AEC Technology Disruption

I recently co-presented about industry megatrends to an audience of architects. We talked about the utter lack of productivity increases in the construction industry over the past several decades. We looked at a chart that demonstrated how, in the 1960s, manufacturing and construction productivity were at similar levels. However, since that point, manufacturing productivity has doubled while construction productivity has slightly declined. And then my co-presenter, William R. Long, PE, LEED AP, FSMPS of P. Agnes Constructionin Philadelphia said, “When I got into this industry three decades ago, we used to budget 40 hours for a drawing. Does anyone still use hours-per-drawing to develop project budgets?”

Quite a few people raised their hands.

He next asked, “Okay, so what’s the going rate these days?”

To a tee, everyone with raised hands said “Forty hours.”

Bill shared that he had just led a project management training program for several dozen architects and engineers, and they all reported “forty hours,” too!

Think about that. We’ve gone from hand drafting to AutoCAD to Revit. We’ve taken Building Information Modeling beyond 3D and added elements of schedule (4D) and cost (5D). We’ve evolved from hand-kept ledgers to Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel to robust cloud-based project resource planning software that everyone can access on their tiny portable computers, better known as smartphones.

We have advanced 3D laser scanners to accurately capture building interiors and sites.

We’ve been taught lean methodologies for design and construction, and utilized modular construction and prefabrication.

And yet construction productivity has slipped over the past 40 years – and designers are still budgeting 40 hours per drawing.

By the way, what’s a drawing? Don’t we create building models these days?

The sad fact that many A/E/C firms are facing is that profit margins are still extremely tight. It’s still a buyer’s market out there. Sure, some geographic regions are better than others. This applies to project types, too. But in general, we have limited ability to build robust profits into our projects because the market is so competitive. So if we can’t raise our fees – or if we refuse to raise our fees – then how can we possibly become more profitable?

By becoming more productive.

And while it is critical that we embrace the technologies that are currently available – and that many of us already have at our firms – the reality is that massive disruption is coming to the design offices and job sites. And this change is in the form of technology.

Take, for instance, some of the things that are happening right now:

  • Site, bridge, and façade surveys are being conducted by drones
  • 3D scanning is developing point clouds that create accurate building models
  • Autonomous construction vehicles are being produced in greater numbers – dump trucks, front-loaders, etc.
  • Wearable technology is entering the job site via smart watches and hardhats with computer screens built into their visors
  • Augmented reality and virtual reality are providing more information about what will be – or what is, but hidden from sight – than ever before

Yet design and construction technology is merely in its early stages of evolution.

Have you heard about Autodesk’s Project Quantum yet? Revit is getting pretty old – it was created in 2000. So what’s next? Project Quantum is not a replacement to Revit, but it will change the way Revit is used – and perhaps lead to a replacement. So much of the data in a construction project is siloed. Imagine if architects, structural engineers, MEP engineers, contractors, and fabricators all pulled from a single source of data. That was cloud-based. And represented the “one truth.” How would that change the way projects are designed and constructed? How could that enhance productivity?

Autodesk isn’t stopping there, however. They are looking at automation and even artificial intelligence. They are working toward “generative design,” which is a human-computer collaboration. Humans enter the desired goal and key project components into the software, which then comes up with thousands of options. Data is qualified, the best options are evaluated, and then new variables are added to refine the designs. Yes, we’ll still need professional architects and engineers, but the machines will be doing much of the heavy lifting.

This would certainly create opportunities for productivity enhancements and higher profits.

Building Internet of Things

At the same time, the A/E/C industry is talking about BIoT, or the Building Internet of Things. Energy systems, lighting, security systems, parking, watering, etc. – these are all functions of a building and site that are being incorporated into the Building Internet of Things. How will this new technology improve the quality of buildings and work environments for occupants? How will A/E/C firms integrate their services with these advancements in technology?

Beyond the A/E/C Industry

There’s a whole world beyond the A/E/C industry – albeit a world that will greatly impact what our firms do in the future. Some futurists predict that the next car you purchase will be your last. Of course, some members of the Millennial generation aren’t even interested in getting a driver’s license to begin with, much less owning a vehicle. They have Uber and Lyft to get around – and in the future, these fleets will be autonomous. When families downsize from two cars to one car, and then to no cars, what will they do with more disposal income, not being tied to car payments? How will they reclaim their garages? Will there even be a need for driveways?

And what will become of all the parking garages in urban environments around the world? Today, parking garage designers are planning future uses into their designs. But the vast majority of existing parking garages don’t have much of a future. They will be demolished. How will cities reclaim these spaces? More new buildings – or spacious urban parks?

And speaking of urban parks, have you seen the EDG Loop in New York City? This concept utilizes projections for driverless vehicles creating far fewer vehicles clogging the roads, allowing some streets and highways to be for autonomous vehicles only – and other roads with dedicated lanes for these vehicles. The EDG Loop predicts much faster commutes around Manhattan – and envisions Broadway and Park Avenue becoming totally vehicle free, allowing for creation of new linear parks, ample greenspace, and no car-human interaction in these areas.

Of course, even the idea of driverless cars is perhaps shooting too “low.” NASA and Uber are collaborating to create flying autonomous taxis. And in Dubai, they’re already testing 2-passenger autonomous drones that hop from rooftop to rooftop. How will this change the fabric of urban environments? To catch a taxi or order an Uber in the future, will you have to go to a roof? How will buildings be repurposed?

Likewise, how will highway systems change in the future? Will there be opportunities to reclaim highways and streets around the world – either for new development or for green space? Will human-driven cars become illegal?

We’re just scratching the surface with technology disruption. (Some futurists believe that we’ll have cyborgs by 2045.) However, these examples have a direct relationship to the built environment – either designing it, constructing it, or impacting it.

These current and forthcoming technologies will totally change our business models – and hopefully make our industry more productive and more profitable. Of course, we all need to be part of this solution, part of this future, lest we become obsolete. If future artificial intelligence will handle much of the design work, and robots and autonomous vehicles much of the construction, what is the role for humans?

So where do you think we are on the disruption curve in the A/E/C industry? Are we still at the times tables, or are we closer to the scientific calculator? What technologies do you think will have the greatest potential to add immediate value to the A/E/C in the near future? Which ones will be the most disruptive?

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