Is Construction the Least Innovation Industry?
This article resumes the conversation on the article, “Is Construction America’s Least Innovative Industry” and the HKS Viewpoint by Design Director Dan Noble. Dan touches on the many innovations the architectural practice has adopted, including BIM software, parametric modeling, and fabrication technologies. This article highlights the adoptions and innovations that architects and designers have made in the last few years. However, while related, architecture is not construction. At the moment these processes are disconnected. Unlike fabrication where the role of the architect is blurring the processes between design and fabrication. Therefore I would like to continue the conversation by reiterating what computation or parametric modeling does for design in terms of the discipline or practice of architecture, but more importantly how the construction process (not architecture) is becoming out-of-touch with the process of building.
Perhaps more important than the creation of fluid forms and form-finding are the analytical drivers behind the process of finding the form, accounting for processes such as the psychological aspects inherent in geometric forms, their relationship to human physiology, and the influence of physical environmental factors on real-world objects. In this way, parametric modeling today has advanced since its predecessors of the 1990’s and blob-architecture. Parametric modeling allows us to input useful numeric data [such as climate data, structural analysis (stresses and strains), fluid dynamics testing (the effects of wind and water), thermodynamics, and acoustic analysis (to name a few)] toward the creation of geometric form. This allows models to be designed not just by their geometric Euclidean definition, but rather by the relationships between objects and the physical forces acting on them over time. This allows designers to advance beyond form-for-forms-sake (created in a vacuum), but gives the ability to measure form (and other like variables of a given project) against performance/fitness criteria. This brings us to another innovative leap in the form of simulation, giving designers the ability to simulate scenarios with real world physics and view the possible outcomes before construction occurs. Previous eras, through trial-and-error, needed large lengths of time to test the fitness of built designs over decades and centuries, fine tuning their built-designs by making incremental adjustments. The present time period evolving from manual analysis toward computational analysis and simulation in building design may be likened to a time period in human evolution when humans were transitioning from body gestures to spoken-word or from spoken-word toward the transfer of ideas through written word. Once ideas were able to be written down and transmitted over subsequent generation’s knowledge and learning grew exponentially. In the larger context of human evolution the processes of simulating ideas before they occur in the real world through implementation of real-world analytical data is another such milestone. Through the use of simulation, such as in the case of implementing evolutionary genetic algorithms, we are able to evolve the design of buildings and components through thousands of generations, even simulating millions of generations that evolve through factors of environmental influences (fitness criteria) upon a form or structure. Rather than waiting decades to fine-tune real-world structures we are able to simulate this in a matter of minutes, arriving at a fittest solution before construction begins.
In addition to simulation in the initial stages of the design process, past processes that began utilizing computational power [in architecture] such as CAD still had a disconnect in terms of their relationship with fabrication and manufacturing technologies. Today we are bridging that gap with the ability to directly input digital models and components directly into the fabrication process. Unlike previous decades where standardized modules were created and relied upon, whether they were mud bricks or curtain wall assemblies, we are now able to create customized components that allow for a greater flexibility in designs, precision of machined parts, and allows for less material waste by finding the most efficient means of fabrication beforehand. This brings a level of craft back to the discipline, where the architect is directly capable of creating forms and objects without the need to rely on specialized skilled labor. Where modernist architecture and the international style proliferated due to its simplification and use of standardized parts, designers are now able to explore complexity due to customization and precision craft.
To explore the topic outlined in the title of the article more in-depth it seems important to explore the lineage of fabrication and computation and how this has affected disciplines such as architecture in terms of their adoption time (trickle-down technology) compared to those of other fields (aviation, automotive, textiles, etc.). Aviation and automotive manufacturers are already years or decades ahead of architectural production in terms of their use of computation, digital models, and fabrication tools (such as robotic manufacturing). There is a clear lineage of adoption in various industries and the time of adoption in relation to specific triggers, and architects are only now beginning to realize the potential of the computer and its fabrication tools (robots, CNC, 3d printers, laser cutters, etc.). However, the title of the article “Is Construction America’s Least Innovative Industry” alludes to the construction industry, not necessarily architecture [overall] or the design phases as being the least innovative industry (or step in the processes when architecture is fully broken down to its constituent parts).
Currently, the means of construction utilizes methods which are falling behind digital capabilities and methods or processes displayed during the beginning and interstitial stages of architectural development. Already we are seeing once human labor processes in the chain of production being handed over for mechanized processes in terms of fabricated elements. Architects and designers can now send their [increasingly complex] digital models to robots or laser cutters (for example) to be crafted rather than relying on the unknown skill of local laborers or craftsmen. Like the automotive industry processes, not only fabrication but [auto]construction too has transitioned toward robotic processes—where vehicles are digitally modeled, fabricated, and constructed using computational means. Similar to fabrication processes which utilize robots, by adding construction to this chain of even driven by digital models, allows the model (such as 4D BIM) to directly influence (and automate) the timing and overall process of construction, including the on-site delivery of materials, placement of components on the site or structure, and on-site fabrication. With the utilization of 4D BIM modeling it is not a leap to imagine the construction industry moving in the same way as fabrication [for design] is today, or the processes which the automotive industry has already adopted. This 4D-model controlled process would key in on-site deliveries of materials, management of robotic cranes and arms on the site to place components onto the building, and perhaps even control the 3D printing of concrete structures. The entire construction site would become an automated and finely tuned timed orchestration driven by the architects digital model. A large amount of the processes on the construction site today could perhaps be controlled with a greater influence put on the digital model and carried out by a computer-controlled robotic workforce. As our digital models grow increasingly complex it will become increasingly inefficient to leave the chain of events broken from computationally driven models to manual labor. Buildings today with the use of BIM, parametric modeling, and digital fabrication may include a multitude of customized components that are growing increasingly complex and difficult for unskilled or even skilled workers to construct preceding fabrication (based on time of construction or complexity of the project [numbers of components]). To aid in the precision and timing of these models, robotic/digital construction offers the ability to directly receive information from the digital model, fabricate, and construct the buildings in perhaps a more efficient and precise manner.