Architectural Evolution: The Impact of Emerging Technology on Design

It doesn’t take an Architect to notice that architectural design has changed throughout history, a trend that doesn’t show signs of slowing down. Today we design bolder, more complex buildings that even ten years ago would be considered infeasible if not impossible.

Suppose an architect has an innovative and highly complicated design idea, what are the steps that turn that idea into a physical building? The first hurdle is to take the concept and package it in a way that helps the client visualize it in the same way the architect does. If you have ever played the game “telephone” you understand how difficult that can be to keep the message or intention intact. After the first challenge is met the architect then runs into a second hurdle, how do you build something that has never been built before? If that doesn’t seem complicated enough it is immediately followed up by the third obstacle: How much does something that no one has ever tried to build cost, and how do we pay for it? In the design industry, we call these “design problems” and we use any tools available to solve them.

Advancements in technology can be given a lot of credit for the increase in innovative designs because that technology forms a big part of the designer’s tool belt. Design ideas come from people, not software. Though it is true that software isn’t how we design, it is often how we express and show our ideas. One could argue it is the biggest part of our job as architects. Big ideas can exist on their own but they don’t become reality if they cannot be adequately explained. Architecture is a service industry and we produce many products along the way. Perhaps the greatest of these products is our vision. We find that the best way to sell our vision and ideas is to show them.

The rapid pace of technological advancement can be intimidating to even the most tech-literate individual. Once you master AutoCAD, Revit unfolds and becomes the new standard. One might ask what the point of learning something is if it will become obsolete? That tale of inevitable replacement will repeat itself indefinitely. Staying current with technology keeps us competitive and adds value to the services we are able to offer. LCA Architects decided early on to take on a leadership role for our business, the industry, our clients and the public when it comes to adopting new technologies.

How does a company set the pace for adopting new technology? Leading the pack with the adoption of new technology can be a rough position to take and is riddled with things to consider. Consultants and contractors have to be able to keep up and if you get too far ahead of them you may actually complicate the communication needed to provide quality, collaborative design. At the same time, if you don’t push the status quo, someone else will.

It is hard to predict which new tech will be the next game changer in our industry and no company can afford to jump on every potential lead. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are two significant emerging tools that have been making huge advances in the last few years. Though VR and AR aren’t new to the public the design industry has only just begun to ride the wave of popularity, and with good reason. With any new product, there can be a lack of third party support. Smartphone applications, desktop software, and other aspects of this technology require a host of online tutorials, online user groups, customer support etc. that need time to evolve and improve. New technology in its infancy is also often cost prohibitive, adding to the list of good reasons to wait before diving in. As an advocate for new technology, one can see that these reasons aren’t a deterrent, but simply obstacles that must be considered and overcome before making significant changes in the way a company operates. From that perspective the question is no longer “if” but “when.”

LCA Architects continually looks for innovative ways to improve workflow, increase productivity and efficiency without sacrificing the quality of our products and services. We must gauge when we feel that the technology has developed enough to accomplish these goals and then move to implement it in our workflow.

The emerging virtual reality renaissance has afforded us the ability to take 3-D models, which are already a product of our workflow, and allow our clients to virtually stand inside the building we have designed. A video walkthrough might be a more successful aid to our clients in fundraising than a printed rendering. But even a video walkthrough pales in comparison to the full immersion that today’s technology can provide. It is the classic adage of “a picture is worth a thousand words” escalated to the next level.

Since visual communication is the backbone of our field it is becoming apparent that virtual reality can speak volumes over floor plans, sections and elevations. Even professional designers, engineers and builders require some time to orient themselves when looking at a set of plans for the first time so logically we cannot expect a client to truly understand a design over a brief meeting when handed the same documents. Miscommunications and unmet expectations are largely eliminated when you can hand your client a VR headset and allow them to “be” in the space that is being discussed.

LCA Architects utilizes technology blended with the traditional design process to explore new ways to reach our clients’ goals. When we have made it ‘click’ for the client it allows all parties involved in the project to breathe easier knowing that we are all on the same page. Additionally, enhancing our process with VR results in less rework and fewer surprises as the project unfolds.

In measuring the success of this new technology we find that the benefits do not end with improved communication and happier clients. Some of these programs we use to produce VR content actually reduce the time it takes to produce a traditional rendering or photorealistic image. Since these images take less time to produce, they are therefore less expensive allowing us to represent smaller projects with beautiful images that did not fit into their budgets before. Additionally, we can generate more images, meaning access to more material for marketing. Improving the products we produce and the process of that production shows a metric of success that benefits everyone.

As design professionals, we are constantly proving ourselves and our qualifications as we seek additional work. A resume stating your qualifications as a designer is vital, but when you can take your client beyond the traditional approach and allow them to stand within their project to see it for themselves you have provided a magical experience, which in turn makes you a magician.

Architecture is not a new industry but it must constantly shed its skin and reinvent itself. The general public rarely gets as excited as we do about architecture. This “new skin” that emerging technology has uncovered has a different look about it and for the first time in a long time, everyone has a reason to be excited.

Tyler Hash is an AIT at LCA Architects, P.A. headquartered in Boise, Idaho.

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