This post highlights insights about data platform advances, discussion about improving work practices, and efficiency in the building industry from the 2017 Fall event, Autodesk University.

Overland has spent our career building a community that draws on the rich variety of unique perspectives and experiences of its individuals. The differences in our thought and problem-solving processes push the boundaries of our design and each other. We hope sharing these diverse thoughts inspire others to challenge design and create conversations that stimulate new possibilities.

One of the main themes of this year’s Autodesk University (AU) was how technologies and automation are going to change the architectural profession and our way of life. Since attending AU, I have become more aware of how often these topics are brought up in the news.  Many articles echo the sentiments of the discussions people had about the transitions that happened during the Industrial Revolution of the 17th century and in the proliferation of industrial factories in the early 20th century. At least once per week, there is another news piece about how automated technologies, such as driverless cars, are going to make our lives easier, how they are going help us keep in touch with each other, and how they are going to help to save the environment. There are also contradictory pieces that posit that these new technologies are not safe, they are going to take away jobs from humans, and they are ruining our personal interactions by making us spend more time with machines than with people.

Exhibition floor at Autodesk University 2017 Photo credit: Autodesk

These same feelings of wonder and fear of technology exist in the architectural profession. The idea presented in many of the sessions at Autodesk University was that we as architects can leverage new technologies to help us make more informed decisions and help us in the design and construction processes. But there are many architects that still view technology as antithetical to the design process. Some view things like parametric design and coding as taking control away from the hands of an architect and opening the field of architectural design to competition from people who are not trained architects.

The fear of losing jobs to technology is much the same now as it was during the Industrial Revolution. Just as we saw in this time period, technology will, rather than just destroying jobs, shift jobs to different markets, shift the skills required for jobs, and create new types of jobs and job specializations. This shift was reflected during the Industrial Revolution when increasing numbers of people began making products using machinery rather than their own hands and living in cities rather than working in rural areas.

At Overland, we examine how our work processes will grow and change in the future, and in particular how we will leverage technology.  Attending conferences like Autodesk University allows us to see what is happening in the wider practice of architecture and how that can shape our work.  The following stories are authored by myself and are based on automation and technology topics that were brought up at Autodesk University. They illustrate some of the hypothetical extremes of how technology might change our profession.

Robots Want Your Job

It’s only 8 a.m. and the line stretches half way around the block. What was once an institute of advocacy is now a glorified unemployment agency. Architects rush in as the doors open to try to get to the front of the lines that form inside.

The robots had come. They had taken all the jobs and always said, “Have a nice day!” Not all at once, but faster than anyone was ready for. By the time people began to see their jobs were disappearing, the economy had already shifted. Automation was everything. Anything that could be described by physics was given to a robot rather than a human hand. Anything that could be described by an algorithm replaced the possibility of human error.

The ones too proud to give up the capital “A” of their title go to pick up unemployment checks. Some scramble to the lines for assistance in finding design-related jobs. The ones that are less proud or more desperate shuffle off to training rooms to be retrained for new jobs. There are courses in applying design skills to hairstyling, nails, and other jobs that still require a personal touch. But those jobs are becoming scarcer, and with so many people desperate for work, the pay is hardly enough to live on.

Barry and Bill

Meet Barry. Barry lives in the near future. Most people call him barry_onyx42 as people in the future are often addressed by their usernames. And also because there were forty-one other people that were more clever and faster at typing on the keyboard than Barry.

Barry is an architect. Barry always wears black. Barry always has the latest gadgets but doesn’t really know how to use them. Barry still thinks BIM is a new-fangled thing that lives in a cloud somewhere. Barry’s computer is mostly an elaborate day planner when it is in actual working order.

Barry doesn’t do much in the way of architecture. He picks out a lot of toilet seats and throw pillows and occasionally is asked about window shades. He spends a lot of time worrying about the thickness of the card stock for his business cards and the font for his title. His clients don’t really understand why there is a little dinosaur on his business cards, but they think it is very quaint that he seems to fuss over them.

Meet Bill. Bill is not a builder with a plastic hat and mud all over his shoes. Bill is a contractor and works in an office. Bill saw how much time and money architects like Barry and other contractors wasted on their own egos and in using outdated practices. Bill didn’t understand the latest in technology or know how to code, but he hired people that did have that knowledge.

Bill and contractors like him learned to leverage iterative design and virtual construction to present options and prices to clients in real time. Bill found machines and robots that could build things faster, cheaper, more accurately, and with less risk than humans. Bill and contractors like Bill were eventually able to cut architects out of the design process for most projects.

Kelsey Stein of Skanska discusses how they are combining virtual reality, iterative design, and cost estimating to present information to potential clients.

A Technological Utopia

They all arrive at the workspace, but no one is physically there. Data, parameters, constraints, thoughts, and feelings flow from the site and the minds of the clients, flooding the boundaries of the blank space with light and color. The engineers and the architect clad in shining black move toward the podium. There, all the data coalesces into forms. They see not one but all possibilities with outcomes both favorable and not. With glances, gestures, and manipulations they parse through the visions and modulate space. Together with the client, they hone in on a singular design.

The overall theme of Autodesk University was to do more, do better, and do it with less. There are many problems in our world such as housing shortages, decreasing access to clean drinking water, and other environmental conditions that will be exacerbated by population growth. AU’s message is that we should intelligently use technology and automation to address these issues in a socially and environmentally responsive way.

I think that keeping this optimistic viewpoint is a better way to approach the change that we will see in our profession. Choosing to view changes in technology with only anxiety or fear will ultimately result in stagnation and becoming obsolete. The definition of what an architect is and what kind of skills are necessary for an architect to have may change as more technology and coding becomes part of the process of designing and constructing buildings. It is not possible to track all of the changes in technology nor is it possible to identify which new things are a fad and which will be more permanent, so it is important to evaluate new technology based on what is both practical and by what can do the most good.

  • Ben

    Thanks for sharing, Albert! I loved the near-future vignettes. Many different ways technology can go–will we be able to be good stewards and good humans as these changes occur?