Time Travel: How technology and architecture have changed.

Tim Dufault,
FAIA Concert CRO

Design and construction have begun a new evolution as the digital integration of both industries is rapidly changing how value will be delivered, how construction will be conducted, and how design will reshape the way every building works. Parametrics, virtual performance modeling, and geospatial positioning are creating the most unique and dynamic buildings of human history, not to mention the Metaverse opportunities. The goal of a truly regenerative building is near. The ability to not just create space, but to reshape that space in real-time with digital twins is growing every day. We stand on the edge of a creative explosion of a scale never experienced before and the opportunity to be a part of it is exhilarating and energizing. I have truly been blessed to be a part of this amazing process and to see the profound impact technology has on our lives. 

I am a child of the 60’s, born in 1963, and a self-described space nerd who loves to see an idea come to life. It is interesting to travel back in time and look at how technology has played a role in our lives and in design and construction during that time. Today, I want to explore this fascinating evolution, with a personal connection to my life and career, to explore how society and design have been influenced by technology as well as how it will change the profession in coming years. I use the comparison to the space industry because what is developed for space usually becomes part of our normal daily lives.

In 1963 the Mercury program was the core of NASA and the United States space efforts. The capsule that protected the astronauts from launch to landing was bolted on top of a converted intercontinental ballistic missile, the Atlas 3B. The calculations to design, build, outfit, and run the entire system, were completed mostly by hand, by human “computers” almost a decade earlier. The capsule was outfitted with little more than analog clocks; there were no computers inside the craft because 1960’s computers filled entire rooms. The capsules flight was completely controlled from the ground, with no interaction from the astronaut pilot – they were little more than a passenger along for the ride. 

At the same time, the typical architecture firm worked in a medium used for thousands of years prior – hand drawing. Rows and rows of “drafters” would take the design created by the architect owner of the firm and draw, meticulously, each of the needed drawings to communicate the design intent. A typical set of drawings from 1963 included relatively simple drawings, mostly showing how the different components of the building should look when construction was complete. Materials were simple – concreate, steel, masonry, plaster, drywall, tile, or wood. A typical set of drawings for a moderately complex building (as an example, perhaps a new school) might be 20 sheets and with a specification book that might be 60 pages (often created using mimeography). These plans and specifications would describe the entire project. The drawings would be sent to a printer who would create a reverse image copy that would then be used to run “blueprints” – a blue sheet of paper with white lines, and the contractor would use a small number of these printed sets to build the building. The architect and the contractor worked together to get the project constructed.

In 1981 I graduated from high school. The Space Shuttle Columbia flew its maiden flight that year, the first time a reusable space launch system had ever been proven. The Space Shuttle was the most complex space launch system in the world with five redundant computers that would calculate and control the entire mission from launch to landing. Yet, each of those computers had less than 1mB of RAM computing power. By comparison, the Apple II computer had 48kB of RAM. IBM, the king of computing, was touting its personal computer with 16kB of RAM, upgradeable to 64kB (for a substantial cost). 

I toured a local architecture firm right before I graduated to see “firsthand” what it would be like to work in a professional architectural office. In 18 years, the only advancement was the printed drawings were now bluelines on white paper. The owner of the firm proudly took me through the drafting room and pointed to young graduates and said, “they are drawing details for the bathrooms”. There were no computers to be found anywhere in the office, though there was an IBM Selectric typewriter!

1992 I became a licensed architect. NASA launches the shuttle Endeavor, the replacement for the lost Challenger. While designed and constructed almost 20 years after the first shuttle, the systems and controls are almost identical to the original four shuttles. While the avionics are replaced with updated “glass cockpits” (digital displays instead of analogue dials), the fundamental systems are not significantly updated. Meanwhile, an engineer with the Sema Group (an English/French technology company) sends the worlds first text message to a friend’s phone from his computer. 

In architecture, AutoCAD Release 12 hit the market. This was the second version that supported 3D solid modeling and did away with the digitizer pad as the sole input device, you could now “draw” directly with your mouse. Drawings were “plotted” on a pen plotter that moved in a strange and unexplainable pattern. These plotted drawings would be sent out to create the blueprints that would be used build the building. Design teams now dominated the process with groups of architects working together to plan, design, and document the project for construction. That new school project now encompassed almost 100 pages of drawings and specifications books that would be hundreds of pages long were typically created using a word processing program and printed on a Xerox printer. Contractors and architects had evolved into adversaries on a battlefield, with only the strong surviving. The technology did allow the team to draw faster, as changes did not require extensive erasing and re-casting of the original documents. Yet, the technology was not fundamentally changing the way we designed or the way we delivered that design intent, it was still the same format as 30 years earlier, only with more detail.

In 2007, I became the CEO of a large national architecture firm. In June, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announces the launch of the iPhone, a revolutionary handheld computer and phone in one. With the integration of third-party applications, the iPhone instantly changes the way information and technology is consumed around the world. Its touch screen and graphical interface make searching and accessing information effortless and ubiquitous. The computing power of the iPhone is greater than all five of the space shuttle computers combined. SpaceX was launching the Falcon 1 rocket, not achieving success until 2009. The International space station was in orbit and had been continuously occupied for seven years. Humanity had permanently broken the barrier of space.

In architecture, Revit, an object-based 3D modeling design tool, was gaining traction as a replacement for traditional “drafting”. However, the tool was more difficult to use, needed more systems definition earlier in the design process, and was less intuitive than the traditional 2D format of AutoCAD. For the firms that adopted its use, productivity went down. Over time, as the firm and its staff spent more time with the software, and as they developed more specialized add-ins, productivity returned and the ability to use the powerful tools that are now described as BIM (Building Information Modeling) resulted in more complex buildings. Yet, around the world, architects continued to translate the complex geometries and embedded data of the model into 2D plans and specifications. The typical set for that new school project was now well over 100 sheets as almost every conceivable portion of the design would be presented in any number of complex or representative drawings. We lost the promise of the model to the adherence to a decades old model of delivery.

Today, I have spent almost six decades on this planet. Space travel is becoming commercialized as the super-rich buy their way onto rockets around the world, and once again the astronaut is a passenger. The SpaceX Dragon capsule has more computing power than all earlier manned launch vehicles – combined. We’ve had an occupied international orbiting space station for more than 20 years. The laptop I am writing this on has more computing power than the supercomputers of the 1970’s. 

In the 40 years I have been a part of the field of architecture, I have seen an amazing leap in the value of design. Buildings are being designed and constructed today that would have been unimaginable even 25 years ago. But I am not done yet and we, as a profession, are just beginning to see the opportunity of a fully integrated digital world. Change is real, and it is coming fast. We all must embrace it and use it to create the best future for generations to come.

Concert is creating the foundation for these radical changes. We are excited by them and are reshaping the tools required to use them. Very soon, we will announce an exciting update to the Concert interface that will profoundly change the game. The dream of digital delivery, of a model-based design and construction ecosystem, is right around the corner. 

Stay tuned!