Design in a digital age

The construction industry is on the cusp of fully embracing the digital world. This means that it is more important than ever to be ahead of the curve. Toby Harling, an associate at Box Architects, explores the digitisation of design. In this the first of two articles, he looks at current methods of design and the effect of digitalisation.

At the start of the year, I looked at our focus on technology and posed myself two questions: what is the impact of technology on design? Does technology restrict or permit design innovation?

It quickly became clear that these were not the right questions. Technology is and will continue to have an impact on the industry. So, the questions I really needed to ask myself were: will technology affect how we design? What will the impact of this be?

We need only to look around to see that every major industry is becoming digitalised. The construction industry is no exception. The problem is that this change is happening at an analogue pace in a digital world.

The McKinsey Digitisation Index for Europe ranks construction 22nd out of 22 key sectors, so there is clearly ample room for improvement. It identifies seven areas that the construction industry can target to improve productivity: regulation, collaboration and contracting, design and engineering, procurement and supply chain management, on-site execution, technology and finally, capability building. McKinsey predicts that improvements in every area could increase productivity by roughly 55 per cent. This in turn would help to close the current gap in total economic productivity that currently sits at 60 per cent.

In his recent talk at Specifi Leeds, digital evangelist, Paul Wilkinson, theorised that if the 20th century was all about design, documents and deliverables then the 21st century is about digitalisation, disruption and digital disruption. The digital disruptors he identified included cloud computing, mobile computing, social media, Building Information Modelling, the internet of things and predictably, data.

The Farmer Review suggested that the UK’s construction industry faces “inexorable decline” unless longstanding problems are addressed. It identified a dysfunctional training model, the lack of innovation and collaboration as well as a non-existent research and development culture.

The industry has high levels of cost inflation, a shrinking workforce and is becoming unattractive to today’s school leavers. Two-thirds of students polled in 2016 said they would not consider a career in construction.

It has been clear for some time that the industry needs to evolve. However, this doesn’t mean that design is no longer relevant and that it should be grouped with document and deliverables as obsolete facets of the 20th century. Instead, we need to design based on a better understanding of whole life value and towards an assumption in favour of offsite working.

At Box Architects, we have a synergetic, collaborative culture. We strive towards constant improvement through accumulating and sharing knowledge. This culture supports and enhances our current approach to design. We utilise an analytical approach based on an understanding of the client’s requirements, the variables and challenges posed by the site as well as the brief.

The synergetic culture that we foster and the way we approach design works through the harvesting and use of focused, specific data. Our clients are key and repeat clients are the core part of our business. We analyse built projects. We thoroughly interrogate our client’s wants and needs. Currently, we harvest this data through discussions, meetings, feedback forms and our own longstanding experience of working with our specific clients.

This analytical, evidence-based approach to design means that we tend to assume a traditional approach to procurement, the on-site process, the construction details and methodology we use. This is driven by our own inherent knowledge, but also as it fits into our client’s way of working and financing their projects.

The digital age will come for the construction industry – eventually. We at Box Architects believe that this digitalisation and the data it brings sits comfortably with our synergetic, collaborative approach to design. We are starting to see a change in the procurement and build strategies of our clients which is starting to manifest itself in the way we approach our designs. We are starting to see opportunities opening through our improved use of software. And an increase in our collective ‘digital knowledge’ is improving the practice’s data harvesting.

In my next article, I will explore how technology – specifically new ways of gathering data and the shift towards off-site manufacturing – is having an impact on how we design and the challenges we face keeping ahead of the digital design curve.