By 2050, the world’s population is expected to have exceeded 10 billion people, making overcrowded cities one of the most pressing issues of the present. Data analysis, machine learning, transportation developments, and the rapid development of new social technologies are increasingly changing the needs of people and communities, which will have a direct impact on the issue of overcrowding and on our built environment more largely.
This is the context in which the 2nd edition of the Architecture of the Future Conference, curated by Kyiv-based architect Dmytro Aranchii, was held on October 9-11, 2019, in Kyiv, Ukraine. Themed ‘The Inevitable: Disruptive Technologies Shaping the Future of the AEC Industry’, it was the largest European conference held on emerging technologies and hosted groundbreaking discussions on how different professions and technologies are currently shaping the future of architecture - from futuristic cities, to houses, even to extraterrestrial architecture. Among its speakers were some of the most renowned, forward-thinking practices of the 21st century, including Foster + Partners, Zaha Hadid Architects, GENSLER, Woods Bagot, Arup, Rat[Lab], AI SpaceFactory and HASSELL.
The main challenge of designing new spaces or even modernizing existing ones lies in the fast-changing needs of humanity and the even faster-evolving technologies that surround and support these needs. Human-oriented design and experimental data-driven methodologies are the main paths explored when discussing the cities of the future. The combination of both creates a holistic interdisciplinary perspective that both identifies the human needs that will need to be addressed and combines them with the available technologies and data to help us design a competent and sustainable future, both in the built and virtual realms.
After three very intense days of talks, interviews, workshops, and panel discussions regarding this pressing matter, we’ve come to identify 7 architecture-related considerations that are shaping the discussion towards designing better cities:
1. Climate Change
Climate change is one of the most pressing matters to look to when discussing future cities. Buildings and construction together account for 38% of energy-related CO2 emissions. The simplest and most impactful issue to consider regarding climate change is that the most sustainable building is the one that never gets built. Refurbishment over demolition is one of the most relevant trends to look at, since it not only saves money and time, but also decreases the impact we have on carbon emissions by eliminating the building process and demolition itself.
Energy efficiency in buildings is another way to reduce CO2 emissions.The entire industry is going through a transformation catalyzed primarily by BIM, which integrates the entire lifecycle of the built environment, and more recently, the Internet of Things (IoT). Put simply, sensor networks and building management systems track all sorts of data, providing deep insights into real-time performance, predicting potential issues, and delivering data to act on. Temperature control, power monitoring, water consumption, and real-time performance are all recorded and processed, alongside human behavior, making buildings responsive to our own interactions.
A very insightful perspective on this issue was given by Mario Bodem, who brought the cement manufacturing industry into the spotlight. Cement product has soared by 300% since 1990, largely due to development in China. Alongside its environmental damage (caused by the 40 billion tonnes of sand and gravel that are stripped from beaches and river beds every year, which is twice the amount of sediment carried by rivers - in other words, we’re using up sand faster than nature is creating it), cement manufacturing alone accounts for 8% of the world’s CO2 emissions.
Our global average temperature rise needs to be kept below 1.5C, which means that CO2 emissions need to decline by 45% from its 2010 levels by 2030. Although scientists are working on several solutions to tackle this goal (reducing the amount of raw materials used, switching to more efficient production methods, finding substitutes for cement and sand when making concrete - for example plastic), none of them are good enough. We need to completely change the way in which we approach construction to reach zero carbon emission construction. Put simply, to keep global warming below the 1.5°C threshold - which will still have devastating implications on our habitat - there is a finite amount of carbon pollution the world can emit, or a fixed C02 budget. If we keep our carbon emissions as they are today we only have 26 years before this ‘budget’ depletes. You can find the official real time counter here.
2. Disruptive Technologies
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is unfolding rapidly as the digitization of human interactions increases at an exponential rate and the timeframe at which people adopt new technologies decreases. The digitization of the construction industry is today one of the biggest opportunities for investors, attracting the global attention of thought-leaders, innovators, and professionals: urban planning, architecture, and design are today some of the most promising areas that can impact the future of humanity.
The internet of things (IoT), regenerative and parametric design, artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, big data, and virtual reality are just some of the new tools that architects can count on to change the way they think about, design, and build the cities of the future. This means that the role of the architect will have to pivot, embracing multidisciplinary collaboration and adopting new technologies into their workflows to tackle this new interface of opportunities. You can learn more about how technology and architecture are shaping the future in our interview with Sushant Verma of Rat[Lab].
I truly believe that most of these technologies will become redundant and obsolete in a very short span of time. So how to be future ready? To learn techniques and methodologies, and not just present software or technology that exists today. We have to understand the problems that we are facing today, the ones we have solved in the past and how we have dealt with those problems. Prepare ourselves and become problem solvers and great thinkers. I think that is a skillset we all have to level up.
Sushant Verma, from Rat[Lab]
Disruptive technologies are applied to issues of all scales, from complex multifactorial issues such as parametric urban planning to more human-centered products such as lighting products designed to change every few minutes, simulating real natural light conditions and regulating the circadian rhythms of people to generate spaces that make people healthier and happier.
Anja Ehrenfried, General Director of Citythinking, shared ‘Parametric Smart Planning (PSP)’, an algorithm-based software developed to create flexible and efficient layouts, optimized for different scenarios and urban typologies that are expected to shape the future. By developing their own catalog of components for creating innovative urban models, which are then parametrized into sets of rules and definitions, the tool delivers a layout that optimizes walkability, social interaction, mixed-use integration, and many other factors.
3. New Construction Materials
All of the above considerations create a fertile ground for innovation in new construction materials and digital production technologies. The smartest way to address this issue is systematically: instead of devastating forests, beaches, and riverbanks, we should be using our own waste by reusing, recycling, and upcycling. Some of the most interesting options here include plastic waste-based materials, CO2-absorbing materials (such as CLT), renewable materials, and biomechanics.
3D printing additionally opens an interesting perspective by allowing the creation of new materials with enhanced performances (for example the polymer based material created by AI SpaceFactory in their proposal for Marsha) and optimizing the amount of material used in construction. In the case of concrete, it can reduce use by up to 40%. This excess occurs today because there's currently no penalty for over-design, encouraging designers and engineers to err on the side of safety and aesthetics over material efficiency.
4. Urban Density
Building higher, lower, and denser were some of the options analysed and discussed during the conference. Speakers had very different theories regarding in which direction should the city grow.
On the one hand, Helen Taylor (Woods Bagot) and Rachel Cooper (Arup) teamed up to explore deep basements as the future of the city, a concept based on how density and population growth have resulted in the need to dig deep as well as build high. Through their most recent project, The Londoner, they share how digging a 35 meter deep basement in the center of London to hold amenities such as a cinema, ballroom, and restaurants would work better due to the thermal and acoustic conditions and the lack of need for natural light or views. You can learn more about the project and the main challenges regarding underground construction in the following interview.
On the other hand, we have Lukasz Platkowski, Principal and Design Director at GENSLER, who actually participated in the design of one of the world’s tallest buildings (Shanghai Tower, China). He presented on GENSLER’s current vision of the workspace, which proposes medium to tall buildings that translate the horizontal granularities of house dwellings to the more vertical language of commercial neighborhoods. The result is a hybrid language in which tall buildings are disarticulated horizontally, creating richer spatial relations that increase the quality of interactions between people and allow them to connect and collaborate in spaces designed to merge workstyle with lifestyle.
5. Big Data and Human Behavior
If mobility is the lifeblood of the 20th century `city of movement`, data is the beating heart of the 21st century `city of transactions`. The most important task will be to provide a flexible, adaptable and connected infrastructure which delivers places that work for people. This is the challenge, and the future is now.
Laura Narvaez Zertuche, Foster + Partners
Future cities are smart cities, and they will operate as one big data-driven ecosystem. Every interaction and condition is currently being recorded, and several companies are already using this data to extrapolate and project smarter designs that better fit human needs. Some of the most important aspects of the city that are currently being analyzed and which future design could further improve with data include walkability, accessibility, mixed uses, fluctuating usage levels at different times of the day and during different days of the week (good cities have balanced activity levels 24/7 and should never have ‘dead’ spaces), and the integration of different cultures and communities - a current pressing matter that grows bigger every day.
6. Co-working and Co-living
Human health and psychological wellbeing are also areas that can be improved and optimized through the use of technology and data. As the human population doubles itself, it will become critical to optimize the quality of public spaces, allowing communities to share and interact in spaces that are designed for accessibility and diversity. The quality of comfort in workspaces and housing will be measured through sensors providing real-time data on wellbeing and primary comfort indicators such as natural light, oxygen levels, and human interaction, just to name a few. For example, a building could detect that the oxygen levels are low, making people feel tired and stressed, and automatically activate the ventilation systems in response. It could also connect to calendar apps and suggest spaces that are not being used in real time, optimizing the use of space.
Interior design also has an impact on comfort and health, and it gains relevance as spaces grow smaller and more crowded - making the quality of these spaces even more relevant to our psychological well being. A deeper understanding of how color, materiality, spatiality, lighting, and even decoration affects human behavior will need to be further developed and put into practice.
7. Extraterrestrial architecture
The production of new habitats on other planets is the new space race of the 21st century. Seen by many as one of the most promising ways to solve the overpopulation issue, it is conversely perceived by many others as an aberration, since we shouldn’t be thinking about starting new civilizations in outer space when we haven’t yet solved how to develop an efficient one on our own planet. Companies like Foster + Partners, HASSELL, AI SpaceFactory are not only designing extraterrestrial architecture, but researching building techniques that allow for erecting objects in conditions that are completely different from the Earth's environment.
Tyson Hosmer presented the work of Living Architecture Lab at Bartlett UCL in London exploring living systems and developing autonomously reconfigurable buildings with the ability to self-organize, self-assess, and self-improve using machine learning, thus challenging the linear life cycle of buildings (raw material extraction; manufacturing; construction; operation; demolition; and disposal).
Another example of extraterrestrial architecture is AI SpaceFactory, a multi-planetary architectural and technology design agency that has developed the first tall extraterrestrial typology: MARSHA, a multi-level, corridor-free home that stands upright on the surface of Mars. Where structures on Earth are designed primarily for gravity and wind, Martian conditions require a structure optimized to handle internal atmospheric pressure and thermal stresses.
This project maintains a small footprint, minimizing mechanical stresses at the base and top which increase with diameter. The tall, narrow structure grants people a superior vantage point to observe the landscape, and spatiality responds to both the known and anticipated physical and psychological demands of a Mars mission. The project, which is part of the NASA centennial challenge, is the result of autonomous construction and in situ resource utilization, finding materials on the surface of Mars to build their homes. One of the great outcomes of the project includes a newly invented material, which uses a biopolymer created out of organic materials and mixes it with the basalt fiber available on Mars. The result is a new thermoplastic material that is actually stronger than concrete, sustainable, recyclable and compostable.
I think the architect’s eye is in the appreciation of the urgency of a human centric design approach to space, which prioritizes human emotion and its sensitive to human experience. The the computation comes in in translating that form into something that can be understood by a 6 axis 3d printing robot, which has to convert that into a spiraling climbing pathway to deposit the print layers to then create a form that is structurally sound.
Michael Bentley, AI SpaceFactory
Human needs are changing at a fast pace, while the technologies that transform our needs and interactions are changing even faster. Thus, it’s time now to rethink how we are approaching the challenge of designing the built and virtual environment in which these transformations are taking place. One of the first steps of rethinking this issue lies in identifying the considerations that are most influentially shaping this transformation - which we have found to include climate change, disruptive technologies, innovative construction materials, urban density, big data and human behavior, co-working and co-living and extraterrestrial architecture. The combination of a human oriented design, experimental data-driven methodologies and holistic interdisciplinary collaboration are key to identifying the human needs that will need to be addressed, while combining these with the available technologies and data will help us design a competent and sustainable future environment.