Over the past two decades digital technology has only just begun to permeate the processes and infrastructure of the building industry. While you may see iPads on today’s construction sites and high-resolution digital renderings plastered on the job signs out front, construction itself remains one of the human activities least transformed by the waves of technology sweeping through society.
The manufacturing industry, for example, invests four times more in digital tools than do we in construction. There clearly is room to improve. But I think construction is improving and buildings completed in years to come will benefit from three sets of big changes under way.
The transition from hand drawing to computer-aided design that began in the early 1990s was a straightforward translation from manual to electronic drafting. The subsequent change -- well under way today but hardly mature -- to high-resolution digital modeling (often called “building information modeling, or BIM) is a much more important change that should be fully realized across the design and construction process by 2030. And a recently completed survey by McGraw-Hill measured adoption rates of BIM in the U.S. by architects and contractors above 70%, so we’re clearly on our way here.
“Full” realization involves the combination of high-resolution models and complex simulation software that both describes the physical artifact and allows its performance and behavior to be simulated. This means traditional design methods will be turned inside out—in unexpected ways.
By 2030 extremely detailed models will be created using the unlimited computational power of the cloud, essentially eliminating the need for notation or abstraction. Designers will be able to “choose” which issues demand creative solutions and defer others to resolution by computation.
The “solution space” of possible answers will be generated computationally and contemporaneously, based on the constraints of the design problem itself. Imagine if, as a building design were being generated, a computer could simultaneously report its energy performance, cost, occupancy behavior, lifecycle use of water, or any other characteristic that could be simulated through “Big Data” on the cloud?
I predict a renaissance of new, provocative and highly innovative design will ensue as human designers concern themselves with the ineffable, creative aspects of design and leave performance to computation. Both artistic aspiration and performance will be enhanced as a result.
Those same digital models created by architects and engineers will be the basis of assembled—versus built—final projects. In the next two decades the availability of very low cost construction labor, such as that now driving building booms in Asia, Brazil and the Middle East, will diminish with the rise of the new middle class in emerging economies. Those consumers will create huge demand for buildings that traditional methods—labor-intensive, on-site, “stick built” techniques—can’t possibly fulfill.
As concepts like three-dimensional printing mature, more components of buildings that have been pre-determined by the digital models will be “printed” on factory floors, and then delivered for assembly into completed buildings. Increased precision, energy performance, and sustainable construction will result, with better quality control and much less job-site waste. Time to completion will accelerate by 50% or better; assembly may be assisted by robotic machinery that will be the 2030 version of today’s construction cranes. Altogether, building will look much more like manufacturing than local craft.
The retail center of 2030 will be populated by customers who, during the day, work in steady jobs in the factories that created its component parts. Some will “drive” the computer-controlled machinery that works the job site to complete assembly. The most effective fabrication/assembly companies will service a globalized supply chain that delivers houses, schools and hospitals everywhere.