Over the past year, the ups and downs of the global coronavirus pandemic have continued to influence the development of immersive technology in the AEC sector. And following the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), the industry is also under pressure to address carbon emissions and to manage energy waste over the life of a building. Both the pandemic and climate change continue to drive change in the industry.
Below, we take a look at some of these architecture trends in the AEC sector, and hear the thoughts of key figures on what will be influencing the way architects will be working on projects over the next few years.
Renovation of existing buildings
Hot off the heels of COP26 in Glasgow in the UK, the AEC sector is once again under the spotlight for its high contribution to global carbon emissions and the amount of energy wasted by buildings, especially older buildings.
According to the non-profit organization Architecture 2030, buildings generate “nearly 40% of annual global CO2 emissions. Of those total emissions, building operations are responsible for 28% annually, while building materials and construction (typically referred to as embodied carbon) are responsible for an additional 11% annually.”
And the floor surface area being added to the global building stock by new built work is “the equivalent of adding an entire New York City to the world, every month, for 40 years.”
If that’s not a big enough problem, there is also the issue of existing buildings and their impact on carbon emissions and energy use. Architecture 2030 estimates that some two thirds of the “global building area that exists today will still exist in 2040” and “without widespread existing building decarbonization across the globe, these buildings will still be emitting CO2 emissions in 2040 and we will not achieve the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target.”
Renovation in progress, Newport, UK
Consequently, renovation and adaptive reuse can be considered as the greenest solution to reducing the negative environmental impact of buildings. “The preservation construction community says the greenest building is the one that’s not new construction. It’s the one that already exists,” says architect Ruth Todd, president and a principal of San Francisco–based firm Page & Turnbull during a World Architecture News online interview about preservation and adaptive reuse, “and so recognizing that existing buildings contain all of the embodied energy of the past and don’t require new expenditures of energy to make them work better for the future is the most sensitive contribution to climate change that an architect could make.”
How to make buildings work better for the future is an issue that is affecting cities such as Milan in Italy, where there are a lot of underused or abandoned office buildings in the outskirts of the city and “they need a new future,” says founding partner at Italian architecture firm BEMaa, Paolo Mazzoleni, speaking at a Graphisoft Building Together roundtable discussion entitled ‘Our urban future’.
“The costs of renovating are very high and we have to lower them,” he says. And although Mazzoleni prefers to design from scratch, “throwing away all the buildings is not the right way, from an ecological point of view,” he says.
Empty building in Milan, Torre Galfa – Photograph by Giovanni Hänninen
Daniel Toledo, partner and CEO at Brasilian architectural firm Königsberger Vannucchi Arquitetura, who was also part of the Graphisoft Building Together panel, points out: “We need to understand better how to use what we have already built,” he says. “In new cities it’s more affordable to build a new building than to renovate existing buildings.” But it’s necessary to work out “how to make it more affordable,” he says, “because of course it’s more sustainable, and it helps to have compact cities to have a better use of existing infrastructure. I think all this technology should help a lot on this process.”
Technology trends in architecture
Available AEC sector technology ranges from construction robotics, real-time visualization tools, laser scanning, photogrammetry, through to virtual technologies, like virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR), all of which are covered by the umbrella term extended reality (XR).
With regard to XR and the range of virtual technologies it encompasses, clients’ expectations are increasing, with requests for virtual reality-related deliverables to be included in contracts, similar to the way BIM models were seven to ten years ago.
Although the history of VR technology dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, with US filmmaker Morton Heilig’s ideas about Experience Theatre, his mechanical prototype Sensorama, and Telesphere Mask patent, progress in bringing VR into mainstream public and commercial use has been hindered by bulky head-mounted displays (HMD) and the computing power required to run the VR software.
Yet research and development in the field of real-time collaborative and immersive technology is ongoing, within tech companies, architectural firms, and universities, such as Google, Microsoft, Enscape, UNStudio and BIG, Zaha Hadid VR Group (ZHVR), MVRDV, and Aalto University in Finland.
Lighter and more comfortable HMDs, advances in video game design engines, the rollout of 5G and improvements in bandwidth and latency, and people becoming more comfortable working remotely and using online collaboration tools as a result of the pandemic, are all adding further momentum to the development of XR and real-time collaborative tools.
Hardware, software, reliable connectivity, and other issues still remain, however. Architects in particular are faced with an array of virtual and real-time collaborative software offerings that need to work seamlessly with their existing CAD and BIM tools. And an issue affecting UK architects is proposed government legislation that introduces the so-called golden thread principle, which ZHVR refers to in a white paper as “a complete record of every decision affecting the building’s evolution from early design decisions, through construction, to legacy handovers, including all maintenance and repairs.” In response ZHVR’s resulting real-time collaboration and co-presence in VR project, Sphereing, outlines a framework for “a unified review and record-keeping VR platform that can be used to consolidate digital data and keep track of the review and decision-making process during the entire lifecycle of a project.”
For architects, the future of virtual reality tools presents opportunities for both managing the huge amount of data associated with the design and build process, making it more than just a visualization tool, and for engaging clients in the design process itself.
But for architects coding their own virtual design tools, like Andreea Ion Cojocaru, architect, software developer and co-founder of German creative studio Numena, which designs both bricks and mortar buildings and virtual architecture, this way of working with clients is already a reality. Moving around inside Numena’s project design models, clients can both manipulate non-structural elements at 1:1 scale and have an overview of the project to see the effects of changes to the overall design. “We are discovering,” she says, speaking at the NXT BLD 2021 conference, “that true VR can have a monumental impact on how we design and the things that come out of these designs.”
Visualizing and walking around 3D architectural models like this in VR is already possible with the Enscape plugin
Trending widely since Facebook announced its name change to Meta, with founder Mark Zuckerberg saying that the metaverse is the future of the company, the term metaverse has been around since science fiction writer Neal Stephenson coined the term in his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash.
In a nutshell, the metaverse nowadays is a Big Tech dream of connected, real time, and persistent virtual communities of people teleporting through virtual spaces, powered by XR systems, where people can live, work and play. Think Fortnite and Second Life as starting points for the metaverse. And in science fiction, think The Matrix and Ready Player One.
It's about living online in a virtual world as you would in the real world. In the words of venture capitalist Matthew Ball, the metaverse is “a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”
While there are still many barriers on the way to making the metaverse a reality, such as hardware design and the interoperability of the various immersive systems, Alex Coulombe of XR-focused creative studio Agile Lens in New York sees opportunities for architects in the virtual world.
With regard to the current standard of architectural design in virtual reality spaces “the bar is pretty low right now,” says Coulombe, speaking at the NXT BLD 2021 conference. “Most of the virtual reality architecture you’ll see in popular platforms, VRChat and AltspaceVR, are not designed by architects,” he says.
Coulombe would like to see architects apply their architectural skills and understanding of architectural psychology in the real world to the design of virtual architecture, using the tools in their mental toolbox to design virtual spaces.
And although he sees similarities between game design and virtual architecture design, one of his hopes is that as “architects get more involved in here,” he says, “there’ll be more opportunities to take your time and not always feel like there’s something you need to be clicking a hundred times a second.”
On-Demand Webinar: The Trends Set to Impact the Future of AEC
For more insights into the architecture trends to look out for now and beyond, watch this webinar with Enscape's Head of Integrated Practice, Roderick Bates, and John Cays, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at NJIT.