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Architect 2.0: Designing the Future with New Technologies

Hilda Espinal's Keynote Address at Build Pittsburgh 2019

By Maya Henry, COLUMNS editor Posted on May 2, 2019

Technological advancements allow for almost photo-realistic simulation in design. Image courtesy Hilda Espinal, AIA/CannonDesign

Architecture is a very old practice. Technology by its nature heralds the new. What happens when the two come barreling towards each other? Hilda Espinal, AIA, Build Pittsburgh 2019’s keynote speaker and CannonDesign’s Chief Technology Officer, shared her insights about designing the future with new technologies to a crowded ballroom of early risers.

While technology provides a number of exciting opportunities for the architecture profession, Espinal says it can also add new demands and create unrealistic expectations.

She noted that clients very often want the quality of Intel, the dependability of Starbucks, the innovation of Tesla, the reliability of FedEx, the variety of Amazon, and the experience of Nordstrom.  All for the price of Walmart.

Espinal covered a variety of ways in which new technology has advanced each of these areas, such as how virtual reality (VR) has helped CannonDesign stand out in the marketplace and differentiate themselves from competitors.

VR technology has become so sophisticated that even the seams in the furniture can be rendered.  This allows clients to fully immerse themselves in spaces before they spend the money to build them, and allows architects to provide a more realistic user-experience for potential clients.

While tantalizing, VR can also be isolating and distracting because of the awkwardness of the physical technology.  The most effective use Cannon has found for VR has actually been when architects put on VR gear and collaborate across geography in real-time, charrette-style.  Without leaving the comfort of their own offices, architects can embody an avatar through VR and physically manipulate models and other tools in real-time with other designers.  This cuts down on travel expenses while simulating in-person collaboration.

Architects in a real-time charrette (above) and in a VR charrette at CannonDesign.  Image courtesy Hilda Espinal, AIA/CannonDesign

The sophistication of the technology, which can now show how shifting daylight affects a space, can aid with environmentally responsible design as well as Health Safety and Welfare, by, say, identifying a tripping hazard that appears when the sun shines through a pane of glass.

With respect to innovation, there is much that can be done through predictive modeling that can save time such as using computer-generated floor plan layouts. While not 100% reliable, when reviewed and refined by an architect these layouts can be a true timesaver.

When technology takes the lead on floorplan layouts.  Image courtesy Hilda Espinal, AIA/CannonDesign

Software can also help make evidence-based designs, such as evaluating a floor plan to determine the best place for a hospital nurses’ station.  With parametric design, software models can show the height of potential buildings in context with the surrounding area.

In these cases, architects evaluate the outcomes and eliminate options that aren’t valid – and the technology learns and improves to produces data-driven insights and optimal solutions.

But is this affordable? Yes, says Espinal – highly sophisticated digital mock-ups are a big time saver to physical mockups and cuts down on the environmental impact of material use. While it’s impossible to meet all client expectations with tech alone, technology well used by an architect can help meet those high expectations.

Digital mock-ups are more environmentally responsible save cost over physical mock-ups.  Image courtesy Hilda Espinal, AIA/CannonDesign

In terms of what is next, new and evolving roles for architects can shape a firm’s ability to stay abreast with new technologies.  Data science, analytics, game design, and coding are all critical pieces necessary for firms, like Cannon, which are developing their own technologies.  It’s important to remember, noted Espinal, that CAD wasn’t supported when it came onto the scene.

“We need to be very comfortable with technology for the generations coming up through the ranks, and this sets us up to be prospering ‘whole’ architects,” says Espinal. As architects, that means embracing nontraditional roles within your firms.

Technology can help remove the mundane, so that architects can focus on what really matters, such as more responsible design through sustainability monitoring, cutting back on waste, as well as more efficient use of spaces.  In the end, she says, this is how architecture can solve some of society’s biggest challenges.

                        Image courtesy Hilda Espinal, AIA/CannonDesign

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