What’s New: Technology Advancements in the AEC/O Industry

July 9th, 2012

To consider advancement, one must first reflect on where we are defining our advance.

First, I am going to attempt to give a poor man’s version of the history of architectural/construction advancement. It will be the kind of history one might see at death: flashes of major movements, parts and pieces of a whole understanding. Then I’m going to help you recognize the importance of today’s advancements, and lastly introduce advancements of the future so we can be aware and prepared to ride the crest. 

A Selection of Architectural/Engineering/Construction Advancements

Architects were born from builders—men and women whose hands were so familiar with a technique and material that they pushed its limits and innovated to make their surroundings a little bit better.

Some of those innovations or advancements changed the face of human history:

  • Flexible materials that could be implemented in different environments were used the world over to form geometric spaces that protected, which allowed socialization and migration of culture and thought.
  • Concrete and aggregate allowed burgeoning cultures to construct smooth and strong elements that were used to defend communities, build on permeable ground, and create permanent structures that we still can marvel at hundreds of years later.

  • Steel was used to span distances that were considered impossible to spatially cross before. It also allowed great heights to be achieved, which resulted in sociological density.

While these may be material advancements, the only way they were executed was by careful planning, calculation, and design. Our forefathers and foremothers used everything they had to convey these ideas and document them. They used rock walls, mud, tanned skins, papyrus, created special measuring tools, manufactured paper, and now we have computers. A fact I want to point out is that I don’t think the vast majority of them would have had access to paper and measuring tools, yet decided to use a tanned skin and bear grease instead.

Curators of Life

We, as curators of life, are responsible for continually educating ourselves in how our ever-changing audience moves through and is harbored by geometry, light, and space. We are also responsible for educating ourselves in the new tools and materials made attainable to us today, then use those advancements to design, construct, and, most importantly, make associated better, more informative decisions.

Wikipedia, a well-used, open source of digital information, states:

“Architecture is both the process and product of planning, designing and construction. Architectural works, in the material form of buildings, are often perceived as cultural and political symbols and as works of art. Historical civilizations are often identified with their surviving architectural achievements.

In relation to buildings, architecture has to do with the planning, designing and constructing form, space and ambience that reflect functional, technical, social, environmental, and aesthetic considerations. It requires the creative manipulation and coordination of material, technology, light and shadow. Architecture also encompasses the pragmatic aspects of realizing buildings and structures, including scheduling, cost estimating and construction administration. As documentation produced by architects, typically drawings, plans and technical specifications, architecture defines the structure and/or behavior of a building or any other kind of system that is to be or has been constructed.”

I love this excerpt. I wouldn’t place such a long excerpt in an article if I didn’t think more people in our industry needed to read it. This is our face to the rest of the world. How we are perceived affects our definition in our industry. If not, it should. The inhabitants are our end users, are they not?

Our face to the world is truly inspiring. We are some serious ninjas and need to live up to that status. We all know how architecture/engineering/construction advancements changed the world, so we can understand society’s perception. Yet, awareness is a process of evolution and we are authors of it. We should be using every technology we have available to change and move forward in our ninja status. 

Evolution of Design and Construction

Drawings were originally created for two purposes, to be used as a reference from which experienced craftsmen could construct, and to portray intent of design.  This hasn’t been changed in our industry. For the past several years we have continued to use 2D drawings made from, at first, hand drawings then digital lines created on a computer. As the hardware and software became more advanced, we as technology users became faster and more efficient. We were able to quickly review all the pieces and parts of a design in a singular format.

In reality though, not many of the users creating these lines analyzed the totality of what the lines represented. We have had specialty people who solely worked on details of walls, reflected ceiling plans, placement of casework, or that have drawn symbolic design intent lines to be translated into other lines. Activities related to geometries and construction has been isolated in thoughts of separate individuals. Information didn’t freely move from one sector to another. This is, in part, because there was not an efficient way to convey it and partly because the workflow didn’t call for it. By and by, master architects, engineers, and builders have gone to the wayside, but we now have a way to fix that.

Today’s AEC/O industry and information technology has completely revolutionized. We can use the new technologies of BIM, environmental simulations, logistics virtual scheduling and construction software to fully realize a building’s lifecycle. We can build before we build. We can communicate details and ideas across oceans in seconds. We can document and share conditions in real time. BIM takes CAD a step further by introducing collaboration, coordination, space planning, estimation, clash detection, and detailing. It also does four-dimensional (4D) modeling (which is 3D with time added) and 5D (which is 4D plus cost estimation).  The technology of today is a paradigm shift because it is changing processes in addition to tools.

A line is not just a line. A group of lines is a wall that contains a certain volume of this material and a certain number of that material. We can see that wall in an elevation, section, broken into parts, visualize how it absorbs heat, test its strength, and do that all in real time as it’s being drawn. There will be several people in reality that will touch that wall. Who are they? What do they know? Can I get information from them that will make this wall better? These are the questions that are made answerable in today’s culture of design.

If we, as an AEC/O collective, can pursue advancements and innovation in technologies, implement them, and make use of all they offer, we can once again become the master architects, engineers, and builders of the past. We only have to reach out and grab what is in front of us and own those workflows and tools like a ninja.

What Is On the Horizon?

As building construction requires more global collaboration, pressure to use these new advancements has never been greater. Moreover, regulatory standards have become more stringent. We must, as a collective, integrate our existing process management with cutting edge tools for design, engineering, analysis, and construction planning so that all stakeholders in the construction process can effectively collaborate and, most importantly, create better space.

Three of the biggest advancements that will impact us in the near future are:

  • Social Virtual Cloud Environments
  • Mobile Hardware
  • Imaging and Visualization

We all have started hearing about “cloud” technologies. A way we will be able to use the cloud is in the way we manage, store and share information. We will be syncing our work into secure cloud servers so our data can be updated in real-time on several job sites around the world. We can also place large files in a cloud and access them without slowing down our personal computers.

Using mobile devices such as smart phones and Ipads, we can also access cloud information on the move. We can take pictures of construction and load them into a model, then have the software calculate if it matches per schedule/phase/plan, if the construction is on time or being done correctly. We can use an IPad to walk around a model of a building IN the building, make a ceiling transparent and see where a leak probably was coming from.

Visualization of space is essential to understanding. We now have tools that can allow us to virtually walk through a space WHILE standing. We can PRINT 3D models of our designs. We can render our data rich models dynamically in a photorealistic manner using the latest GPU hardware and software.

I can’t tell you how much of a game changer all of that is. It is like nothing that we have experienced before as curators. Sure, we can walk around in Autodesk® Navisworks, Autodesk® 3D Max®, and Autodesk® Revit® while sitting at our desktops, but what we see is still a cartoon representative of the materials and elements to be constructed. We all too often fake lighting conditions and objects to get an accurate sense of our intent. Then it takes hours, if not days, to push out one image, which still might not be right.

The ability to dynamically design and construct is staggering. It is a leap over the chasm of being chained to a state of inertia. I have experienced this first hand, and let me tell you that there is no looking back. It is what the hearts and minds of a true master builder, architect, or engineer have yearned for since they had their hands shaping stone.

In summary, we come from a history rich in innovation and advancement. Our ancestors used every bit of technology available to them to change the worlds around them, which in turn changed social and cultural dynamics. We have that power if we only just reach out for it and wield it like a ninja.

Bonnie K Gorman is the Executive Vice President of Business and Product Development at Advanced AEC Solutions, LLC. She has worked on national and international Architecture, Engineering and Construction BIM projects. She can be reached at bgorman@aaecs.com.

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