skip to content

Centre for Digital Built Britain

Blog by Jaimie Johnston considers the potential of technology to enhance creativity in architecture

The recent announcement by Housing Secretary James Brokenshire (MP) to launch the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission puts quality and aesthetics on the construction agenda. Jaimie Johnston, Director and Head of Global Systems at the integrated design and operations consultancy Bryden Wood considers the potential of technology to enhance creativity.

by making better use of human talent, technology can loosen the constraints of the commercial model and free architects to deliver the inspiring buildings that we all want."

When great architecture gets discussed, people don't talk about how the drawings got done on time, or the way all the measurements added up. What matters is the outcome - how the building looks and makes you feel. We expect structural strength, regulatory compliance and fitness for purpose, but the day-to-day process of drawings and deliverables is eclipsed by the realisation of an idea.  

This seems an obvious point, yet architects spend most of their time documenting ideas, not having them. Documentation represents about 10 per cent of the value of a project, but takes up 90 per cent of the time. Ideas are 90 per cent of the value but take up 10 per cent of the time. That doesn't feel right, but things are changing, and technology could be the saviour of the hard-pressed architect. 

There's increasing agreement, from government [1] onwards, that a platform, or automated, approach to construction will be more efficient. By making the industry more like manufacturing we'll be able to build more, faster, for less - and with higher safety standards. 

What's received less attention is the boost this could give to creativity. Soon architects will be able to offload a lot of the functional work to computers. A case study published by WeWork [2], outlines their success in using machine learning to predict meeting room utilisation around 40 per cent more accurately than human designers.

We are moving to a future where, with platforms and automated construction, the performance and properties of different components and sub-assemblies will be known and quantified. This information will be held in the digital model along with structural and legal constraints, so that data will flow from digital model to physical structure.  

Suddenly, architects and designers will have more time to focus on what really matters: ideas and outcomes. Throughout history architects have used new technology or material in a creative way, often creating a new style or movement in the process. The first ‘skyscraper’ [3], was made possible through innovative use of steel, the Brutalist movement came from a war-ravaged society that needed inexpensive construction, and the ‘Hi Tech’ movement used steel and glass in new ways to maximise the available volume of building for a given cost.

The initial rough sketch for the Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon, immediately conveys the idea of the building, even though huge technical problems remained to be solved. The parabolic shells, for example, had to be redesigned as sections of a sphere, and were built with precast concrete shells, manufactured offsite. Yet the idea never changed – it was enabled by technology which continues to expand the boundaries of what is possible. 

The algorithm is a springboard, not a cage. Yes, there are huge efficiencies to be achieved by making construction more like manufacturing. Platforms, with common interfaces and sets of components can enable the improvement in productivity we desperately need. But that does not imply a future of drab uniformity. Language itself is made from a limited set of letters and words, operating within fixed grammatical rules, yet its power of expression is almost infinite. The use of mass customised components, and reduced cost of construction will allow us to create forms that were once inconceivable. 

The limitation on creativity now is commercial. Visions have to be realised within real world budgets, driving sameness, compromise and mediocrity. Many projects, such as large-scale housing, do not get enough architectural input, and this is what should change. Architects could spend more time understanding what people really want and adding more design value to more buildings. This means not just a better result, but a more efficient process. Time spent thoroughly understanding a client's brief and "problem statement" pays back through the whole asset lifecycle, eliminating wasteful changes in direction. So by making better use of human talent, technology can loosen the constraints of the commercial model and free architects to deliver the inspiring buildings that we all want.   

Read the report ‘Platforms – Bridging the gap between construction and manufacturing’ published by Bryden Wood and CDBB in March 2018.

Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission

Bryden Wood

[1] In support of the 2017 budget statement around ‘presumption in favour of offsite

[2] Nicole Pehan, ‘Designing with Machine Learning’, WeWork blog 11 September 2016.

[3] Generally considered to be William LeBaron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building in 1885