We sat down with three architectural firms that we work with to discuss how their work has been influenced by virtual reality and immersive architecture, technology in healthcare design and office design, as well as the rise and rise of automation and robotics in the construction industry.
The use of technology in the practise of architecture as well as the impact of architecture in our built environments have meant lots of adaptions, and endless possibilities for what could be.
In fact, all the architects we spoke with talked about how technologies already existed to do new, brave innovation. In some cases, costs were still prohibitive, in other cases there was work still to be done to develop the technology to a particular standard, or a lack of will or opportunities from clients to utilise these.
Particularly now, as hybrid workplaces become increasingly common and our occupation and use of cities has been massively impacted by the Covid pandemic, we see ample opportunities for new practises and ways of incorporating technology in architecture.
VR and immersive architecture
VR and immersive Architecture, which has been adopted by a lot of the major architecture studios, is particularly useful for user group research stages. “A VR headset can be especially useful for untangling preconceived ideas about how healthcare spaces are designed. When a VR experience enables users to virtually walk into a space, it enables them to rethink how the space could be used, and how workflows adapt.” Says Silver Thomas Hanley Principal Brent Railton.
The major impediment to VR not being more widely used in architecture is the cost of creating the imagery, with every frame needing to be rendered and every angle or view line you want the headset to capture needing to be designed.
“VR headsets can be really useful in particular scenarios such as, for example, for selling premium-priced apartments, where the view or spatials is a big part of the value,” says Nicholas Bandounas of Scott Carver. “VR can be a really useful marketing or sales tool in situations like that but in most instances, hand drawings and traditional renders are still incredibly valuable for communicating with clients.”
Adds Andrew Owens, the Managing Director of Greenbox Architecture, “We’ve been trialing VR with projects, particularly at the conceptual stage, when clients can be in a space and see how the light works, the quality of the space, the height, the width etcetera – this is far better than trying to develop a fully rendered and fully designed project or space to try to immerse a client in.
“Design projects such as data centres can be incredibly complex from both a design and services point of view, so using 3D documentation and tools such as VR during construction are becoming increasingly important to show things such as how the various trade works should be sequenced and installed,” says Andrew Owens.
Technology in healthcare
At Silver Thomas Hanley, an architectural practise specialising in healthcare, the rapid evolution of healthcare technology means that technology must be integrated into the design, but with plenty of flexibility for the inevitable tech changes to come.
Says Brent Railton, “healthcare spaces need maximum flexibility for technology to be adapted, as it will invariably be updated.”
“We design to making every square metre count, knowing that the site will be adapted or extended in future. In healthcare, vertical transport and short travel paths are especially important – having key facilities closer together reduces the distances that clinical staff need to walk, which has a direct impact on patient care.”
Technology in office design
The rising cost of prime real estate is something Andrew Owens knows well. “Personally, Greenbox has been growing year-on-year so the amount of office space we need has become a key issue and influence.”
“These days, digital is omnipresent but always evolving and changing. So we make sure that monitors and technology are mobile devices that can be used in different parts of a room, at different ends of the meeting room, wheeled out into open lobby spaces for client networking sessions or wheeled through the office to a team area where a small presentation or discussion meeting can happen quickly and efficiently.”
“Just as we carry our phones and add tablets now with us we need to make sure that the technology that we’re using office has the same flexibility. We don’t want to be ruled by technology, but rather make it work for us, as we evolve and develop new ways of working.”
Automation and robotics
Of course, the architecture industry doesn’t work in isolation. One of the limitations – and opportunities – of using tech in architecture is creating a seamless transition from design to construction.
Says Nicholas Bandounas, “a lot of the technology in construction overseas is about automation and robotics. But Australia is still lagging in its adaption of many of these technologies. We have access to these technologies, but sometimes lack the will.”
Technology already exists to walk around buildings and use iPads to point to spaces to quickly access information such as building faults, see overlaid drawings in 3D, or know precisely where an air-conditioning duct was located.
“In facilities and building management,” says Nicholas Bandounas, “we have technologies that enable you to automate the management of buildings using highly detailed 3D models linked to schedules, operations and even building systems. For example, you can click on a door handle and access warranty, type, order, where it’s from.
“Imagine the massive impact on building owners and managers who are using these technologies. You can control climate, analyse air quality, do live carbon offset, or turn lights off and on based on movement and tenant schedules. The management efficiency and savings across several buildings would be incredible, let alone the sustainability benefits.”
The limitations and opportunities of tech in architecture
What do architects see as opportunities in their daily tasks, for how technology could improve their work? Says Nicholas Bandounas, “Imagine being able to put some googles and gloves on that are linked to an interpretive AI design program and design by gestures, like sculpting an artwork. But instead you are creating buildings, volumetric spaces without losing the emotive story – to draw what you’re thinking in your head, without a pen or a mouse?”
“Imagine being able to plug some tech into your brain to design and collaborate with others? What Covid has shown is the lack of technology that allows you to design collaboratively online via Teams and Zoom. It was all very hard. So how can we replicate a brainstorming session where creative sit around a table with paper, trace, foam blocks and feed off each other’s passion and pencil strokes?”
Says Andrew Owens, “There are two sides to how technology influences the design process – because sometimes this can hold designers back. If people are limited by their skillset on a piece of software and, for example, don’t know how to draw a curve, well then they don’t, even if the curve is the right design response.”
“We spend a lot of time in our business bringing people up to speed on key technologies, but we also have them to sketch using a pen or pencil to get the ideas out of their head first, and then use the technology to bring their ideas to life. The design software shouldn’t be influencing the ideas – it’s ideas-first, then tech.
So what then, could be key opportunities for architects and technology born of the Australian experience? Housing affordability, and its knock-on effects, is a significant issue in Australia – presenting a big opportunity.
“As a country, the future is automated robotic pre-manufacturing,” says Nicholas Bandounas. “Imagine having a pre-set building layouts, or a kit of parts that makes up a building, controlled by AI design and a set of fixed variables that are built by robots? These variables can be coded based on good design proportions, compliance, cost, etc.”
“This technology could be beneficial in crisis situations, with temporary housing or hospitals rapidly built in one day. It could change the way we respond to devastating fires, floods, while providing remote housing for communities, mining companies, etc. Nothing is stopping us from doing it.”