production line process while still incorporating design intent.
Tim Partington, director, Chapman Taylor
Keen to understand how to improve ways of working with contractors and get smarter at building things.
Tom Murphy, architect, David Miller Architects
Early adopter of BIM in architecture: believes it can be used to create bespoke solutions that are not costly.
James Baker, architect director, BDP
Interested in how BIM can be fully integrated from stage C with sub-contractors, particularly regarding facade technology
AluK and RIBAJ will be continuing this conversation at ALUK’s new London showroom (Worship St, EC2A 2AB) on 14 April from 18:00, with Nigel Ostime as chair again. To participate at this free-to-attend seminar please go to ribaj.com/alukseminar