Building Design Innovations and Trends

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10 months ago
Image via TheRecord, Interactive model with VR/AR technology, Microsoft

There are many building design innovations and trends shaping the future of the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) Industry. In broad terms, sustainability concerns, the increased uptake of digital technologies and the advances in construction safety have been driving innovation and change in recent years.

It is impossible to cover all building design innovations and trends shaping the industry in one article. Increased technology integration through mobile and cloud applications, BIM (Building Information Modelling) and parametric design just covers a minor collection of a multitude of ways technology has shaped the industry at many levels.

Other major factors influencing the industry at a macro level include advancements of health and safety equipment and protocols, an ongoing skilled labour shortage and more recently the global pandemic which is already having a very noticeable impact on the commercial real-estate market. In this article we’ll be looking a bit closer at some specific building design innovations and trends that you may see emerging in conventional practice soon.

1. VR/AR and AI

Visualizing a project early on in design has many advantages to designers, contractors and clients alike. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (VR & AR) are allowing this to happen in a much more enhanced way than ever before.

VR/AR technology helps to create a much more immersive and real image of what the building will look and feel like. It also offers many advantages in terms of coordination between design teams at early stages of design. Using BIM (Building Information Modelling) technology and immersive VR headsets many stakeholders in the construction industry are already taking advantages of VR/AR during concept and schematic design stages to shape and fine tune the final product.

Designers know that clients love the opportunity to visualize their project early on and will benefit from clients an enhanced workflow as clients can make more informed decisions earlier on in the project. Designers will also enjoy the benefits of enhanced coordination with the rest of the design team. The benefits to the designer and clients are numerous and there is little doubt that as technology advances VR/AR uptake in the industry is likely to explode.

A recent report by Accenture suggests that AI has the potential to increase profits in the construction sector by 71%. There are many ways AI can disrupt the sector; for example Indus AI has created a platform that counts material arrivals and equipment productivity. Pype, which has been recently acquired by Autodesk uses AI based software to manage submittals and other elements of document control. There are many other AI based applications out there providing solutions related to site safety, quality assurance, building inspections and much more.

Like any innovative technology often the enthusiasts are not always in a position to enact the change that is necessary to make the technology more widespread. Leaders in the industry with the initiative and innovativeness to enact change will be the real winners from the update of VR/AR and AI.

Immersive VR navigation equipment - FULmax CUBE, developed by FULmax (fulmax.co.uk)

2. 3D Printing

3D printing has seemingly a lot of potential, replacing archaic and labour-intensive building methods with what promises to be more efficient, less expensive and more automated. In a way, it offers many of the benefits of modular design. Does this really offer the golden ticket to building designers and builders?

Firstly the most immediate impact that many designers can already relate to is the creation of building models and building component models. This is relatively inexpensive and provides an excellent physical visualization of a digital model.

But pushing this even further, 3D printed elements or even entire buildings could be a design trend of the future. There is, as with an innovative process, little to go off in terms of precedent relating to 3D printed building performance and there is nothing regarding codes or standards. As a designer, it seems as though using 3D printing technology as the main material or structural system on a large-scale project such as a major commercial/residential development, bridge or stadium design is a long way off. There simply isn’t enough knowledge of the capacity of the material and associated building elements.

However, there is great promise in terms of small scale, low load-bearing buildings and structures. There are already many home 3D printing companies promising to building small to medium sizes homes in 1 to 2 days and at a much lower cost than conventional homes.

To put this in perspective, per The Verge, an Austin based start-up named ICON, has developed a method for printing a 650-sq-ft home in 12 to 24 hours for a cost of approx. US$10,000. This is also touted as having a lot of potential in terms of housing provision in less developed countries in a similar way to modular construction.

3D printing is an interesting space and has a lot of potential to impact the industry and it is certainly on my list of building design innovations and trends. I don’t see it as a major player in terms of acting as the primary building material/structural systems in large scale projects anytime soon. However, its potential to impact the industry through home building and its utility as a design tool is unquestionable.

3D printed 2-story house by Kamp C, supported by the Province of Antwerp in Belgium. Image © Kamp C & Jasmien Smets

3. Modular/Industrialized construction

I have written a full article just dedicated to this topic, and as I see it as one of the foremost building design innovations and trends shaping the future of construction. You can read the full article here.

The Prefabricated modular construction industry is projected to be worth over US$200 billion dollars by 2030. The main reasons why it is seen as replacement to traditional construction is the speed and efficiency of construction, enhanced sustainability and safety as well as the increasing number of aesthetically pleasing designs developed using industrialized techniques – overshadowing the aesthetic deficiencies synonymous with early modular builds.

The 21-storey hotel, CitizenM Hotel in Manhattan is a good example of a building design combining (mainly) modular prefabricated elements with some structural elements (central concrete core) being constructed by conventional methods. Combining both modular and traditional design offers the benefits of an expedited construction process, lower costs, enhanced sustainability and site safety whilst still allowing for large open, non-repetitive spaces and expanding the architectural possibilities.

4. Embodied Carbon and Sustainability in Design

Sustainability is becoming a greater societal concern and there is increasing regulation supporting and enforcing sustainability in design. As a result, there is no doubt future designers, contractors and clients will focus more on sustainability in design.

This has been growing for a number of years already with the establishment of the BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) sustainability assessment method in the UK in the early 90’s. This was later followed by the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification system in the US which came into being towards the end of the 90’s. Both these schemes measure building performance through parameters such as operational energy, water consumption, site sustainability, and embodied carbon etc. You can learn more about these rating systems here and here.

LEED and BREEAM certification are becoming mandatory in many city building codes and helps in the process of qualifying for certain state and local government incentives. Developers and clients are likely to understand the importance of achieving the highest LEED and BREAAM standards to attract press and investment in building projects in an ever-more sustainability-minded world.

We have expanded further on the increasing impact of green building in our article hosted here. Sustainable and environmentally focused designs encompass much such as energy efficiency, water efficiency, indoor air quality, the use of sustainable materials and more. In terms of building design this will lead to a stronger focus on recycled materials with low carbon footprints, renewable energy sources, rainwater harvesting, modular construction, and will push designers to innovate so as to build a more sustainably focused industry – mostly certainly a good thing.

5. Innovative Building Systems: SpeedCore Wall System

We have chosen speed core as an example of a building system which demonstrates how we as designers can take an everyday design element such as a concrete shear wall and think on a macro scale as to how we can enhance procurement, installation and performance. The SpeedCore wall system and its application is mainly geared towards the structural engineers and contractors out there, but it relates to all stakeholders in the construction industry. It could become one of the building design innovations and trends that have a significant impact on high-rise design.

This innovative system of constructing shear walls has shown proven benefits in high-rise construction in the US in terms of constructability, cost and speed. It has also been used to supplement blast resistance properties of buildings.

Lateral stability systems in buildings often rely on a central rigid core and a system of rigid shear walls/braced frames, either in steel or concrete, to carry lateral load such as wind and seismic to the ground. This system typically comprises ½” thick steel plates tied together with internal rods spaced at approximately 1’ on centre in the vertical and horizontal direction as shown below.

SpeedCore Wall (Courtesy of AISC.org)
SpeedCore Wall (Courtesy of AISC.org)

The walls can be erected alongside the steel framing before self-consolidating concrete infill is placed. The potential system benefits include speed of erection, reduced formwork, reduced fit-up time and reduced quantity of steel embedment’s.

Per AISC (American Institute of Steel Construction) this revolutionary composite system has the potential to reduce core erection time by 40% compared to a traditional concrete core.

Other advantages mentioned by AISC include safety benefits, increased flexibility and construction tolerance related benefits. You can read more here. Rainier Tower in Seattle is the first high-rise building in the US to use SpeedCore. In our view it’s a good example of an innovative approach to a much used design element which proved benefits– something we can all learn from as designers.

6. Advances in Use of Material

Any building design is heavily influenced by the primary structural material. This impacts architectural and structural properties of the building on a major level. It impacts the architectural massing and building weight, building plan general arrangement and size of interior column free spaces. It impacts fire resistance, sustainability, construction cost and schedule, not to mention the labor skills required. This is whole topic in and of itself, some notable mentions include:

  • High strength and forged steel – as a designer I have seen an increased use of higher strength steel in larger scale buildings of late. These high strength steels have yield strengths of 100ksi (690MPa) and even higher. More strength generally means less area (and thereby material volume) to meet load demands. Cast steel elements (as opposed to conventional rolled sections) also offers benefits to designers in the design of complex connections and structural members. This is increasingly being viewed as a viable alternative to conventional rolled steel and offers many structural advantages, such as its reduced susceptibility to lamellar tearing.

  • Self-healing concrete – Concrete cracks for many reasons. Plastic shrinkage cracking can occur whilst the concrete cures, expansion cracks occur if expansion joints are not included in large concrete pours, and design loads subjecting concrete beams/slabs/walls to tensile rupture cause cracking. This has a major impact on the integrity of the structural material as water enters and reinforcing steel corrodes, expands and causes spalling. It also damages waterproofing properties of the material. Self-healing concrete contains bacteria (hence also called bio-concrete) contained in capsules in the mix which become active if water enters. The bacteria combine calcium with carbonate ions to form calcite or limestone and thereby close the cracks.

  • Graphene – This is a material that at a chemical level is a honeycomb lattice pattern of carbon atoms. It is more than 200 times as strong as steel and more than 5 times lighter. FRP (Fiber-reinforced polymer) composites are commonly used to strengthen existing structures. Graphene enhanced FRP offers even greater benefits. Graphene also shows potential as a viable candidate in 3D printing.

  • There are many more innovations out there including light-emitting concrete, high strength prefabricated laminated timber and Breath Brick to name but a few. These innovations have the potential to offer benefits in terms of sustainability, constructability, cost and are sure to have a big impact on building design in years to come.

I hope you enjoyed this article and learned something new. If so, please comment below and thanks for reading!

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