Digital Builder

How a Confluence of Technology and Social Concerns Will Shape Infrastructure in the Post-Pandemic City

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As different pockets of the world pick up the pieces from the COVID-19 fallout and move on at their own pace, many are hoping for the day they can go back to normal. But architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) is not going back to anything. It’s moving forward. 

The AEC industry side-stepped the pandemic’s roadblocks as firms adapted to remote collaboration by adopting new technology and workflows with an agile approach to figuring out new processes on the fly. But the way forward is not quite clear. How many of the last 14 months’ course-corrective measures will stay in place?

Bringing together a diverse group of forward-thinkers from businesses large and small, academia, and government, MITdesignX—an academic program in the MIT School of Architecture and Planning—hosted the Design >> Fast Forward virtual conference on April 26-27, 2021. The event, sponsored in part by Autodesk, discusses the “Post-Pandemic City” from technological, social, and policy perspectives. What follows focuses on the content concerning how infrastructure design and construction will evolve to build the urban environments of the immediate future.

Technological Convergence Remakes Design and Construction

All three of the presenters on The Advance of Digitization in Design panel emphasized that the convergence of a number of advanced (and still advancing) technologies are driving the capabilities for much more efficient construction at scale. These include automation technologies such as drones and robotics; better and more abundant data coming from more sensors and better sensing technologies such as LIDAR; the compounded effect of the cloud in terms of massive computing power, data storage, and collaboration; and the increasing quality of insights and automation gleaned from artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

Not only are the technologies here, but also the trend over the past 14 months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit has been an accelerated shift toward digitalization in AEC, as well as an increased focus around a more resilient built environment and designing and constructing buildings more efficiently. For example, the simulation company Altair helped architects in Spain save time and cost by using virtual wind results to adjust the design of a high-rise for optimal interaction with the wind. Panelist Joe Pajot, Altair’s Director of Engineering Data Science Product Management, said that basically anything can be simulated. He added that Altair wants everyone to be able to use simulation to make the world more efficient wherever possible, because it’s much cheaper to crash a car in simulation than in the real world, for instance.  

For those concerned about automation and AI encroaching on jobs, the panelists noted that if the people developing those technologies make them to assist rather than replace people, the automation will handle repetitive and tedious tasks, enabling people to be more efficient and creative. Panelist Kyle Bernhardt, Director of Building Design Strategy at Autodesk noted that the goal is interactive design assistance, not sentient AI. “We’re really creating specialized AI routines that can propel humans to do things they couldn’t do before,” he says.

“It’s always going to take a village to design and construct the built environment.”

Bernhardt also stressed that it will require automating repetitive tasks to meet the construction need for roughly 3,600 new buildings every day to accommodate an expected population of 10 billion people—68% of them living in cities—by 2050. Construction will need to be fast, but also much more sustainable in its efficiency. Currently about 40% of global energy consumption comes from the construction and operational energy use of the built environment. 

Stakeholders could address energy concerns by beginning the BIM process even earlier, at the evaluation stage, before even the design stage. Currently, the evaluation stage primarily involves financial considerations that once decided, drive the whole process and are harder to change later. By bringing BIM’s energy use and material use insights into the evaluation stage of a building, well-intentioned owners will be better able to make sustainability decisions early on. That plus the adoption of AI and design for manufacturing and assembly (DfMA) in the process extends the ability to make changes further into the process, and also lowers the cost of making changes before the building phase. Autodesk Spacemaker addresses the earliest stages of design for urban development and processes massive data sets for sustainability decision-making.

David Morczinek, Co-founder and CEO of AirWorks, which makes software that rapidly creates CAD drawings out of aerial mapping data collected from drones, added that there is not enough data sharing in the market, but that a collective digital database everyone could use would cut out considerable waste. “Collaboration brings efficiency,” he says. 

So while Morczinek would like every player in the industry to be more open with data sharing for the greater good, if that is not to be, Pajot believes that predictive physics from advanced simulation can fill in some of the gap with synthetic “data on-demand.” And Bernhardt mentioned making data sharing simpler by adopting metadata standards.

But, would the widespread adoption of data standards and automation tools such as generative design destroy the individuality and creative expression of AEC’s output? Bernhardt doesn’t believe there can be a macro shift in building efficiency without a more industrialized approach to AEC. “You can build amazing things with Lego blocks, but they’re still standard sizes,” he says. “If we all want to have our own custom Lego blocks, there’s a massive overall cost to the industry.”

Modular Construction Comes of Age

To further dispel the notion that standardized architecture cannot be unique, the Modular Construction/Modular Real Estate panel featured two representatives from the growth industry of prefab and industrialized construction. Antón García-Abril, MIT Professor of Architecture and Co-founder of WoHo, says, “prefabrication has been in the industry for at least a century, but always through repetitive, boring, and soulless buildings.” However, the technology will now allow for WoHo’s mission of unique, beautiful, and novel architecture within an intelligent system of modularity.

Naomi Porat, Strategic Advisor and Board Member of the Factory_OS offsite construction company, brought the numbers to demonstrate what both she and García-Abril believe: that now is finally the tipping point moment for modular construction to change the industry. While modular represents only 5% of construction now, Porat urged to look at its growth rate in the United States: 13% over the last year and 30% in trend-setting California.

Factory_OS, which was founded in 2017 to solve the affordable housing crisis, has flourished during COVID-19. Porat says the company has more than doubled its workforce to over 500 workers during the pandemic year, while also relying on automation for efficiencies. The business has more than $1 billion in projects in the pipeline, while revenue has roughly doubled every year so far. While it works with large firms like Google and on market-rate modular housing, about 70% of its projects are for low-income, below-market-rate housing, which it can deliver fast at a cost 40% below the norm. In the last year, Factory_OS has also streamlined its supply chain, saving about 15% of cost by sourcing directly from manufacturers, lumber mills, and others.

Both firms focus on limiting waste and respecting the environment. WoHo and Factory_OS both use customized materials that replace options made for onsite construction, such as a high-quality alternative to dry wall for Factory_OS and WoHo’s proprietary concrete and steel alternatives that cut costs and embodied carbon. Factory_OS also works with Autodesk to track its emissions. 

Customization also goes hand-in-hand with modularity for these companies. WoHo has software that allows customers to choose materials, facades, and other options, and that software integrates into the workflow of manufacturing and assembly. García-Abril says WoHo’s general contractors (GCs) are quite willing to learn the system, as the construction industry’s overstated hesitancy to adapt to new technology is fading away. 

Porat too says Factory_OS works with developers who need to learn to integrate their modular units and with architects to show them the possibilities for designing unique exteriors.

Just and Equitable Cities for All

Aside from progress in the physical and software tools of trade, Design >> Fast Forward also highlighted the increased visibility that the COVID-19 era has brought to the need for designing infrastructure and public spaces more equitably for the needs of all citizens. 

The inequality in urban areas turned into a national and even global conversation, says Andre Brumfield, Cities & Urban Design Leader at Gensler, the world’s largest architectural firm. He mapped out a vision for inner-city BIPOC neighborhoods including a renewed focused on hyperlocal retail and employment centers, affordable and mixed-income housing, access to healthcare and wellness facilities, reliable public transportation to access shared community assets across neighborhoods, minority owned businesses, and community engagement for shaping the future of their neighborhoods.

Karin Brandt, Co-founder of CoUrbanize, says we’re at another tipping point: for transparency and accountability in development. Most people do not or cannot attend public meetings that discuss development projects for lack of ability or awareness. So CoUrbanize empowers people to share their feedback not at a public meeting but through the Internet, text, or voicemail.

Now that the U.S. federal government has prioritized widespread infrastructure spending, many panelists voiced the need for that investment to be made conscientiously with concern for underserved people. William Gilchrist, Director of Planning and Building for Oakland, California saw poor examples of infrastructure in the past. For example, many interstate highways going through New Orleans divided and devastated certain predominantly African-American communities. Instead, he wants a place-based strategy for infrastructure and architecture that responds to community needs. There is a pent-up demand for infrastructure and many scenarios to choose from that would either adapt existing infrastructure or replace it with something new. 

“I would recommend that most cities institutionalize community participation,” Gilchrist says. “You have got to get to where community already meets, to be welcomed in and talk about their aspirations, situations, and conditions, so they can be addressed and we can move forward.”

Markkus Rovito

Markkus Rovito

Markkus Rovito is a writer, media producer, and musician based out of his urban hermitage in San Francisco. He writes mostly about technology, especially as it pertains to music and a zero-waste future. He subscribes to Buckminster Fuller's vision of a world that works for everyone, using design science to solve humanity's biggest problems.

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