Last month, I attended an online webinar, “Architectural Innovation: The technology helping architects to design for the future,” in which three leading architectural firms headquartered in the UK shared their most recent technology implementations and insights. It is always fascinating to learn about what the top AEC firms are doing from a technology perspective, given how rapidly technology is advancing across all walks of life — see, for example, ChatGPT, and how it has taken off. The firms were BDP, Bryden Wood, and Foster + Partners, and in the span of just an hour, I was able to get a concise snapshot of some their latest technology developments. The event was part of the World Architecture 100 (WA100) Live 2023 event put together by the organization, Building Design.
The perspective of BDP, short for Building Design Partnership Ltd., was presented by Alistair Kell, its Chief information Officer. The technology implementation at the firm is focused on finding the balance between the technical requirements of projects, the need to be effective and efficient in project delivery, as well as the need to maintain creativity in the design process.
One of the key technology initiatives at the firm to address these challenges is standardization. BDP designs a lot of hospitals, in the course of which it has amassed a lot of specialized knowledge in healthcare design. Typically, this kind of knowledge tends to get lost in individuals or in projects, but BDP wanted to be able to capture it and re-use it effectively. It did this by developing a centralized database of 75 different types of hospital rooms, complete with architectural geometry, interior design finishes, and MEP and structural requirements (Figure 1). This standard library can be used in any new healthcare project to jumpstart the design process, not only making the process much more efficient, but also allowing the design itself to be more consistent, accurate, and verifiable. The use of standardization during the design process can also be driven forward into construction, allowing the completed rooms to be fabricated offsite and then installed in place at the construction site.
Another key initiative at the firm is coding, scripting, and automation. Figure 2 shows an example of how generative design is being used for a multi-story residential building project to quickly generate multiple options based a range of parameters. Those options that seem promising can be exported to a design tool for further exploration and development.
Another example of the benefits of using coding and scripting was in the Everton FC Stadium project (Figure 3), which is currently under construction. Figure 4 shows how the scripting is driving the design. It starts with the core geometry on the left, which feeds into glazing, balcony, soffits, and so on, generating viable design options that are then exported to the delivery tool. The use of the scripting process in this manner allowed the roof of the project to be constructed from a restricted number of panels rather than multiple panels, which would have added enormously to the construction time, cost, and complexity of the project.
Looking into the future, BDP has been exploring the potential of generative AI (Figure 5) as well as designing for the metaverse. An example of the latter is BDP’s work on the iconic Nakagin Capsule Tower project by Kisho Kurokawa, which is being demolished and reconstructed digitally in the metaverse for sale as NFTs. BDP has produced the digital model of the entire project as well as the detailed models of the individual rooms (Figure 6).
In June 2021, I had written a dedicated article on AEC technology development at Bryden Wood, therefore I was familiar with the tools for design automation and industrialized construction that it was developing. From its start as an architectural firm in 1995, Bryden Wood has gone on to become a leading integrated design and operations consultancy for the built environment, which explains why it was approached by a consortium of leading companies and organizations like TerraPraxis, Microsoft, MIT, and Schneider Electric to work on a project called the “Repowering Coal Platform.” At the WA Live event, we learnt more about this project and about Bryden Wood’s work on it from Alastair Powell, Director at the firm.
The objective of the Repowering Coal project is to repower the hundreds of existing coal plants worldwide — the estimated count is 2,400 — with clean energy sources by the year 2050. Today, these coal-fired power plants are responsible for almost one-third of global carbon emissions, which can be eliminated by repowering them, helping the world achieve net zero. Rather than replacing the entire coal plants, the proposal is to replace their coal burners with emission-free heat sources (advanced fission, fusion, and geothermal), which would allow the continued operation of the plants, leveraging their existing infrastructure, permits, knowhow, workforce, etc., and preserving the economic benefits to the communities in which they are located (Figure 7).
A key part of the project is a modular design for the new reactors, so that they can be quickly built anywhere in the world with standard components that can be prefabricated in a factory and assembled on site. This is where Bryden Wood comes in, with its proven expertise in industrialized design and construction. It has developed a standard design as shown in Figure 8, comprising an island of nuclear reactors that will be built on the site of the coal plant along with a heat storage and transfer system, which is the interface between the plant and the reactors. The number of the reactors on the site will be determined by the desired energy-generation capacity of the plant.
The most critical component of the design from a safety perspective is the nuclear reactor building which will house the SMRs (small modular reactors). As shown in Figure 9, the building is constructed of a limited number of standard components which can be prefabricated in a factory and assembled on site. This includes the seismic isolation system on which the building is mounted, a foundation that can be used anywhere in the world irrespective of local geological conditions. In addition to being constructed of standardized components, the building itself is designed to accommodate a variety of SMR types, with a standardized cross-section that can be easily expanded with additional sections if needed.
As with Bryden Wood, the technology development at Foster+Partners had been described in detail in an earlier AECbytes article from Aug 2020 which was authored by Han Shi, Head of BIM & Design Systems at the firm. At the WA100 event, the current state of the art was presented by Martha Tsigkari, Senior Partner and Head of Applied R&D at the firm. Not surprisingly, it is advancing at a rapid pace with many new tools that have been developed and that are being implemented on projects. The overall attitude to technology at Foster+Partners is that technology is not a challenge but a possibility, and it allows these possibilities to then become realities.
Some of the recent technologies being developed and implemented at the firm include Interactive Physical Modelling, which links a physical model to a digital model such that by tracking the physical model as it is manipulated in real time, key performance metrics can be calculated on the linked digital model. This allows intuitive yet informed decision making, and it was one of the key technologies used by the firm to create performance-driven designs (Figure 10).
Other custom tools developed by Foster+Partners include Thalia, which is not only a collaborative design system considering metrics such as daylight, views, sound, sunlight, CFD, etc., but can also analyze soft criteria such as occupant well-being (Figure 11); Cyclops, which uses GPU computing to be able to interactively visualize large design projects and analyze aspects such as views very quickly (Figure 12); Hydra, which is a generative program for urban design creating hundreds of design options satisfying specified daylighting, connectivity, views, and other criteria, of which the most promising are selected for further exploration (Figure 13); and Hermes, an interoperability solution that can automatically propagate a design change to all design disciplines instead of requiring each of them to recalculate, redesign, and recreate their disciplinary models individually (Figure 14).
It was very informative to hear about the latest technology developments at some of the largest design firms in the world. While there is only so much that technology can do in terms of addressing the challenges facing the AEC industry — even having the smartest tool does not guarantee a good design — it can certainly help where there is the talent and the will.
Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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