Five Powerful Lessons Shaping the Future of AEC

The past few years have been challenging for the AEC industry, as architecture firm owners worked to maintain business continuity amidst an unfolding pandemic and economic disruptions while simultaneously addressing an escalating client demand for more sustainable, ethical design. The demands have called upon architects and designers to find new ways of working and to deliver results that will benefit their clients and the communities served by their projects well into the future.

Throughout external disruptions beyond its control, the AEC industry has learned important lessons that are helping to redefine the industry and shape future work. Here are five of the most powerful:

Virtual Reality (VR) is a client expectation, revealing valuable opportunities for the AEC industry

During social distancing and travel restrictions throughout the pandemic, architects were forced to meet their clients virtually. More than ever before, they turned to virtual reality (VR) tools and software to give clients an immersive experience that enables them to see and feel the intent of the design as if they were actually in it.

They learned that VR technology also provides a way to share design progress and offers the benefit of engaging clients throughout the entire design process, even from the early stages, empowering them through better understanding. Clients are able to confidently collaborate in decision-making processes, leading to better outcomes in less time.

“Visualization removes the need to explain floor plans in detail to clients who most likely have little experience reading them,” said Daniel Carpio, Director of Technology for Austin-based Overland Partners, widely recognized as one of the top design firms in the United States and overseeing projects around the world.

The firm relies on 3D visualization and VR to collaborate with its clients and enable them to better see and experience the materials, light conditions, and the general feeling of a project space. According to Carpio, “They now have a clear understanding of the reality of their project.”

As VR technology and its use throughout the design process became more widely relied upon, designers have realized that the benefits of VR extend well beyond the visualization of a design. The immersive and visually intuitive nature of VR can, for instance, serve as an effective tool for the context-specific sorting, accessing, and analysis of any data associated with building design, delivery, and operations.

While travel restrictions have been relaxed and in-person meetings are now possible, VR is here to stay. It’s being embedded into existing workflows and applied to all types and scales of projects, from the largest to the smallest.

Achieving Net Zero is increasingly important   

Minimizing the carbon impact of a building was once a project requirement for only a handful of projects, and most of them were for large institutional clients. Now it’s thoroughly mainstream. Even homeowners want to know how the design they are paying for will minimize the impact it has on the environment, both from the perspective of operational carbon emissions and the carbon embodied in the building materials themselves.

It’s for good reason: Construction is responsible for at least 40 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions, making it a primary contributor to climate change.

The AEC industry has a long way to go to meet the goal of net-zero carbon championed by the AIA 2030 Commitment, but architects and designers are driven to do their part and are turning to technology for help.

In addition to the creation of more energy-efficient designs through integrated performance analysis, the digitalization of the AEC industry is aiding net-zero initiatives by enabling improved collaboration between people and the design tools used in design and construction of a project.

Cross-team collaboration is imperative for the effective deployment of carbon reduction strategies, as the most effective strategies are those that span multiple disciplines within the design team. For example, the use of mass timber for a building’s structure, which reduces embodied carbon relative concrete, requires significant input from architects, structural engineers, and the fire safety consultants. 

Designers must plan for flexibility and longevity

The mass exit from offices and shift to remote work has created record high commercial vacancy rates around the world. The unforeseen challenge of unused space taught the AEC community that building resilience isn’t just about surviving a natural disaster. It also means creating buildings that can withstand a sudden and dramatic change in programmatic requirements.

Today, there’s a demand for creative solutions for adapting buildings to the changing needs of the occupants. According to data from CoStar Group, there are nearly 1,000 relatively new office buildings that are suitable candidates for residential conversation, creating immense opportunity for the AEC industry.

As the interest in conversion and renovation increases—in response to both financial and environmental reasons—designers are tasked with addressing new and existing hurdles, for instance, those related to building codes and zoning, as well as creating design layouts and structural systems to make commercial buildings more suitable for other purposes such as residential living.

The AEC industry needs tighter collaboration

Tighter collaboration became critical when in-person meetings weren’t possible, and the need continues to grow, given that architects, structural engineers, interior designers, and other professionals involved in the design process need to work together from the very beginning of a project. Working together from the start, they can generate designs and select the best materials and systems for reducing a building’s environmental impact.

Leveraging technology like cloud-based data sharing and management solutions to collaborate and visualize design and end products is good for design and good for business. In fact, 68 percent of architects and engineers consider it critical to their work.

All constituents—architects, designers, owners, and end users—benefit from the smoother remote collaboration possible via remote collaboration tools. The biggest benefit is leveraging the collective intelligence of the entire team to make better decisions yielding the best design outcomes while avoiding costly mistakes caused by poor communication.  This has the obvious benefits of less time—and ultimately labor costs—spent fixing mistakes.

Ensuring ethical decision-making is critical. Designers can lead the way

In addition to raising concerns about access to materials and ability to meet deadlines and budget, the pandemic and economic disruptions put a spotlight on supply chains and the ethical issues wrapped up in building materials.

Customers are increasingly concerned with using ethically sourced materials and ensuring sound choices for their projects, and interior designers are uniquely positioned to take a leadership role in ethical decision-making by selecting materials and manufacturers that meet ethical standards.

As we move through 2022, designers can have a significant influence on reducing the impact of projects through their selection of interior finishes. They need to factor in the embodied environmental impact of the materials they evaluate, alongside aesthetic, social, and economic impact considerations.

It’s here that technology can help, too, aiding the rapid identification of material environmental performance through data sharing and offering more sustainable choices. Building Transparency’s Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) is an excellent example. The tool operates as a free database of construction EPDs and matching building impact calculator for use in design and material procurement, empowering designers to make quick decisions that have lasting impacts.

AEC in 2022 and Beyond

The AEC industry, like others, has faced both expected challenges and surprising hurdles, yet it’s projected to reach more than $15.8 billion by 2028, up from $7.2 billion in 2020.

Growth is attributed to many factors, among them the industry’s resilience and willingness to evolve. By adopting new technologies, AEC constituents are enhancing project performance and sustainability, improving their productivity, and generating better outcomes for clients and communities.

About the Author

Throughout his career, Roderick Bates has sought out and developed solutions to environmental challenges related to building design, construction, and operations. As the Head of Integrated Practice at Enscape, he is responsible for researching industry and market trends that are shaping the way Enscape customers work. Leveraging that industry knowledge, he collaborates with Enscape product and R&D leaders to assess new product development opportunities that will shape the future of building design. Previously, as a Principal at KieranTimberlake, he led the efforts to develop and commercialize software and hardware tools used by the greater AEC community to improve the environmental and operational performance of buildings.

Follow Roderick Bates on LinkedIn.

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