Since January 2016, I have asked thought leaders navigating the design and technology space to make tech-focused predictions for the new year (see past editions here). But with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to affect nearly all aspects of society, this year’s edition would be remiss without also acknowledging the pandemic’s lasting impact on design approach, workflow, and considerations. The 12 forward-thinking architects and designers below highlight an increasing array of remote work tools; virtual, augmented, and mixed reality platforms; and crossover capabilities from the gaming world. And, notably, the question arises of whether these new capabilities are making design more accessible and accountable to underserved populations.
Director of visualization, CannonDesign, St. Louis
COVID-19’s lasting impact: Prior to the pandemic, the AEC industry was significantly skeptical about technology’s ability to drive collaboration. Over the past year, this skepticism has diminished as firms have had to rely entirely on technology to adapt their workflows and network systems with remote staff. Virtual calling and web-based whiteboard applications also became part of our daily lives.
When we can collaborate in person again, technology and virtual work will remain a part of our culture and design DNA moving forward. We have learned that staff can work from anywhere effectively and efficiently. With technology proving its power in 2020, we can move beyond skepticism to focus fully on innovation, design and culture.
2021 predictions: Interoperability is one of the hottest topics in the AEC industry today. We spend significant time exporting and importing different file formats from disparate design applications. Our partners at Autodesk, Nvidia, and Epic Games understand this workflow issue and are moving forward with the adoption of the Universal Scene Description file format and Material Definition Language to allow for true interoperability among all design applications. Autodesk has been working to implement this into the next version of 3ds Max. Epic Games has provided Datasmith as its solution for data preparation and exchange among applications.
At the moment, Omniverse by Nvidia is the product that stands out: It creates the opportunity to both consume USD and MDL data and create and manage USD/MDL assets. This positions Omniverse at the center of the AEC workflow of the future.
Another product showing promise for 2021 is Arkio, a cross-platform VR and AR collaborative platform for AEC work. (CannonDesign has been close partners with the developer since Arkio’s alpha release three years ago.) In 2020, Arkio’s ability to communicate design through virtual environments helped us secure high profile projects.
The mixed reality realm also holds opportunities. Apple is moving toward that goal with its devices. Nvidia and Epic Games are embracing pixel streaming and cloud based extended reality (XR), which encompasses VR, AR, and MR. This will eventually free users from hardware restrictions while offering high-quality immersive and collaborative experiences.
Matt Goldsberry, AIA
Computation design principal, HDR, Omaha, Neb.
COVID-19’s lasting impact: COVID-19 and remote working have accelerated the use of digital replacements for physical presentation models, a trend that has been ongoing for the past decade. The gaming industry has also gone through a similar evolution. Internet gameplay was once an underground scene, with your everyday gamer preferring DVDs and in-person multiplayer. Online play is now preferred across the board with a plethora of multi-dimensions, including Twitch for additional communication and AR/VR for enhanced visual effects. For example, the game Among Us recently became the most popular digital game ever, mainly due to its multiplayer gameplay and built-in communication, which create a newfound social experience.
Linking the design and gaming industries is the fact that digital replacements are now opportunities to create interactive and multidimensional experiences using new technology from gaming and Hollywood. For example, Euclidean Lands became a popular augmented reality game for its architectural style and creative use of AR. The accelerated adoption of these tools will have a lasting impact for years to come.
2021 predictions: The No-Code development platform is a movement focused on creating tools from graphical interfaces instead of code. Squarespace and Wix, for example, offer graphical interfaces for custom website creation without requiring users to write any HTML. More recently, companies like Typeform, Airtable and Retool have made available tools for creating custom database and mobile apps—and subsequently more agile workflows. As the AEC industry moves toward digital twins and BIM management services, no-code platforms will become critical tools for teams to adopt.
Emily Baker, AIA
Assistant professor, Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, University of Arkansas
COVID-19’s lasting impact: Design schools going virtual or hybrid and the big decline in the profession of in-person meetings mean that everyone is finding online collaborative drawing and meeting tools. For me, tools like Miro or Conceptboard are starting to fill a void for online collaboration in 2D space; as an educator, I will keep using these tools to mark up drawings, sketch, and converse with students even after we start meeting in person again.
Some of the more interesting collaborative environments for 3D are very new or still in development. Fologram’s At.Studio platform provides 3D gallery–style space for showing design work. I’m testing Canary, a forthcoming platform that creates a digital design space where remote collaborators can speak to each other while viewing the same 3D model in either computer-based or augmented reality environments. Users will be able to see others’ positions and point at areas for discussion. A client could be walking through the unbuilt site with the app in hand while the designer is viewing the model on the computer elsewhere. This tool could reduce travel needs as well as alleviate potential misinterpretations by clients who are less adept at reading drawings.
Architects are starting to see the power of AR to communicate designs to their clients. I can walk onto a raw space that will house a pavilion or restaurant, place my modeled elements accurately, and take a photo or video for the client. Or clients can view these elements through the camera on their phones, get a sense of scale, and “live in” a design before any work is done on site.
2021 predictions: The development of tools like the Fologram AR application will bring intelligence and adaptability of the human hand into digital fabrication workflows. This trend will make envisioning a design accessible for clients and designers alike. For example, I’ve used AR to show clients a steel stair installed in a house under construction before any fabrication was done. The clients walking through the space could see the design rendered in place with convincing clarity by wearing a HoloLens headset or by peering through a mobile device’s camera.
I am using Fologram to envision steps in the fabrication process of a piece of public art that will be installed on a multiuse trailhead. Tentatively titled “Mile Zero,” the project will utilize AR-based construction guides to precisely fold steel into a double-curved space frame.
The past 20-plus years of experimentation in digital fabrication in architecture have expanded formal possibilities, but AR-aided fabrication can bring the computational power of digital design in concert with a craftsperson’s trained skill. In many cases, this fabrication workflow could eliminate the need for hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment in favor of a customizable holographic guide for construction and capitalize on the haptic intelligence we all hold in our hands. AR-based fabrication can be less reliant on high precision design, moving more agency into the hands of fabricators while still achieving a high-fidelity result. It can be both the best of digital and handcraft.
Latoya Nelson Kamdang, AIA
Senior associate and director of New York operations, Moody Nolan, New York
COVID-19’s lasting impact: The Sept. 11 attacks forever changed our society in ways that we did not anticipate. I expect that COVID-19 will have an even more profound impact on global society, one that will touch on the design process, outcomes, and integration with the natural environment.
Regarding the design process, I expect to see continued integration of remote access in the workplace. Companies had to quickly adapt to allow employees a platform to continue to work safely, particularly because many in urban areas relied on public transit for commuting. The multitude of remote platforms that have become ubiquitous will be forever embedded in our lives. The early adaption and full integration of videoconferencing platforms will continue to expand the potential for global collaboration. This is just the beginning.
2021 predictions: Architects and designers will continue to design more spaces with infection control measures. During the pandemic, we regularly turned to the CDC guidelines to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. Architects and designers will continue to innovate by designing spaces that not only reduce the spread of infections but also incorporate measures to promote wellness. Neighborhoods Now, a pro bono effort organized by Urban Design Forum and Van Alen Institute, had several design teams working to integrate social distancing, hygienic material selections, and general safety measures for end users.
In urban areas, the importance of quality outdoor space has come to the forefront during the pandemic. In large cities, local residents were drawn to public parks and outdoor spaces. As a result, many restaurants and businesses have created impromptu exterior environments to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and provide extra safety measures driven by demand. Quality public space will continue to be important. Architects and designers will retrofit spaces to create accessible green roofs, patios, and balconies as well as explore alternative uses of the sidewalk.
Leslie Lok and Sasa Zivkovic
Co-founders, Hannah Design Office, Ithaca, N.Y.
COVID-19’s lasting impact: We live in Ithaca and are experts in “going remote,” but due to the pandemic, our workflows have become even more remote and digital. We predict that the flexibility of remote collaborations and project teams will continue long after the pandemic. We have also seen a dramatic shift in architectural education in the past few months. Remote education and online post-professional training will likely be more accepted and embraced in the future. One benefit of teaching studio remotely is that we can bring in experts from around the world for reviews virtually. This is a huge asset for our students and a time saver for our critics.
COVID-19 has dramatically illustrated social inequalities and the urgent need for more affordable housing. Automation in construction paired with smart design and assembly technology can help significantly reduce housing costs and offer increased design freedom and customization for homeowners and clients while simultaneously creating opportunities for sustainable construction. That is, we can have our cake—higher quality spaces, affordability, sustainability, and resource efficiency—and eat it too.
2021 predictions: Opportunities to engage in various scales of renovation projects will continue. Architects and designers can offer smart and integrated ways to maximize space in existing houses and add office space, adjusting floor plans and layouts to the new realities of remote work.
Separately, we will see an exponential proliferation of 3D printed concrete buildings worldwide. Last year saw a lot of new technology developments and proof-of-concept projects that illustrated that the 3D printing of concrete buildings is a market-ready concept. The question has now shifted from “How can I 3D print a standard house?” to “What are the particular design opportunities of 3D printing?”
Meghana Joshi, Assoc. AIA
Senior project manager, Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, Irvine, Calif.
COVID-19’s lasting impact: COVID-19 untied us from our traditional workspaces and brought forth options to rethink and reimagine the way forward. The traditional architecture project management and design service standards shifted toward better, smarter, and lighter solutions to streamline architectural processes from concept to construction. Mid-size companies previously shy of fully exploring and implementing design technologies to accelerate efficiency are now investing in artificial intelligence and data science, parametric design, design visualization tools, and automation processes. Instead of using technology as a bandage, architecture is finally using technologies to create smarter buildings. Boundaries between architecture and technology are blurring, and not just at global mega-firms.
In March last year, the lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders from the pandemic started the same week as construction kickoff for one of my projects in Chicago. I was already using FaceTime with the client, consultants, and contractor for efficient coordination and collaboration but now, the entire construction administration process had to be carried out virtually. And we did it using tools such as Matterport and FaceTime. Though we were pushed into the pandemic abruptly, we realized that we were already equipped with the tools to survive and thrive—we just didn’t maximize their potential.
2021 predictions: As a champion of equitable spaces, I am looking forward to technology that democratizes the design process and rethinks the roles of real estate developers, architects, urban designers, and community in the cities of tomorrow. Smart buildings and sustainable cities should not be limited to the privileged, but be a global right. One technology in that direction is Spacemaker, a cloud-based AI software for site-planning and related workflow that Autodesk recently acquired. I hope Autodesk will enhance Spacemaker to help create global awareness about the importance of design and planning in creating smarter, safer, and sustainable cities of the future. Along with AR, VR, and other visualization tools, Spacemaker has the framework to help bridge the knowledge gap between real estate development and community.
Chief operating officer and founder, Hypar, Waltham, Mass.
COVID-19’s lasting impact: With the cost savings incentive from reduced workplace occupation due to the pandemic, many traditional companies are planning physical and procedural reconfigurations of their current spaces. Owners can expect a restructuring of their businesses as tenants opt for reduced leased areas and scheduled access rather than exclusive occupation, expanding the coworking office model to an option commonly provided by property owners. As social interaction safety improves, workplace interiors will be more devoted to collaboration over solitary work and emphasize reconfigurable furniture and modular units over fixed construction.
As financial opportunities drive businesses toward increased virtuality, a more dispersed workforce will need spaces in the home dedicated to business. Urban migration in developed countries may slow as employment becomes less concerned with immediate proximity than with time zone congruence and anecdotal local collaboration.
2021 predictions: This year we will see accelerated adoption of automation to support design, construction, and operations. The AEC industry now has practical opportunities to deliver expertise as automated systems aiding human judgment, differentiating on the speed and accuracy of decisions affecting the built environment. Machine learning technologies offering real improvements to practices and delivery will appear in targeted, privately developed applications as a prelude to widespread commercialization by the software industry, which will increasingly adjust to support distributed proprietary software development by domain experts.
I hope that the building professions will realize that existing technology can expand their businesses beyond local consulting into the worldwide software market. In the growing generative design community, we already see captured expertise allowing practices to scale beyond increasingly scarce talent, even as more projects take advantage of automated manufacturing through modular construction. While the death of construction documents has been greatly exaggerated so far, we’ll see their gradual relegation to regulatory compliance as generative design becomes directly connected to unitized manufacturing.
We are on the verge of freeing our human talent from the drudgery of mundane and repetitive decisions to focus more on problems requiring widespread collaboration and creativity to solve. With limited time to accommodate a changing climate, I hope that 2021 is the pivotal year in which we begin to take full advantage of advanced computational technologies for AEC.
Associate principal and interior designer, Moody Nolan, Columbus, Ohio
COVID-19s lasting impact: As we shift into the new normal/post-vaccine era, we must not let the pandemic become a distant memory, but rather an experience to learn from. Though we will return to the office, our return may be in a different capacity. Recent surveys show that many employees do not want to return to the office full-time given the advantages and demonstrated productivity of working from home.
2021 predictions: Here are workplace trends I anticipate seeing:
- Implementation of more robust remote work policies. Generations Y and Z folks have prioritized flexible work policies, but with the rest of the world getting a taste of work-from-home benefits, flexibility and a hybrid office model will become typical.
- Increase in unassigned desks and flexible workspace. More companies will move away from assigned desks and providing hoteling (reservation-based) and hot desking (unassigned) options for employees to plug in when they are in the office. Daily cleaning and sanitizing protocols will be necessary for any type of shared space.
- Less open-office space. With employees doing most of their heads-down work at home, office planning will include more non-dedicated, collaborative space for teams. These spaces could be planned as conference rooms but can comprise hard-walled rooms or soft spaces that are open and visually accessible, with many furniture options.
- Prioritized comfort and culture. After months of working from home, employees may be looking for some of that informality to translate into the workplace. The “resimercial” trend has been on the rise in recent years, and more human-centric design elements will be incorporated in future workspaces. Creating a work environment that reflects company culture will be even more critical as employee office-time may be limited.
- The role of technology in the hybrid office. Technology will be vital in connecting remote employees with in-office teams and ensuring that they feel like productive, engaged, and valuable contributors. Videoconferencing capabilities need to be flexible, accessible, and intuitive.
Troy Sherrard, FAIA
Sports and recreation practice design leader, Moody Nolan, Columbus, Ohio
COVID-19’s lasting impact and 2021 predictions: In order to create safe spaces in the future, architects will have to make several technical and specification considerations. First, there will be renewed focus on increased fresh air requirements and filtration (such as ultraviolet light cleaning) of building mechanical systems. Ideal supply and return air movement patterns will be of particular interest. This will impact a building’s energy performance.
Second, more clients and owners will be looking to maximize and program outdoor spaces for recreation and other uses. Flexible future building design should look to cover outdoor spaces to offer some protection from the elements; enclosing spaces with large operable outside walls to maximize fresh air accommodations is another approach. Entry canopy structures also allow for any necessary pre-screening services that may be needed.
Third, architects and designers will want to maximize integrated touchless sensor driven technology to address everything from door controls, sign-in processes, payment terminals, to flush valves, sinks, urinals, and lighting controls. Also, common items like drinking fountains, which the building code still requires, will give way to personal bottle fillers.
Fourth, architects will want to reduce doors and door hardware touch points and increase common circulation paths. It will impact a building’s square footage but the simple aspect of people circulation will require more study, such as the use of privacy mazes and one-way circulation patterns as feasible.
Finally, architects and designers will want to look into specifying antiviral materials, such as copper, and finishes that are easy to clean and wipe down. This applies to furniture and hardware and already is a common practice in recreation and health care environments.
Jose Luis García del Castillo y López
Lecturer in architectural technology; technology area head, M. Design Studies; and Material Processes and Systems Group, Harvard University Graduate School of Design
COVID-19’s lasting impact: We have a new capacity to challenge the notion of “presence.” As architects, we are trained to design spaces that humans can inhabit, experience, and interact with. However, the remoteness forced by the pandemic has made us realize that many of those spaces are digital, and the experiences heavily mediated by hardware, software, and graphic interfaces. Our digital presence has been heightened, both in the way we interact with each other and in how we manifest ourselves in the world.
Architects will have a bigger role in rethinking our new forms of presence, both physical and digital. We are witnessing an increasing number of architects moving on to UX/UI design, software development, and generally thinking, designing, and building digital environments that are more pleasant to work, interact, and augment our physical selves in. And just like the boundaries of home and office are blurring, architects will have a greater voice in designing how our physical and digital presence will also blend.
2021 predictions: 2021 will see a surge in the popularity of frameworks that streamline collaborative work among stakeholders in AEC enterprises, such as real-time design collaboration (Nvidia Omniverse), centralized architectural versioning and reviewing frameworks (Modelo) and accessible workflow automation (Hypar).
Design principal, Blink!Lab Architecture, Oakland, Calif.
COVID-19’s lasting impact: In 2011, University of Minnesota College of Design’s spring issue of Emerging asked two questions: “What if ... design could improve healthcare?” and “What if ... design could ease the impact of disaster?” When the UM faculty created their post-baccalaureate certificate program—which brought together the School of Nursing and the Center of Spirituality and Healing—I suspect a pandemic was not in their outlook.
When COVID-19 touched my family, I had to navigate four hospitals within a four-week stretch, a nightmare further compounded when two of those facilities experienced prolonged IT malfunction. However, it was the hospital with a “No IT” stance that revealed the greatest criteria to organizational success: a commitment from health care employees to the agreed human-based communication system in place. When all else fails, it is the human-agreement to the plan that matters, not the technology.
During the pandemic, health care systems were forced to operate like startups: Focus on the goal and have a flexible and adaptable plan. This is where I see the greatest opportunity for our health care system and any industry that has been slow to change. Hospitals and medical providers have to cannibalize their existing organizational structures and embrace flexibility and adaptation as planning tools for the future.
What if architects were more dedicated to integrating variegation in their design process? What if we focused more on understanding the complexity of human motivations, past and present, and looked to articulate that map of communication so that we—hopefully—make more inclusive and ethical design decisions?
2021 predictions: I am excited by VR as an immediate—and soon-to-be native—collaborative design tool as it begins to question assumptions about space and material reliance. (VR as a marketing and presentation tool is of little interest to me.)
I am looking forward to increased design team meetings in VR as a core component of the design process. This begins to put into question the need for meeting rooms and physical square feet dedicated to gathering. Lately, I’ve been testing the ability to host meetings in VR with anyone anywhere, being able to “walk” up to a corner detail, examine designs as modeled, and make adjustments to the design—all in VR. What does this mean for physical mock-ups as a design tool?
VR fundamentally questions assumptions about space quantification and materiality. Current apps have made the VR workflow seductively easy. In fact, my latest addiction is being able to “operate” five screens at once in VR; it’s mind-blowing to be able to create, experience, and evaluate several designs simultaneously.
However, whenever I am working in VR and look back at planet Earth (that’s how my VR space is programmed), I am disturbed to my core. Because I recognize that VR space is by invitation only. VR is exclusionary by design. VR contains no accidental encounters that would expand one’s perspective. George Floyd’s murder placed the spotlight on a level of exclusionary cruelty that was ignored despite many having provided evidence for nearly 400 years. If we continue to only invest in technologies designed and created by those addicted to pleasure while ignoring humanity or an ethical mandate, I fear an even greater level of exclusion in a world of the temporary, erasable, non-archived, behavior-based learning.
This fact is already appearing in design solutions presented at highly regarded universities where the human is completely erased from urban design proposals. What will be the unintended consequences on the racially and economically excluded? How will our elected officials govern tomorrow when they lack the fundamental skills to meet today’s needs—ethically?