The Evolution of Architectural Technology

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This year, Munday + Cramer, Essex-based architectural design practice is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Philip Ruffle, Head of Architecture here shares his reflections on the history and future of technology that makes innovation in architectural design possible.

From the birth of the architectural profession to the present day, you can always be sure to find a pencil and rule in an architect’s toolkit.

Whilst those tools are the basis of most, if not all practice, their form may change. Although we may be moving away from a sketchbook and into the world of 4D rendering made possible by virtual reality – from a 2B pencil to a VR handset – innovation knows no bounds in this industry.

Remote Sensing

Remote Sensing is one of the best-known examples of transformative architectural innovation. Like many things, although not being developed for the profession, it is now commonplace in most architectural firms to use some form of Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR).

The advent of flight is what launched the beginnings of aerial imagery. The earliest example dates back to 1858, with the use of a hot air balloon to photograph Paris from the air. In 1910, the first continuous-wave radar system was used to locate buried objects. Military usage for reconnaissance, both on the ground and in the air, pushed along innovations in this area.

One technique that is proving to be extremely valuable in a range of applications is LiDAR, and, with drone technology, it is now easier than ever to capture, store and send 4K images. As of this year, the technology has progressed so much that it is now available on iPhone. Now, this is not to say that we will all be constructing plans from our phones, but it brings much hope to see such technology become accessible, portable, and importantly, affordable.

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Industry Impact and Sustainable Development

The history of sustainability in architecture is far less extensive than some other technologies. This area is quite heavily dictated by changes in trends, and as building technology changed, it seemed to go hand in hand with the rise of environmental awareness.

The discourse of environmental advocacy and sustainability really began to break ground in the 1960s. During this time, activists began to ask questions surrounding our place in nature, and how we best fit in. Towards the 21st Century, the interplay between architecture and nature became more of a researched area, and the practice of ‘green architecture’ began to boom.

It is estimated that construction output will increase by 85% globally by 2030. So, as this increases, we must find ways to mitigate our impact on the environment, as we move into the Anthropocene. Our focus must shift to minimising waste, simplifying workflow, and reduce unproductive man-hours as the demand for sustainable practices grows. One way we can do this is to embrace Building Information Modelling (BIM). This solution allows architects and project managers to track everything from material procurement to daily scheduling, even making allowances for curing and drying time.

Another way we’ve evolved with the times in architectural practice is by moving towards the use of sustainable materials in architecture, from cork to conglomerates. For example, aspects of a build such as roof or wall insulation are being switched out for denim and newspaper instead of substances that have the potential to be harmful to both humans and the environment. As they grow in popularity with developers and clients, these materials are becoming more and more useful in both indoor and outdoor aspects.

Smart and Emerging Architectural Technology

From smartphones to smart kettles, it seems as though everything is getting a new ‘smart’ upgrade. Nowadays, it seems like the new buzzword, but in architecture where science and engineering sit firmly at its core, any opportunity for innovation should be welcomed. Recent uses can be seen in Japanese trains, where the use of switchable smart glass that works with the door allows privacy between carriages. Many areas getting a ‘smart’ upgrade may be of interest to our industry such as smart pipes, but one area which holds huge promise for the industry’s next steps is extended reality (XR), which is an umbrella term for augmented, virtual, and mixed reality.

As to the evolution of this technology, obviously, its history isn’t as extensive as that of remote sensing or the like. The first mention of virtual reality, somewhat unsurprisingly, was in a science fiction novel by Stephen Weinbaum in 1935. The first VR ‘machine’ was roughly the size of a photo booth, and the headset technology that would ultimately lead to companies such as Oculus began their life in military usage.

As we’ve seen this year, there is a growing need for our work to be accessible online, and some start-ups are working to meet demand. Cloud-based spatial design tool Arkio, works in VR and allows architects, technologists, and designers to collaborate in real-time, no matter where they are in the world. This has great potential for firms to become kinder to the environment, showcasing projects to stakeholders and investors, and ultimately saving money.

Collaboration breeds innovation. When the brightest minds of the future can work together, that’s when we have real advancement happening. Open access to collaborative tools such as Arkio and continual innovation in other areas such as those mentioned above ensures a rich future for the architectural industry.



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