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Data-led intuition is the key to designing for the digital age

Dale Sinclair

Architects will need to pool their knowledge as climate change and digital construction techniques herald a data-led revolution in the design process

Every project has different levers that might fire up the ideas for a great design – but we can use data to drive our intuition. Here Alma-nac’s House within a House.
Every project has different levers that might fire up the ideas for a great design – but we can use data to drive our intuition. Here Alma-nac’s House within a House. Credit: Alma-nac

Designing buildings is an age-old art. It requires a brief, a site, its context and the client’s vision and values for the project to define and develop a readable and robust brief before a unique piece of architecture can be created. Aligning every element requires many contradictions and ambiguities to be navigated as the design progresses. And that’s just the start.

The design team needs to be managed, and engineering and other project strategies must be coordinated into the design. These have increased over the years and include acoustics, fire, wayfinding, facade, lighting, security and accessibility. Achieving net zero emissions requires more elements to be considered, such as circular economy principles, operational energy use, materials, embodied carbon reduction strategies and more.

The design needs to be tendered and a building contract awarded to enable the project to be constructed. In recent years, the contractor has increasingly completed more of the design. Even traditional contracts might have several specialist subcontractors designing piling, facades, building services or more. In many instances, the contractor takes responsibility for completing the design. The design team might be novated or alternatively the contractor might appoint its own design team. There are myriad ways one can go.

Kick-starting the design process is one of the biggest challenges on a project. What to do first? Massing models? Sketches? Plans? Relationship diagrams? Facade sketches? Every project has different levers that might fire up the ideas for a great design. Once this been secured there should be a straightforward map towards planning and then construction information. There is not. Thousands of tasks need to be undertaken every time.

We are likely to see a major paradigm shift, last seen when Brunelleschi and his cohort invented the scaled drawing

The diversity of the topics noted above makes delivering a process map nigh on impossible. Corralling stakeholder comments is a significant challenge. Locking in dates is difficult. Sometimes a design clicks into place. Other times, it can take weeks before a workable design that ticks all the boxes, from cost to co-ordination, is ready to share. It is for this reason that the process that sits on top of the design process remains fundamentally driven by intuition. Indeed, without years of knowledge, outcomes would be worse, and a skilled practitioner is able to know when to dial up the rhetoric of the key aspects of the design. Design management assists but it must be incredibly agile and adaptive to be successful.

This process is ready for a revolution. Covid-19 is widely talked about as being the catalyst for change, however, there are two other bigger drivers. First, climate change. We are only beginning our vital journey towards net-zero emissions. Right now, setting targets is easy. However, as 2030 and then 2050 nudge closer it will get harder. The regulatory environment will get tougher. There will be greater emphasis on refurbishment and adaptive buildings. Less must come out of a building. Every product replacement must be justified.

Secondly, the fourth industrial revolution is well under way. And it’s about more than doing video conferencing, digital twins and smart buildings, or even parametric and generative design. The Internet of Things (IoT), cloud and sensor technologies are creating data lakes that will transform outcomes for building uses as new end-user applications connect a building’s data, providing new insights and information for users. Manufacturing will be transformed as mass customised processes face the next generation of buildings. Each concept requires a wealth of new knowledge. Connecting them requires even more. Playing them into live projects is a challenge beyond that.

Either of these two drivers would result in significant transformation but with both aligned at the time of a global pandemic we are likely to see a major paradigm shift, last seen when Brunelleschi and his cohort invented the scaled drawing.

Part of this shift requires a conversation on the role of intuition. It does not mean the end of intuition nor the end of right brain thinking. Indeed, in the world of increased automation many predict that right-brain thinking will drive the ideas and innovation of the future. Intuition is an efficient and essential part of the way of designing. However, as industry builds new knowledge-sets around these topics, the heuristic model needs to be reset. Our processes need to be led to a greater extent by data. Evidence-based design is not new. It has been used by many practices for decades. However, this is way beyond this concept. We need to get into the fine detail of knowledge management. For example, how can the 150 plus decisions required to design a staircase be captured rather than being made at random points along the design journey?

Data-led intuition points to the future. Full-bore intuition is not possible when so many aspects of design have changed. Getting to net zero emissions cannot be left to the knowledge residing in the heads of the designer. Practices must dial up efforts to undertake practice research and development. Clients are doing the same. But it doesn’t make sense to do this in isolation. Cooperation is the way to go. Already, clients who have gone cradle-to-grave in residential have set precedents and are learning from each other. If learning is not shared, industry will end up with different takeaways on each topic, making shifting from one project to the next difficult as different perceptions and problems are discussed.

The big question is who holds this shared knowledge and data - is it a new entity? Can industry bodies and activist organisations power us to the future? What is certain is that this is a significant challenge to be wrestled with. Hands up anyone who wants to assist.

Dale Sinclair is an architect and director of innovation at Aecom, and the author of the Lead Designer’s Handbook: Managing design and the design team in the digital age

For more on digital transformation see Dale Sinclair on staircases, the importance of data flow, and standardised production.  


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