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Based on a conversation with Phil Langley and Maria Mamoura, Directors of Bryden Wood's Creative Technologies team.
Good design is tough. Making good design automation software is tough as well.
The Creative Technologies team at Bryden Wood aims to excel at both of them – for a reason.
Design first. The problem? Design is too manual, it’s too slow, it’s not transparent or traceable, labour is wasted, and effort is invested into the wrong parts of the process. Nearly everyone in the Creative Technologies team is an architect or engineer who has experienced this first hand. No-one will want to be an architect if it’s boring. But architects’ potential impact on the built environment is constantly smothered because they have to do a ton of boring stuff and can’t focus on what they want to be doing and where they can add the most value; which is the clever, creative stuff.
Software next. The software we use in the construction industry is designed (as for every industry) to appeal to a wide audience and to deliver functionality to the largest number of users. This means it will often support mainstream design behaviours but it won’t push the boundaries of the possible. It is not the place to find the future of design. It stabilises recent or novel design approaches, but it doesn’t help develop new ones. Generalised software designed for generalised users produces generalised processes, activities and results.
There’s a place for that approach to automating construction, but it’s not why we’re here. We want to create the change our industry needs – and do it from within our industry. We don’t want to be disrupted by big tech, caught out like the music industry was by iTunes…
Architects are important, but haven’t always been very good at making it obvious how important we are, and why. Over the last decades, the profession has been fragmented and whittled away – losing influence and impact and getting tied up in bureaucratic systems and approaches that have more to do with easing procurement and dispersing risk than with getting the best results for clients.
We believe that the role of the architect is – or should be – pivotal to the success of built environment projects. That’s what the job is – or should be – and architects should be allowed to do their job to the best of their abilities. We shouldn’t be packaged up and commoditised. We’re fighting back!
Bryden Wood is the perfect place for this team, not least because of a happy coincidence of purpose. The Creative Technologies team provide the digital vision to match the physical vision of Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) and mass customisation – two key parts of Bryden Wood’s core purpose, Design to Value. Everything we’ve done in Creative Technologies has its basis in DfMA, and that, in turn, has shaped the thinking behind how the team is set up, and how we work.
As a team, our design automation work weaves together four threads that run through and connect everything we do. They’re not linear, and they’re not steps in a process. They’re continuous and reflexive. The relationships are not fixed, they’re knitted together in different ways across time so they’re strengthened by each other and able to hold themselves, to resist tension. They are:
Each of these threads connects and is informed by other areas of work at Bryden Wood. Creative Technologies could only thrive in a company with a truly integrated approach.
Construction Technology is a big category. It includes the technology used to track the movements of a tower crane as well as highly complex design authoring software. It attempts to make existing tasks easier, but not necessarily change the underlying nature of those tasks.
Part of our endeavour is to bring together all sorts of discrete technologies and products, whose aim is to solve discrete problems. It’s also about addressing the design process – and the way we design – as a whole, to create a different end product. Within the design process, people shouldn’t just be seen as resources who are expected to deliver something, they should be allowed to think more broadly about the problems they’re addressing. And design automation technology should enable that – it should create possibility, not define it.
We work directly with clients to create technology that addresses their business needs and activities – not necessarily just the needs of architects and designers. This direct client contact has given us the opportunity to create a distinct identity as a team, and a distinct position within the industry. It also required us to develop skills that internal-facing teams don’t need. Having our own clients presents us with a range of questions that we have to answer, and it requires a particular set of capabilities. We create solutions and give them to clients – for them to use. That means our product has to work independently of us – it has to achieve a level of external usability and stability.
Working in this way has also given us a lot of scope in terms of choosing what sort of team we want to be, to evolve sometimes according to the individuals who join the team, and to decide our own overall development path – but we’ve always been tethered strongly to the core intellectual drive of the company.
AI relies on large data sets. These aren’t typically available in our sector so the use of AI in construction has been somewhat limited by that. Examples of AI are often narrowly defined and only really touch a very specific part of the overall process; the part for which large data sets do exist.
‘Generative design’ means many things, but generally it’s an approach used in the industry to solve complicated problems; you use generative design to create loads of possible solutions or scenarios, from which you choose the best.
The Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) approach that we have in Bryden Wood – which is embedded in Creative Technologies – means that something like generative design can be more powerful, as it can be built around design rules and content that’s inherently more clearly defined.
When people in the industry talk about cutting-edge construction technologies, these are usually buzzwords about things that are not widely in use, generally misunderstood and unlikely ever to deliver the advertised benefits – because they’re not appropriate solutions and our industry is too far from ready. It’s good that people talk about construction tech – that creates an environment broadly open to tech – but that’s not the same as being able to actually use it.
In our team, we only ever apply technology when it is appropriate to the problem at hand. We have never, for example, had to use a Machine Learning solution, because we’ve never had a problem that it’s been the right technology for.
Nor do we think that the future of robotics in construction is in building robots to do jobs that we, or they, shouldn’t be doing in the first place. Technology is not fairy dust that you sprinkle onto a problem to sort it out. You need to assess the entire process and engage actively with technology to see where – or whether – it will add value. You also have to be open to the very real possibility that its use may fundamentally alter that process for the better.As an industry, we have to get better at creating and sharing data, information and learning. At the moment, we just don’t do that well enough. We have the computing and processing infrastructure to do amazing things with data in the built environment sector, but we have to create it, share it – and use it.
We’re big believers in open source. We use open source tools and technology in our work and we have built and shared some of our design automation work in the same way, so that other architects and designers can explore, understand, benefit – and hopefully build on – the work that we do.
Whilst technology can bring huge benefits to the construction industry, we also have to be aware of ethical questions around how data is collected and used. We all know that when some of the big tech companies created big data and laid the foundations for many technical advances, they gathered that data in some questionable ways. We now hear people talking about putting tracking devices onto construction workers to record and measure their movements to increase efficiency, or to assess their wellbeing for health and safety purposes – but might these devices also be used to assess work rates and monitor time spent taking a toilet break?
As an industry, we should also be conscious of how technology moves through society, and the consequences of that. We’ve seen the recent studies showing how Twitter’s face-crop algorithm prioritises white faces and women;1 or the issues in 2020 with the UK government’s algorithm for predicting exam results during COVID, which marked down students from disadvantaged areas and backgrounds.2
We’re not suggesting that either of these was deliberate, but what we are saying is that we need to be super-vigilant. We can’t – and shouldn’t – avoid or ignore the ethical in the origin, the present and the destination of technology.
1 See (for example): https://www.wired.com/story/twitter-photo-crop-algorithm-favors-white-faces-women
2See (for example) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ofqual_exam_results_algorithm
No. We don’t believe in the automation of everything. We believe that there is and will always be a place for human intervention – a place for people to apply their design, construction and engineering know-how – it’s just about taking the tedious repetitive tasks away from humans and getting them to do the bits they’re good at. And that includes solving the parts that are not worth automating or that are hardest to automate. There are very obvious ethical dimensions here too, about automating humans out of work – or, conversely, about automating the function of humans within working environments.
We’re not charging headlong into some dystopic future. But we need to be aware that technology is not in a vacuum. As we’ve said, it should come with ethics attached.
We would say that we’re using design automation to make digital tools and technology that provide ‘intelligent control’3 in design, and allow people to be creative and practical.
That feels liberating to us.
3Design Control: Disruptive Technologies is a book due to be published soon by RIBA. We have a chapter in it. You can order it here: www.ribabooks.com/design-studio-vol-2-intelligent-control-2021-disruptive-technologies-2021_9781859469705
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