Two decades ago, who ever dreamed of carrying around a three-dimensional image of an entire building – that shows every detail, down to the nuts and bolts – on a screen smaller than a legal pad? That seemed like positively space age stuff. Now we take it for granted.

“I’m destined to achieve some great thing. What, I don’t know.” – Patton

Two decades ago, who ever dreamed of carrying around a three-dimensional image of an entire building – that shows every detail, down to the nuts and bolts – on a screen smaller than a legal pad? That seemed like positively space age stuff. Now we take it for granted.

But even though Building Information Modeling is relatively new, it pales in comparison to other innovations that are taking place in architecture and its related fields. If futurist Edie Weiner can be believed, we will soon be printing three-dimensional building products on demand, growing trees into eco-houses, and using nanotechnology to create materials that can sense our touch and sounds.

Given the recession, it may seem counterintuitive that in many ways the building industry is booming. Weiner, who is president of futurist consulting group Weiner, Edrich, Brown, Inc., disagreed. “We’re not in a recession,” Weiner declared to a crowd of some 250 PACE (product manufacturers, architects, contractors, engineers) professionals on June 5th at the City University of New York Graduate Center, “but rather a fundamental transformation,” such as when we advanced from an industrial to a post-industrial society.

A panel of top industry experts responded to Weiner’s talk; Jane Chmielinski, chief operating officer of AECOM, moderated. The event was hosted by the venerable Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF), known for breaking down barriers in the PACE industry to advance women to positions of leadership and promote innovation.

Weiner agreed with Beverly Willis, FAIA, founder and chair of BWAF, that women have a role to play in the new economy, which is changing how we do business. For example, studies of human brains show that men work in a focused, efficient way by honing in on a problem to solve it, while women work more effectively, because they first look at the broad context and consider all options. Savvy firms will realize the benefit that women bring to design and construction – from their perspective as both sellers, users and decision makers – especially as women’s market share (and their influence) grows.

While most of us were caught off guard by the new economy, for Weiner and her colleagues, it’s no surprise: in the same span of time that we dumped drafting boards for CAD and then adopted BIM, Weiner and her colleagues predicted that we would start feeling the next major economic shift beginning around 2005. The downside is that “disruptive technologies,” which make our work more automated and efficient, also shed jobs.

These statements are indeed a wake-up call for an industry that is woefully slow to change. This full-tilt revolution is forcing us to experiment and innovate – or fail. Typically, we look at the quickest way to solve a problem. But that no longer works.

Instead, research and knowledge will spark innovation and yield rewards. We all rely on satellite technology for smart phones; from these same devices, we can get holistic pictures of development sites to help companies make smarter choices about how and where to build.

“The demands on city resources are escalating, which is forcing cities into developing more efficient ways of responding to these complex systems of people, infrastructure, and movement,” explained Dr. Jurij Paraszczak, director of Research, Industry Solutions and Smarter Cities Program at IBM. “The use of data – from such systems as traffic sensors or smart meters, coupled with static data such as locations of resources and buildings – allows cities to manage themselves more efficiently and creates superior lifestyles.”

With so much information and knowledge available to us, “As technology advances, we need to advance our methods of thinking” in order to make better choices, insisted Michael De Chiara, founding partner of law firm Zetlin & De Chiara LLP.

In addition to new technologies, in the second decade of the new millennium, the industry also has to contend with 21st-century market forces: climate change and the need to not only use fewer resources but to give energy back (going from “green” to “blue”), large populations of youth and seniors as people live longer, and instantaneous global data transmission, which hastens the way we work. Time will be a luxury.

Now, with the challenge of getting product to market faster, a better and more innovative process is the key, explained MaryAnne Gilmartin, executive vice president and director of commercial and residential development of the Forest City Ratner Companies. Her company is using modular construction that is safer and more efficient to build a residential tower in Brooklyn. Many parts of the structure will be built offsite in a factory.

Flexibility is also important because things change so quickly, agreed Ana Bertuna, AIA, vice president of design and construction for the Related Companies. Her company is integrating raised floors as an option – unusual in most construction – in its newest commercial buildings so that clients can adapt their space every few years, if needed. In the future, clients can accommodate services that they may not even be able to anticipate when they move in.

Rewards, however, never come without risks. De Chiara emphasized that we need to manage risks in a way that still encourages innovation. Indeed, progress requires risk, responded Gilmartin. Although you can’t always predict success, “it’s how you play the game that’s most important – then most of the time you’ll succeed.”

 

Tami Hausman, Ph.D – known as “The Doctor” to her friends and colleagues – provides expert advice to top firms in the design industry. She is a strategic thinker and planner who has helped many clients to define their communications goals and successfully implement their outreach programs. Using her wide network of contacts in the design industry, she enables firms to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise to targeted audiences while defining their position in the marketplace. She frequently writes and lectures about trends and topics in architecture and urban planning. Her professional experience is supplemented by a doctorate in architectural history.