In the wake of the current coronavirus pandemic, it has been difficult to find something meaningful and relevant to write about in the area of AEC technology, the focus area of AECbytes. The best I have been able to come up with is to highlight the impact of the crisis on the AEC industry so far and the response to it from AEC technology. A pandemic like this also behooves us to look into the future and ask how this might change—if at all—the nature of our industry in terms of what gets built, how it will be designed and constructed, and the technology that will be required to support it.
For AEC, the immediate fallout of the coronavirus pandemic has been in the construction industry. Many construction projects have been halted and jobsites shut down except for the most critical projects, either in response to government mandates or voluntarily to comply with the social distancing directive. I attended a webinar last week by the AGC (Associated General Contractors of America) that discussed the economic ramifications of the work stoppage, along with additional issues such as legal, contractual, HR, safety, insurance, and so on, here in the US. The AGC is continuing to host a series of webinars to drill down into the specifics of each issue. Construction being such a localized activity, it is likely that each country has similar directives and guidance coming from their construction organizations.
In contrast to construction firms, design firms are unlikely to feel an immediate impact of the crisis as design is, by nature, more of a prolonged activity. Design firms can continue to work on existing projects with their employees working remotely, and after a period of adjustment—and possibly some equipment and technology upgrades—overall productivity can be back to where it was before. Internet connectivity has improved dramatically in most parts of the world, and design professionals were already used to collaborating with colleagues in different locations using the Internet. Now, they simply need to extend that modus operandi to working with colleagues from their own offices as well. Of course, it is going to be difficult with entire families quarantined at home, including kids, but on the other hand, work may help to provide some semblance of normalcy as well as much-needed distraction from the news of the pandemic, not to mention a steady paycheck.
While you would not expect the AEC industry to be on the frontlines battling the pandemic—after all, we are not doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, or medical or pharmaceutical researchers—it is good to know that there is something we can do professionally. This is with helping to adapt existing buildings into temporary healthcare facilities to meet the growing medical and quarantine needs of the pandemic. To this end, the AIA (American Institute of Architects) has launched a task force to develop assessments for the suitability of buildings, spaces, and other sites for patient care. These assessments will be developed by architects with expertise in healthcare facility design, urban design, public health and disaster assistance.
We are fortunate to already have a host of general-purpose technology solutions that enable us to work remotely such as Zoom, Slack, GoToMeeting, Google Docs, Microsoft Office 360, and others. The Internet is now so firmly entrenched in our lives that it is almost impossible to imagine existing without it; and while the “cloud” is newer, it had also been several years since we started transitioning to the cloud for an increasing number of our digital needs. In the AEC industry, the number of cloud-based solutions for everything from collaboration, design coordination, project management, visualization, virtual reality, analysis, and even design itself have been steadily growing, to the point where it is rare to find a solution that is not cloud-based in some way or the other. Going forward, we can only expect this trend to accelerate.
In the meantime, in response to the immediate crisis, several AEC technology firms have stepped in to offer free access to their solutions:
We are likely to see more of such responses coming from our technology firms as the crisis drags on.
Assuming we make it through the immediate crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, it seems likely that over the long term, it will change the kind of architecture that we, as a society, commission. This was also briefly discussed in the AGC webinar that I attended. Most immediately, we will need to build more hospitals and healthcare facilities. There will also be more focus on housing, not just the amount of it, but also to support telecommuting, as it seems likely that working from home will become more common even after the crisis has passed and offices have re-opened. In fact, we may have to re-think residential design completely, making the home office an integral part of a home rather than an afterthought.
As a consequence, we might see reduced demand, at least for some time, for office buildings. The same for retail spaces, as online shopping is likely to continue to accelerate, perhaps even supplemented by “contact-less” drone delivery. We will need more warehouses for companies like Amazon, more shipping facilities for delivery companies like UPS and FedEx, and many more data centers to accommodate the increased Internet traffic. We are likely to need less hotels and see a reduced need for sporting and entertainment venues—in short, less “signature” architecture. This “back to basics” move might actually be welcomed by those in AEC who have become weary of what they see as the vainglorious nature of modern architecture.
In contrast to individual buildings, it is much harder to predict what changes in infrastructure might be needed—we may have reduced traffic with more people working from home, but we will still need roads and public transportation for essential services. However, the demands on services for individual homes such as heating, plumbing, electricity, Internet connectivity, etc., will certainly be higher, so we should certainly work on overhauling those. We might fly in airplanes a lot less from now on, but the use of drones is likely to ramp up, which will need more air traffic planning and control.
It might also be worthwhile exploring if we can improve the design of individual buildings to be more “germ-resistant” in the way we design for earthquake-resistance and improved sustainability. Perhaps there are building materials that repel rather than retain bacteria? I found an interesting discussion of this in the article, How Architecture Can Help Prevent The Next Coronavirus, in which a leading designer working on public and retail spaces shares tips for minimizing the spread of germs and pollutants: “No VOC [volatile organic compounds] on paint, paying close attention to moisture and flooring, and specifying better filters and HVAC equipment.” There is also a New York Times article by the director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard's School of Public Health explaining how the management of ventilation, filtration, and humidity in a building can either make people sick or keep them well. Thus, we already have some know-how on how to design healthier buildings; perhaps, we need to devote more resources to build on this research.
In addition to design, it is also possible that we might see changes in how buildings are constructed, with more off-site prefabrication and the use of drone-mounted cameras for construction monitoring. There is, however, a much more limited scope for changes in construction, given that construction is still very much a service industry that relies on workers to be physically there at the jobsite. Despite a lot of initial promise, 3D printing in construction hasn’t taken off yet. Perhaps, there will now be renewed emphasis on it.
In addition to 3D printing which has a strong technology component to it, another AEC technology that has not gained significant traction so far but might gain impetus now is automated code-checking and electronic permitting (see http://www.aecbytes.com/feature/2018/CodeCheckingUpdates2018.html). Is there really any reason to still be doing this manually or face-to-face?
And finally, while the technology of digital twins is still new, the promise of digital twins to operate and manage a building remotely is now more compelling than ever. (See the article, BIM for FM at UCSF.) After BIM, I see this as the next frontier of AEC technology that we, as an industry, will be working on.
We still do not know where we are on the coronavirus pandemic curve—it could get a lot worse before it gets better. Also, the potential changes to the AEC industry are purely speculation at this point. It is possible that nothing will change, and life will just resume as before— that this was just a Pause button, not a Stop and Reset button. We can only wait and see how it unfolds.
Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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