- Data insights and technology are giving designers freedom to work in new ways by automating tasks and suggesting design ideas.
- Generative design helps teams define desired outcomes and make informed decisions that impact the entire project lifecycle.
- Design for manufacturing and assembly (DfMA) enables construction teams to move work off-site, which reduces time, errors, and cost.
- Digital project delivery brings all project stakeholders together in a shared risk-and-reward model for the construction process.
Designers are facing an existential crisis of sorts: As industry leaders extol the benefits of industrialized construction and advancing automation with assisted and augmented design, designers, architects, and engineers may wonder how they fit into this new paradigm—or worse, if they’re about to be out of a job.
In reality, the opposite is true: By using data insights and new ways of working, designers are empowered to communicate beauty and form along with functional outcomes. And by better connecting design to every step of a project—from concept to operations—designers bring greater value. They can focus more on the big picture, automating mundane tasks and offering up useful suggestions based on specific, desired outcomes. It almost seems counterintuitive, but in the future of design, technology actually empowers designers to be even more thoughtful, artful, and in control. Designers can truly compete on skills and expertise, with a renewed focus on creativity.
Technology is allowing designers to better design with the end result in mind, and three emerging trends are helping them get there: generative design, design for manufacturing and assembly (DfMA), and multidisciplinary collaboration, enabled by digital project delivery (that is, no more pushing paper).
“By using data insights and new ways of working, designers are empowered to communicate beauty and form along with functional outcomes.”
Generative design technology uses artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing to explore and optimize designs. In DfMA, architects design with fabrication, assembly, and operation in mind so the building meets occupational and cost requirements; DfMA produces construction certainty along with traditional design outputs. Finally, digital project delivery enables multidisciplinary collaboration and redefines project stakeholder roles—for example, making sure there’s a construction professional at the table during the design process.
Taken together, these approaches focused on outcomes—or outcome-based design—are transforming the future of design. By embracing these processes, designers can use technology to accelerate transformation and bring more value to their projects throughout the project lifecycle.
1. Maximizing Technology and Big Data for Optimal Outcomes
The generative-design process empowers teams to define their desired outcomes at the beginning of the project while generative-design technologies maximize machine intelligence, data, and automation to meet those desired outcomes. This approach lets teams make faster, more informed decisions that can impact the entire project lifecycle and frees designers to add creative value without having to spend time on the grunt work of tasks such as coming up with multiple iterations.
The technology that can generate those options has matured only in the past three decades. Generative-design technology is a well-known concept in manufacturing and is gaining ground in architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) processes, but it’s just one way designers are using modern technology and data to design for outcomes, empowered with software tools to get them there.
Imagine an apartment building: The developer has bought a parcel of land, and the architect is working on a conceptual design. The developer wants a cost-effective, attractive design with up-to-date amenities to attract tenants. The architect, engineer, and owner are all focused on the building’s function, aesthetics, and attributes that will make it attractive (and salable) to prospective tenants.
These attributes of the site and the building can be translated into parameters and input into design software such as Autodesk Forma. At the front end of the project, Forma can take data from multiple sources: terrain and mapping data, surrounding buildings, traffic, wind generation, compliance requirements based on local ordinances, proximity to roads, and so on.
The technology generates a fully digital model of the project, a conceptual design illustrating what architects call “massing.” There’s very little detail, but an architect can analyze it, change the parameters, and create endless variations to reframe outcomes to meet the needs of owners and occupants—with all variations conforming to local ordinances, the architect’s design outcomes, the size of the parcel of land, and other parameters.
The architect can further analyze each of the apartments within the design tool. When the owner sells the apartments, units can be priced based on the views or the balance of sun and shade. The system models local conditions using available data and generates variations. After an architect chooses an option or options to work from, the software creates data flows, transforming the conceptual modeling into a detailed design in Autodesk Revit or other software.
Bringing in multiple stakeholders during the early stage of a construction project enables collaboration, understanding, and communication throughout the lifecycle of a project. The benefit is illustrated by the MacLeamy curve, which essentially says that the earlier the project stage, the more impactful—and more cost-effective—it is to introduce changes.
Because outcome-based design digitizes the decision-making process, it accelerates broader digitalization. In the future, project stakeholders will share a single digital twin containing dynamic, real-time data insights and specifications for the operations phase.
For the owner, the digital twin provides information that informs better operational decisions, making it easier, for example, to anticipate maintenance work. It incorporates all data from the equipment suppliers, the coefficients of the windows, the fire safety specifications of the doors, the placement of sensors, and sensor data measuring heat and light, among other information. The digital twin also allows easier refurbishment and refit: It’s a model of the as-built building, which can be shared as changes take place.
2. DfMA Brings the Benefits of Prefabrication to Design
Together, outcome-based design and performance analysis (through software such as Autodesk Insight) introduce circularity into the project design. The concept of planned material reuse in another project moves the AEC industry toward DfMA. When architects plan for prefabrication in a project—where building components can be put together and later taken apart—they can use less material, reduce waste, and enable greater certainty.
Prefabrication has been around for decades, but only recently have manufacturers invested significantly in the production of building modules and multi-trade assemblies. Forward-looking architects are pitching the idea of prefabrication to owners, accelerating return on investment for a project by delivering early and more consistently and by avoiding cost overruns and managing capital.
Simply moving work off the jobsite to safer, more controlled fabrication sites offers benefits. For example, in a recent project, the Swedish construction firm Skanska AB reported moving 46% of labor off-site, resulting in a 65% reduction in time, 73% fewer defects, and a 44% reduction in cost versus comparable projects. Prefabrication eliminates delays and cost overruns by being predictable.
Companies building components and assemblies in a factory can anticipate better health and safety because the modules are built and maintained in a controlled environment until they’re moved on-site. Fewer people are needed on-site because the fabrication is done; what remains is mostly assembly. There are many advantages to prefabrication, though it is expensive to run that factory. Not all companies have adapted to the process, so finding the right partner remains a challenge.
This is an area where designers can shine. A technology-driven DfMA approach gives them the ability to influence construction from the start and deliver a design that can decrease overall project cost and risk and increase the speed of construction.
3. Digital Project Delivery Enables Multidisciplinary Collaboration
Technology is enabling a mindset change across industries. Historically, all stakeholders in a project manage their own risks and rewards in each siloed process in the value chain. To embrace the future of design practice, they need to move toward a shared risk-and-reward model for the construction process.
Some of that is happening through multidisciplinary collaboration within firms. There’s a trend toward architects buying engineering companies or hiring engineers so they can offer the full range of design for a project. Similarly, engineering companies are bringing in architects, and construction companies are adding design to their offerings to bring a complete, holistic approach to a construction project. These models empower AEC companies to extend their services further—up to and including the building-operation phase.
But it’s not just about creating new revenue streams for project stakeholders. With multidisciplinary collaboration, firms can measure practical savings in terms of reduced errors and omissions; reduced rework and materials waste; and, ultimately, lower costs.
This rigorous collaboration makes it possible for the project’s stakeholders to add constraints, rules, compliance modeling, and practical measures of consistency (including DfMA principles)—which then enables teams to design buildings they know are constructable downstream.
All of this is enabled by software that supports digital project delivery, which organizes and manages project data in real time. Using a common data environment (CDE) to store all models and multidisciplinary data can unlock significant improvements through data sharing and better coordination, breaking down historical silos and providing better insights for planning, designing, building, and operating capital assets.
In outcome-based design, designers become agents of change, providing a connected, insights-driven framework that gives stakeholders across a project’s ecosystem and lifecycle the ability to make more informed strategic decisions.
That’s a stark contrast with the way design has been approached in the past, which is best summed up with a wonderful characterization by Yale University Associate Dean and Professor Adjunct Phil Bernstein: The architect used to design something and essentially dare the building company to construct it. That won’t be the way in the future of design.