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AIA: Perspectives on BEST of SHOW 2015—IT Trends in Architectural Practice

In this special feature report on AIA Atlanta, we talk about the evolving shape of industry change due to advances in information technology, with a particular emphasis on the latest trends taking shape, including the game-ification of architecture, virtual reality hardware and radical user-interface design change that will come with it…plus the continuing role of mobile, cloud and analytics driving design process transformation. Anthony Frausto, AIA, LEED AP, also contributed to this article.


This year we think it might be best to recap the mission behind the Architosh BEST of SHOW honors at AIA National. From the BEST of SHOW Roster page it reads:

The purpose of the BEST of SHOW honors is to draw attention to the products and companies which have exhibited technology innovation and leadership within the Architectural market as measured by show interest, attendance, buzz, and a forward-looking analytic perspective developed by the editors of Architosh. This “perspective” is a constructed and developed lens through which technology in the architectural market is measured against both static and dynamic criteria with a particular single aim of clarifying, developing, enhancing and ensuring the social value of architects working worldwide in the 21st century.

As two licensed architects with decades of practice and academic involvement and teaching, we endeavor to highlight new tools and technologies so that Architosh’s architect readers can not just learn about what is newly available but (hopefully) to stir up within them and their studios discourse about the state of art of architectural practice in the 21st century.

01 - The AIA Bookshop at AIA Atlanta was a good index of how much change is underway in the industry.

01 – The AIA Bookshop at AIA Atlanta was a good signal of how much change is underway in the industry. Terms such as: cities, sufficient, energy, simulation, parametric, disruption, design practice, mathematical, morphing—all index the the larger themes the BEST of SHOW honors cover at the interface of information technologies and architectural practice.

In this article we will briefly revisit our core tenants (there are three of them) and then discuss some of the technologies we saw on the show floor and in special events and place them into the context of these tenants. Lastly, and to make this article more inviting, we will briefly introduce some far out there technologies we have become aware of that capture our imaginations for where AECO technologies are really headed. (see video V1 below)

The Social Value of Architects—Our Developed Beliefs

One of the core beliefs we share about the role of architects as a profession is that what is happening to practice because of technology isn’t simply the conversion of analog practice methods, processes, values and social assumptions to a digital version of the same. Digital technology is significantly changing (or will eventually change) all four aspects of practice (methods, processes, values, and social).

Social and Democratization of Information and Technology

This has two key components, the first is of adding features that are commonly associated with the social web, including the benefits of crowds (ranking systems, user-ratings, finding help, talent, friends, future co-workers, partners)….in short, radical new dimensions to the way we do business in a globalized and increasingly more equitable society and world. Technology also has a direct bearing on how individuals and teams collaborate on projects. This is illustrated in several awards this year–how to work together through the cloud is happening across devices and platforms immediately in the project design environment.

The second part applies to more freedom within IT in general. This applies to more choice—more liberty with choosing solutions, file formats, platforms, technology…and not being constrained or tied down. Nobody should own your data and your tools’ providers should be working to convince you they solve your problems better than others, not that you are trapped into solutions.

If you think we are “off-our-rockers” for making such a fuss of this particular core belief, then what do you think of IBM’s big announcement this week about allowing all employees to choose from either a MacBook Pro, MacBook Air or a PC? Are we detecting a trend or just making one up? This is a long way from the days when Apple envisioned Big Blue as the enemy.

Computational Power and the Cloud

As we said back in 2013, this belief builds on the lessons from the first one above, in the form of “your data, your devices, connected to supercomputer strength power in the cloud.” In the past two years we have seen an explosion of offerings that do much of the heavy-lifting of compute up in the cloud, where computational superpower is cheaper to rent than own.

However, one of the more exciting and scary aspects of this trend is what some experts are calling the “de-construction” of the personal computer itself. (see video V1 below for an example of new forms of cloud compute) If raw “compute power” is cheap and widely available in the cloud and you can get at it (rent it) with any robust Internet connection, do you really need pay for the privilege of hauling it around, in the case of a mobile computing device? Maybe we actually wear it?

V1 – The new DAQRI smart helmut represents the state-of-the-art in AR (augmented reality) visions for industrial applications (AEC included) and is representative of the transformation that lies ahead of us in the AECO industries. Below, we write about Apple’s VR/AR initiatives thus far, among others. 

Anthony thinks that Apple will actually lead the charge in de-constructing the personal computer. In fact, in some ways they are slowly doing it before our eyes. Think of the elimination (removal) of the CD-ROM drives in Apple mobiles? The latest MacBook put weight reduction and battery life way ahead of Moore’s Law. With technology changes comes process changes, with process changes comes value-proposition changes, and with all of that comes social assumptions about the whole picture.

When we can rent supercomputer power cheaply in the cloud, when we can get at it from a wide variety of devices and platforms….have the liberty to store our results, creative and knowledge (data) in open formats we freely choose, this changes everything. (see V1 video above, an example of radical change in a common device today—the hard hat.)

Creativity and the Contemplative Pace

Autodesk’s Phil Bernstein, FAIA, said it poignantly in a private meeting at AIA when he spoke of the “tyranny of operating systems.” As much as the press loves a battle front, the truth is developers and end-users alike are tired of the tyranny of operating systems. As the world strives for more global equity the ethos of business thinking cuts way to the ethos of cultural inclinations. Freedom can save us time.

And so can massive computational savings.

As we wrote back in 2013, Famed educational expert “Sir Robinson says that a good deal of the creative process is about ‘exercising critical judgement, about testing it.’ Architects know from their studio and crit-based education that this work involves a dialog, between oneself and between collaborators and those who appraise our ideas.” Some of the ideas Bill Clinton spoke about at his 2015 AIA Convention keynote involving the importance of “inclusiveness” speak to the nature of time and dialogs. Patience is an important factor in quality dialogs. Patience requires time.

In conclusion the three core beliefs or principles we outlined at the beginning continue to find real growing meaning among the technology trends happening globally around IT and specifically in AECO. In the next section we’ll look at some evolving technology directions we saw “shaping-up” down in Atlanta.

Themes We Saw in Atlanta

Overall there is a clear trending towards what might be called the “siliconization of the architecture field.” What’s happening with the marriage of new hardware and software technology is radical with respect to anything happening with physical buildings themselves. Today’s use of virtualization in new hardware, software and workflow is on the cutting edge of radical transformation.

Some major trends underway this year include:

‘Game-ification’ of Architecture

Today, developers are taking the Unity and Unreal game engines and mashing up physics, interface and rendering features with proprietary software for handing the big poly-count geometry of the AECO world in order to create all new forms of interaction with architecture.

VR (virtuality reality)

Part of the ‘Game-ification’ of architecture, VR headsets are being integrated into AECO applications. We saw a profusion of this in Atlanta. Several companies are offering up entirely new ways of engaging with 3D models. In some cases one’s own smartphone, software and apps are mashed up into new types of “DIY” VR headsets.

V2 – AEC Hackathons are now happening all over the world and the goal is essentially to explore innovative solution-making utilizing a cross-disciplinary, collaborative environment that merges everything from UI/UX design, coding, scripting, hardware (robotics, sensors, etc) to explore within the context of a maker-spirited community.  

New software is being written for traditional desktop apps to move models to the VR environment. At the same time, VR software providers are exploring and developing all new means of user interaction within the VR environment…everything from the use of game controllers to headset tactile smart surfaces.

Hacking Culture Meets AEC 

Hackathons and Mashups are two new phenomena in AEC. (see V2 video above) Combining coding-scripting with ‘maker’ tools, hackups are everywhere and apart of the larger industrial phenomena of the maker movement, small-scale manufacturing, inventor-ism and entrepreneur-ism in America. McNeel & Associates (with its Rhino+Grasshopper tools) have led the way but software giant Autodesk is now actively supporting and sponsoring this larger movement (in AEC…not just MCAD where it exist as well).

In some ways Renzo Piano’a firm (Renzo Piano Building Workshop), established in 1981, with it somewhat unconventional process of involving specialists consultants, engineers, and clients early and throughout the process—and its use of 1:1 full scale mockups—is the analog early version of the present, emerging digital proto-typing culture in Architecture. Here’s a quote taken from their firm profile:

“Our approach to design is not strictly conventional and involves the use of physical models and one-to-one scale mock-ups to help test and develop our proposed design concepts. We also believe that the design process is not linear and that it requires architects to think and draw on different scales at the same time, considering each finished detail in the development of the overall design.”

In Boston, Autodesk is relocating its regional headquarters to downtown, in the new seaport area know as the Innovation District. It’s new Autodesk BUILD space will encompass offices for management and software development along with physical workshops armed with all of the latest “maker movement” hi-tech paraphernalia. In talking to Autodesk’s Phil Bernstein about the new BUILD space, he noted that “the methodology of making things is changing…understanding and predicting is affecting how things get made.”

Computation, visual-scripting / accessible programming for designers (APFD)

Computation, visual scripting, more accessible programming for designers, makers and engineers is leading to an opening up of Autodesk’s historical product and product file type silos. Like Trimble with its SketchUp and 3D Warehouse communities, Autodesk moved quickly to embrace these larger trends and is actively re-engineering older products for more inclusive openness to meet the market’s demands for more flexible workflows across disparate and even competing products in the market.

In conclusion, these themes from Atlanta, and this past year, mostly compliment and extend our core beliefs around social, democratization of IT, computation and the cloud, and nature of creativity.

next page: The Siliconization of Architecture: Through the lens of BEST of SHOW

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Reader Comments

  1. #CAD AIA: Perspectives on BEST of SHOW 2015—IT Trends in Architectural Practice

  2. — senior assoc. editor, Pete Evans, AIA, looks at the cutting edge IT trends in Architecture!

  3. #CAD AIA: Perspectives on BEST of SHOW 2015—IT Trends in Architectural Practice

  4. — senior assoc. editor, Pete Evans, AIA, looks at the cutting edge IT trends in Architecture!

  5. RT @architosh: — senior assoc. editor, Pete Evans, AIA, looks at the cutting edge IT trends in Architecture! http:/…

  6. RT @architosh: — senior assoc. editor, Pete Evans, AIA, looks at the cutting edge IT trends in Architecture! http:/…

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