How Software is Changing the Future of Architecture

Jul 15, 2016 | Perspectives in Engineering

We recently talked with Brendan Boyd, a Lead Software Engineer at Gensler, about emerging trends in the intersection of software and architecture.

It’s easy to envision how architects and structural engineers fit into the architecture field. As with most industries, software transforming how spaces are conceived, built, and optimized. Architecture as a discipline is addressing very interesting problems, and technology is at the heart of the path forward.

Here are a few of examples of how technology is transforming architecture:

VR & Immersive Architecture

man using VR

In architecture, the built environment is the product we’re creating, but the best means we’ve used to communicate have been inadequate. Blueprints, elevations, perspective drawings, and even renderings are all solutions that put the burden on the interpretation on the viewer. In the planning stages the work is intangible, and when it’s built, it’s too late.

VR is a huge leap forward for projects in the conceptual stage. Clients can actually see the proposed designs as they are intended. It’s powerful.

One of Brendan’s colleagues, Ian Sheardwright, has built a VR app that’s compatible with the Google Cardboard viewer. In client meetings, we have now a high-impact, engaging experience. We’re bypassing the awkward 2D translations, and directly communicating spatial solutions in 3 dimensions.

Parametric Design

blueprint of parametic design in shanghai tower

Completed in 2015, at 632 meters and 128 stories, the Shanghai Tower is the second-tallest tower in the world.1

Another area that’s having a moment in architecture is parametric design. Parametric design is a generative design system, where adjusting the parameters will compute to create different types of outputs, and create forms and structures that would not have otherwise been possible.

One of Gensler’s biggest projects was the recently completed Shanghai tower which now is the second largest tower in the world. It has an asymmetrical façade, a tapering shape, and consistently rounded corners.

The tower has over 20,000 exterior panels, including more than 7,000 unique shapes. With parametric software, Gensler was able to achieve something that balanced all the constraints of design and performance.

Designers were able to efficiently generate hundreds of designs for the client and start to narrow in on the aesthetic that the client was looking for in a quick way.

Sensors and the ‘Internet of Things’

Gensler is unique in that their projects involve an ongoing feedback loop with the client. When the building is done, the project is not over. Data is collected in perpetuity, and used to inform future design iterations.

For example, Gensler has an research program called the Workplace Performance Index, which is an analytics initiative aimed to collect data and improve workplace design solutions.

Currently, the data collection is a primarily manual process, although there is an effort underway to automate the data collection and shorten feedback cycles.

An example of long term data collection might be something like, “How many people go up and down an elevator?

In the near future, instead of sending a bunch of interns so sit by elevators to put data points in spreadsheets, the data collection will become automated. The buildings themselves will become giant sensors. Tracking things like energy efficiency, utilization rates, and traffic is just the beginning.

With data like this, firms can make recommendations about programs that can change behavior in the organization. Feedback loops like this can be tightened by using technology. The data collected today will influence tomorrow’s architecture deeply, informing design and transforming the entire industry.

How innovative technologies help recruit top talent

“There are plenty of engineers chasing inflating salaries and trying to go where they can make the most money. Those are not the type of people I’m looking for.”

The talent crunch is real. From coding bootcamps to accelerators, people are piling on the technology industry because that’s where jobs are. As of June 2016, We’re still in a white-hot market for software engineers.2 When that happens, people try to go where they can make the most money.

Regardless of the stage of your company, building a world-class engineering team, can be cut-throat. If you’re an early stage startup, salary alone won’t be enough to recruit the right talent. If you’re an established company with a great track record, a VC backed startup is ready to offer substantially more cash than you’re able to pay.

Your Secret Weapon: Engineers Like to Build Awesome Things

“Even if you’re armed with budget to compete on price, a pure mercenary will never be as engaged, motivated, or loyal as the engineer who loves what they’re building. The engineers we want are into computer science and are looking for technical challenges. They want to test their knowledge. They want hard problems to solve.”

Gensler is not the classic tech unicorn. They build huge physical things. It would be unusual to rank on HackerNews or TechCrunch or make headlines in places software engineers hang out. Creating groundbreaking technology is part of what they aspire to, and of course there are aspects where engineering plays supporting role—project management, operations, support for the organization. It’s not always glamorous, but it’s critical. But Gensler is another example of the thesis that every company is a software company.3

The key to recruiting, and retention for that matter, is to help engineers see themselves as part of something bigger. Tackling big problems where engineering can make a meaningful impact is the single most effective way to recruit the right people.

Helping engineers understand the scope of problems they’ll be solving and scale of solutions they’ll be building. These are the stories companies need to be telling engineers. These are the ways that any engineering team can differentiate.

Lead Software Engineer, Gensler

Brendan Boyd is a Lead Software Engineer at Gensler. He enjoys thinking about the future of collaboration and finding ways that technology can inform business strategy. You can follow him on twitter @firemound


Notes:

  1. Shanghai Tower. Image credit Autodesk 
  2. Fed Beige Book: Tight Job Markets Widely Noted Amid Mostly Modest Growth Labor demand continues to be robust, with increased client demand for specialized workers in the internet technology, software… Street Insider. 01 June 2016. 
  3. Kirkpatrick, David. “Now Every Company Is a Software Company.” Forbes. 30 November 2011. 
Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson is a co-founder at GitPrime where he leads design and customer experience. He is a Y Combinator alumni, with a background in product design, branding, and UX design. Follow @thebent on Twitter.

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