Covid Futurism – Part 1: How We Build Things

An article by Charles Selden, AIA


We can assume a couple of things at this early stage of this outbreak. The first is that our interactions with each other are now permanently changed. The second is that the built environment we occupy is now either less or more useful to us, depending on how we used it. Empty sewing rooms or dining tables that were only used twice a year are now used constantly while office buildings that major corporations shelled millions of dollars in rent for are sitting idle. At this moment, no one can tell how this will turn out, but my suspicion is that we will see at least some upheavals to “business as usual”.

Prior to the outbreak each person had a nebulous “range” that was roughly equivalent to the range of any other social animal. We would occasionally venture out of this range to visit family or take vacations, but essentially our physical existences were still lived within a distinct circle that encompassed our place of work, home, and any other social commitments. As the virus broke loose, we saw our range reduce to the edges of our home, or if we were lucky, a property line.

At the same instant we had our digital range open wider than it had ever been before, provided that we could deal with a world peered at through the confines of a phone or computer screen. Suddenly our range was global, but limited. Instead of untold hours on a plane to directly experience someplace with all of our faculties, we now could immediately open a portal to a different place. One that we could only experience through hearing and sight.

So, what does this mean for us as designers? How are we supposed to design and build in an environment driven by periods of social distancing and reduced contact? Can we really effectively serve the needs of a client we may never even meet in person, or worse design for a site we cannot even visit?

From this point on I’m speaking solely as a designer. I realize that many if not most industries are tied to the physical world. There will always be jobs that have to take place in person, and this has been a particularly painful episode for a lot of people who have watched their existence become challenged by forces that almost no one saw coming. The sobering reality is that the lines for food assistance at the church across the street from my house have only gotten longer and longer over the last couple of months. We have very real reasons to worry, but I hope that the technologies I describe below may be ported in ways that allow us to re-think the fundamentals of our economy for the better.

First and foremost, almost all of what I will describe below wouldn’t have been possible a mere decade ago. In a very real sense we are extremely lucky that the underlying technology of our age had progressed far enough to be able to flip a switch and move into a digital environment when Covid struck. As an industry, the move to building information modeling (BIM) that has taken place over the last several decades is starting to look like an act of genius. The interesting side benefit of BIM is that, intentional or not, whatever we do in BIM is generally creating an interactive three-dimensional model. I would like to explore the implications of this further.

Moving from the Symbolic, or Redefining Symbolism

To really understand how far reaching the implications of the BIM revolution are, you have to understand that there is a language that architects, engineers and contractors speak in. It is a type of code that has been developed over millennia to allow us to describe buildings without having to carry around scale models of the finished product.

Early plans were relatively simple and straightforward. Architects used to reside in or near their large projects during construction, answering questions and providing quick sketches as needed. I remember looking at an exhibit of Michelangelo’s plans for a cathedral and being shocked that the entire set of plans was three pages (I have had to produce twelve pages of plans for a storage shed!). In his time the designer acted as a sort of orchestra conductor who could trust in the competency of his musicians as they each worked together (in concert, if you will) to create a building based on their overarching vision. Each trade was an artform unto itself.

Michelangelo design for the Laurentian library door
Figure 1

As the industrial age came about, and more and more of the core elements we incorporate in our plans were being produced in factories. Our plans became more of a set of instructions on how to assemble a group of parts into a complete building. These plans turned the architect’s role from conductor to master assembler. The specifications for these parts that grew more and more finite to protect the project from being built from inferior or incompatible components. Building codes emerged, which moved what had once been driven by common sense practice into something legally enforceable. Up to about the 1980s these plans were still inked out on mylar and took a great amount of effort to produce. In essence, the plans had embodied value because they took a lot of human effort to create.

In the advent of the digital age this all went out the window. A plan was a series of vectors laid onto a black background. Erasing was easy! Once files could be transferred though local area networks and later email, the intrinsic value of the plan itself was diminished. Simultaneously the rise (or in many cased perceived rise) of lawsuits forced plans to include page upon page of boilerplate information and legal cover so that there could be no ambiguity about how the plans were interpreted. Furthermore, in the never-ending quest for ever more efficient and safe buildings the plans of power, data, and mechanical systems became massively complex affairs that included all sorts of details that simply didn’t exist before.

These drawings are often beautiful and esoteric puzzles that are about as intelligible to the general public as algorithmic formulas. We prize these plans like a secret code that only we can read and have allowed them to become monstrously complex and thick with legal jargon. But, as I’m sure every designer has experienced, they are becoming increasingly harder to explain to the person you are ultimately building for and you often end up with a client who is genuinely surprised with the building they end up with. I doubt that Michelangelo’s clients were surprised by his buildings based on his drawings.

And Then Came BIM

The BIM concept is derived from the idea that, instead of the designer owning the responsibility of updating each and every page of a plan set as subsequent revisions are made, the plans themselves are derived from a three-dimensional model. This is a huge change. The “model” up to this point had been an abstraction in the minds of the person reading the plans. Sure, perspective drawings and 3D models have existed since ancient times but they were laborious to produce and were almost immediately inaccurate the moment the design was changed. They were merely a snapshot of a moment in the building’s development. A BIM Model, however, is a cohesive set of data complied into a three-dimensional model that is theoretically always accurate to the designer’s intent.

As internet connectivity improved and the other disciplines started to get on board with this drawing methodology designers could now work on a project together in real time. Drawing this elaborate construct was now something that could be done by multiple designers anywhere in the world simultaneously. The advent of this ability, in my opinion, is more than a revolution in design methodology. It is a revolution in the way we perceive the built environment. This essentially democratizes design by allowing anyone to understand what was once esoteric and coded. Like those Michelangelo drawings of old, we can see and experience what the building will be without knowing the cipher code.

The problem is, we still have to translate these plans back into the same complex code when we bid, permit, and build. We literally take an easy to understand three-dimensional digital model, flatten it, and encode it back into the same esoteric language. This practice is making a bad situation worse. As we have moved to the “assemble a set of parts to make a building” model, the skill level of the average worker has diminished. One hundred years ago the average plasterer could probably read most if not all of the drawing package. It is quite likely that the modern drywall technician is never even given access to the plans for the building they are working on.

Meanwhile, in the Real World

The old story that once automation and mechanization took hold, most building trade skill sets were pushed into a niche designation is generally true. In the last ten years some pretty revolutionary things have started to happen that have the potential to undo some of this damage.

First, 3D printers have become cheap enough that many more people can afford them. For the uninitiated, the average consumer grade 3D printer at the time of writing either uses some sort of fusible plastic filament to build up objects or uses a vat of liquid resin that is fused with a laser. Almost simultaneously with this accessibility a community of tinkerers started sharing designs free of charge and without copyright so that other modelers could modify or improve upon their designs. Today, a dizzying array of objects are out there being downloaded and printed for the equivalent of pennies worth of material.

This also means that objects can be created easily by the types of software discussed above by anyone who is willing to learn how to draw. Early entries by companies like Sketchup allowed users to simply push and pull on planes to create massively complex objects at prices that were a mere fraction of that of traditional drafting software. Later, the concept of parametric design (the underlying basis of BIM software) was tacked on to these relatively simple software platforms allowing users to create objects that could be tuned to the specific conditions needed, like a solar shade tuned to the unique path of the sun in a specific location.

Figure 2
Figure 3

What does all this mean? It means within this century the manufacture of the bulk of the parts we use for the assembly of buildings will no longer be built in a factory, but on the lot that they are being built on. It means as the prices for machines that print in more and more durable materials decrease, the door will open for machines that are programmed to assemble your building for you on site. Successful trials of additive concrete building printers and CNC controlled assemblers have opened the doors to a world where the designs become plug and play in real time.

The Crisis of Materials

There is one huge problem, though. There is still an environmental cost to building (to the tune of about twenty percent of all greenhouse emissions). Even if you are building with these advanced techniques, if the stuff you are building with and the machines that build it are inefficient, you are only adding to a larger issue. I would argue that materials science needs to work very hard to align itself with a design and manufacturing. We need low or zero impact materials that are both durable and attractive and we need them now.

There are promising advancements in battery and solar technologies but these never seem to gain the same momentum that building the other technologies have. I think that the most massive challenge of our age is finding a way to truly build without impact in a manner that the average person can achieve. I do think that this is achievable but we as design professionals need to push harder for better stuff to build with.

A Hypothetical Building, Circa 2045

So, where is this leading? What is my wild prediction for a building of the future, especially one that limits our contact with each other? For the sake of argument, let’s say we are building a housing development for ourselves on a piece of land left over from some redundant building like a warehouse. Let’s say this warehouse was typical to our present era, maybe a one hundred and fifty thousand square foot concrete walled structure with a steel frame overtop and the typical asphalt for parking trucks and employees.

Our first step would be to map the building and its environs. One Friday a trailer full of LIDAR equipped drones shows up on site. They would fly an automatically generated pattern inside and outside of the warehouse simultaneously mapping topography, utilities, and assessing quantities of recyclable materials. All of this data is fed back into a master site plan that begins laying out the most efficient amount of lots the property can be subdivided into to allow for maximum greenspace, privacy, etc.

Our head designer logs into their network Monday morning to find an automatically generated base file with suggested lot lines and a volumetric chart of materials to work with. The designer is also given a chance to experience the site to the maximum extent that Virtual Reality will allow because the drone trailer has sampled the ambient conditions. The designer can walk through a complete 3D map of the site to get a sense of it. They share the file with other team members working remotely and begin sculpting the site to account for best design practices and to account for the preferences of the future owners. They finalize a plat and digitally upload their model to the local zoning department for review and approval.

After they get an approved site plan and begin work on designing the structures. Massive troves of local cultural and architectural data are available online to help knit the new buildings into the community. Each home is custom tuned to take daylighting, prevalent winds, and thermal loads into account through software overlays that weight design decisions. The computer starts subtracting the amount of available recyclable materials from those available to keep a balance and maximize them. A finalized design is released to the owner to take an augmented reality tour of their home while the designer meets with them remotely and logs any requested changes needed into their plans.

After the plan is finalized a group of containers is dropped onto the site and a set of solar sails is deployed. A small team of technicians are on site to make repairs and check any unforeseen conditions as they arise. One tech starts setting up a group of demolition drones that start strategically disassembling the roof structure and cutting it into pieces that can be ground and 3D printed into metal components. Another sets up a series of robots to begin grinding away the concrete and dumping it into a hopper for later reuse. The exposed reinforcing steel is treated like the other steel pieces.

The site is contoured autonomously by a team of small drone earth movers that are working in a swarm careful to stay out of the way of other construction. An inspector periodically measures to make sure the soil is placed correctly. The asphalt is ground up and compacted back into walking trails or compressed into pavers. A specialist team arrives on site to make the utility connections while being remotely observed by a local utility inspector.

The houses are all built simultaneously so no one has to live through construction next door. Owners are given access to an online stream from one of the trailers showing the progress. The jobsite can operate constantly without having to worry about a noise complaint because the electronic crews can schedule the quietest activities for nighttime work. Ideally the whole process is net neutral in power and materials consumption. As the site work finishes up, a carefully calculated landscape plan is delivered and planted by drones as a technician examines each plant for disease and travel damage.

Finally, a group of homeowners move into the houses and take up residence. An archaic utilitarian building has been replaced with a series of homes with little or no environmental consequences. While this is all probably wishful thinking, every technology I describe above is either available now or in development. If you asked me fifteen years ago if I thought would be sitting here writing this as my 3D printer hums along churning out masks for nurses, I probably would have thought it was pretty far-fetched, but here I sit doing that very thing. I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that there are opportunities embedded in every crisis and I hope we see it that way some day.

Below is a link to an experimental building that actually utilizes a lot of what I describe:

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