The past year brought significant technological advances in renewable energy, AI, robotics, sustainable building construction, and alternative material resources—and 2023 portends further developments in these areas. Here are five technological trends to watch in the coming year.
The goal to decarbonize construction will intensify as we approach 2030 and other sustainability milestones. Concrete, the building product with the largest CO2 footprint, is situated in the crosshairs of this effort. Many initiatives involve increasing concrete’s environmental performance by modifying its ingredients, such as replacing portland cement with supplementary cementitious materials. In addition, significant gains can be made by simply minimizing the quantity of material used. Researchers at Bath, Cambridge, and Dundee Universities are working together to develop new, structurally sophisticated concrete building systems that significantly reduce the volume of required material for a given application. According to the team, nearly half the concrete currently utilized in buildings is unneeded based on the use of planar formwork, suggesting that new configurations and casting techniques can achieve measurable improvements. Their joint effort, entitled ACORN (an acronym for automated concrete construction), utilizes robotically driven prefabricated construction methods to optimize structural forms. According to ACORN’s project summary, “Something as simple as allowing beams, columns and floor-slabs to have the shape they need to do their job, rather than the shape they need to be easily formed, allows a complete rethink of the way material is used in our buildings.”
Biobased materials will also continue playing a crucial role in 2023, and alternatives to common products like wood will garner increased attention. Once deemed an experimental material with limited applicability, hemp is finding practical uses in building construction. As The Bakersfield Californian reports, local manufacturer Ronald Volt has developed Foreverboard, a hemp-based alternative to gypsum wallboard. The product of two decades of tinkering, Foreverboard utilizes the strength of hemp fiber, which Volt treats with magnesium oxide—a nontoxic compound resistant to moisture, mildew, pests, and fire. As a result, the product avoids the mold-growth problem of traditional drywall and eschews the use of petroleum substances like fiberglass surface sheets. Durable and versatile, Foreverboard is also suitable for other building components, such as residential stud framing. Although the product is still in the testing phase, it has already gained significant market interest.
The use of renewable energy continues to flourish as solar power becomes a more cost-effective electricity source. The market for solar power has experienced year-over-year increases and is expected to grow more than 13% in 2023. The range of technologies used to harvest the sun’s energy is also expanding to include new material capacities. For example, scientists at MIT have recently devised a scalable process to create ultralight thin-film solar cells that can be readily added to any substrate. The cells are composed of semiconducting inks adhered to Dyneema, a thin composite textile that exhibits significant strength. The new fabric-based cell generates approximately 370 watts per kilogram, a power-per-mass capacity roughly 18 times greater than traditional solar cells. The new development suggests a more nimble and robust future for solar power, which until now has relied primarily on heavy and fragile components.
One unmissable 2022 technological trend was AI—especially the transformative potential unleashed by creative image-generators like DALL-E 2 and Midjourney. Once viewed primarily as a vehicle for streamlining rote tasks, AI is increasingly demonstrating its capacities in the design process. Increasingly, the term “use” is shifting to “co-creation” to describe humans’ evolving relationship with AI—particularly as the technology jumps from two to three dimensions. An example is AI Sculpting by Berlin-based Onformative. To realize AI-generated physical objects, the firm developed a method of trial-and-error programming and testing. First, the designers began the process with a simple virtual cube from which the application would remove volumes of voxels (volumetric pixels) using a roaming, subtractive object. Next, the team trained the AI to privilege certain maneuvers over others as the program attempted to manifest a given result, such as the shape of a kneeling human figure. This partially hands-off method, and the visually provocative results it delivers, suggest that the designer’s role will adopt more curatorial and instructional dimensions in the future. “In a scenario like this, we collaborate with AI. The outcome is not a reproduction of our creativity; it is unforeseen,” explains the team. “We receive unprecedented results, which re-inspire our way of creating, highlighting the importance of exploring the concept of co-creating with AI.”
Things get really interesting when biology enters the picture. The Jerusalem-based To Grow a Building is a research lab and exhibition space in which designers explore the generation of architecture with living materials. Launched during the 2022 Jerusalem Design Week, To Grow a Building features a collection of layered constructions sprouting various plants. These earthen sculptural forms are the product of a robotic arm that continuously deposits soil and seeds in successive layers. Over time, the partial-height constructions grow foliage, transforming into living mini-landscapes reinforced by the plants’ root systems. Motivated by the planetary ecological crisis, To Grow a Building offers an innovative strategy of designing with living organisms “by developing a novel material for 3D printing, through which seeding is an inseparable part of the fabrication process,” according to its website. Although the project was not developed for commercial purposes, it points to a promising trend in how ecological systems can be better integrated into the architectural design process—and how designers should consider life as an intrinsic part of the material palette.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
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