The origin of the construction industry can be traced to the first civilisation that walked upon the face of the earth. These early men were mostly hunters who lived a nomadic way of life. With their consistent movement came the need for erection of temporary shelters, hence construction began.
As civilisation dawned, it brought with it new cultures and challenges among which was the need for to cater for the increasing population. As such the building construction industry started growing into maturity. Towns, counties, cities, and megacities started springing forth from the joint efforts of certain skilled individuals who are now referred to as construction industry professionals.
The construction industry today is very vast consisting of several players functioning in both professional and non-professional capacities. As a result of the different players, there tend to be a conflict of interest, as discovered by researchers. The construction industry is reported to lag behind other industries with projects and costs often overrunning. A key problem identified is the highly fragmented project teams often working in isolation on projects then moving on. This fragmentation leads to inefficiency and holds back innovation. Gidado argues that complexity in construction originates from a number of sources; the resources that are employed, the environment in which construction takes place, the level of scientific knowledge required, and the number and interaction of different parts in the workflow. It is rare to voice a view of the future without hearing an echo from the past. Over the years circumstances have changed and with them the motives, drives, and needs. So it is with the skills and abilities that will be required by construction professionals in the future. We shall take a look at the future of professionals in the construction industry through the eyes of the present while applying wisdom from the past.
In the words of Norman Foster, the basic duty of an architect is to, design for the present with an awareness of the past, for a future which is essentially unknown. The Architect’s responsibilities do not end with design and structure, as he considers safety, style, sustainability and compatibility of the structure.
The term Architect has its origin from the Greek word, Arkhitekton which means Master Builder (Arkhi- Master and “Tekton” – Builder). For centuries, the Architect has been referred to as a master builder who held responsibility for both the design and the construction of a building. Prior to the 19th century, Architects performed both drafting and the actual construction. Drafting was carried out with the use of pen and paper on a drawing board/flat platform alongside basic measuring instruments while the actual construction involved the engagement of labourers. Using such tools posed to be cumbersome and beset with limitations. Towards the end of the 19th century, construction projects began to grow in complexity and scope resulting in the adoption of new technology and techniques in design execution. With the increase in complexity and scope came defragmentation of the lumped responsibility of the Architect into more specialised functions, giving birth to other professionals.
In contemporary times, the construction sector has really blossomed and become robust boasting of projects with diverse complexities. With these development came several digitally enhanced tools. Many of the traditional tools have become supplemental or eliminated entirely by software which are being used by Architects today to increase productivity. The pencil-and-paper methods of architecture haven’t been entirely eliminated. Traditional drafting tools have the advantage of being cheap and come with a gentler learning curve, compared with advanced software. Despite this, the trend has gravitated from the adoption of manual design methods to introduction of 2D design software and now 3D design/analysis software. This gives a clear narrative about the contemporary Architect’s prioritisation of quality delivery of service. In the Architectural scene today, some of the prevailing software include: Scan2CAD, AutoCAD, ArchiCAD, SketchUp, Revit, etc. Typically, the aforementioned are pure CAD solutions but with increasing thirst for more, Architects now turn to BIM which supports cost management, construction management, project management, all the way to facilities management.
Over the years, there have been several debates hovering around automation of Architectural services, especially at the design stage. In 2015, University of Oxford researchers estimated that Architects are one of the least likely professionals to be automated in the next 20 years. This can be attributed to the creativity involved and it was reinforced in a report by McKinsey stating further that creative tasks are largely immune from automation.Basically, Architects design by conceptualising a variety of options, taking into consideration a set of predefined factors and choosing the option that’s most functional, satisfying all requirements. Alternatively, they design by studying a variety of existing options and innovate where necessary taking into consideration a set of predefined factors making it functional and satisfying all requirements. The creative process of Architects can be divided into two; Conceptualisation and Decision Making. Being the ideation process, the conceptualisation phase of creativity has over the years been the most cherished and automation is believed to pose minimal or no threat, until the 21st century came with a different narrative. Since the late 90’s, Artificial Intelligence has been in existence but mostly at a research level. In the book by John F. Weaver (Robots Are People Too), a former Professor of music at University of California, David Cope, unveiled Emily. Emily is a rule-based algorithm that composes music using Artificial intelligence and went on to have an album. In Cope’s words; “Audience have been moved to tears by melodies created by algorithms”. Around the same time, the world’s first cybernetic artist, Harold Cohen unveiled Aaron. Aaron is an intelligent machine that could create the human art of drawing. Another American artist and roboticist, Pindar Van Arman, has been building robots that can paint since 2005. More recently, we have the likes of digital personal assistants, self-driving cars, facial recognition, robotic customer care representatives, etc. All these work using the principle called Machine Learning.
As described by Arthur Samuel, Machine Learning is the field of study that gives computers the ability to learn from data without being explicitly programmed. With the far reaching arms of the internet, data is one of the biggest by-products of the 21st century because almost all that we do online produces data which is stored and analysed in digital warehouses across the globe. Proprietary algorithms are being educated and trained by these data after which the algorithms will begin to conceptualise their own unique designs from taught patterns and wealth of information that was acquired. Once the conceptualisation hurdle is crossed, the decision making process will primarily be based on the pre-defined parameters and secondarily enhanced further to deliver the best output. Succinctly, it can be agreed that computers can study thousands of design variations in the time it takes an Architect to look at dozens. In the words of Autodesk CTO, Jeff Kowalski, “We are developing a CAD system that learns the same way we do, by referencing mechanical engineering textbooks, and building codes, and part catalogues, and even by observing real-world examples.” In his nine years as CTO, he said, “This is the biggest, most fundamental change that I’ve ever seen coming our way.”
Architects are service providers and this implies that they deal with human interaction and not just product delivery. According to a report by McKinsey, automation will have a lesser effect on jobs that involve managing people, applying expertise, and those involving social interactions, where machines are unable to match human performance for now. However, in as much as Architects cannot be displaced by technology, there is a need for a review of core responsibilities and skillset. In the nearest future, these skillsets will be the defining factor of the relevance of an Architect on a particular project because the profession is going to encounter profound transformations. With the introduction of digitisation, fewer Architects would be needed for complex projects.
In the words of Spanish Architect, Nicola Valencia, “…while some are still tangled in rusty discussions about whether we should project with pencil or mouse; Virtual reality, 3D printing and the advances that artificial intelligence continues to show continue to shape discussions about our profession in the coming years.” In the long run, engagement of an Architect may no longer be a function of who an Architect is but rather, what a computer can’t do.
BY: DAMILOLA S. BAMIGBOYE