New Technologies: New Processes

bmw edge

What was it?

A round-table discussion held at BMW Edge last Thursday, part of the Agenda series courtesy of the University of Melbourne’s faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. It followed on from Gregg Pasquarelli’s excellent Dean’s Lecture held earlier in the week, discussed here, and addressed the changing role of technology in design and construction.

Chaired by Professor Donald Bates, the event comprised a hefty 9 speakers (originally billed as 10, but Nonda Katsalidis had somewhere else better to be) across two panels: Pasquarelli of SHoP Architects, Professor Paolo Tombesi and Paul Loh from the University of Melbourne, and Michael Argyrou from Unitised Building in the first; Hamish Lyon from NH Architecture, Ian Steedman from Brookfield Multiplex, Andrew Tsakmakis from ARUP, Rob Phillport from Aconex and Dominik Holzer again from the University of Melbourne in the second.

We believe the round-table was organised with very short notice to capatilise on Pasquarelli’s time in Melbourne, so kudos must go to Bates for gathering such prestigious panels of diverse expertise. Following on from the successes of the Dean’s Lecture and first Agenda in March, our expectations were high: we arrived early looking forward to an insightful and meaningful discussion.

What did we think?

Unfortunately, this Agenda was not as well executed as it might have been. With each panel member making a brief [sic] presentation prior to discussion time, the allotted two hours evaporated quickly and there was insufficient opportunity for vigorous debate. What little there was did not delve deeply enough into the topics raised, nor provide the multi-faceted dialogue we had anticipated.

Of the presentations, Pasquarelli was, once again, engaging. He steered clear of territory already covered in his Dean’s Lecture, instead elaborating on the unique relationship between SHoP Architects and SHoP Construction. On Barclays Centre, their stadium project in Brooklyn, the former worked for the client while the latter worked for the builder. This finely balanced independence reminds us of SJB‘s corporate structure here in Melbourne: a group of five companies (architecture, interiors, urban design, planning and administration) at times working together and at others separately. For both SHoP and SJB, this arrangement permits the development of unique ideas and skills within each arm, while also affording a significantly more holistic approach on project delivery than is otherwise possible.

Tombesi, who took us for both design and theory subjects during our architecture studies, presented a densely packed analysis of the relationship between key elements of the construction industry: client; design; manufacturing; construction; and regulation. Making us feel like undergraduates all over again, he described how innovation occurs either within these realms of activity or across the links between them. Link-based innovation crosses the boundaries between elements via both push and pull mechanisms: SHoP occupy the centre of the construction landscape and act across multiple fields, pushing design and manufacturing innovation into construction territories.

This framework stems from the key understanding that the design of buildings relies on, and is produced for, people. There is no building without people and no construction industry without building. This ecology is so tightly woven that architecture is fundamentally limited to only be as good or as bad as the society that commissions it. As Tombesi put it, “We get the architecture we deserve”.

Lyon spoke thematically about his recent experiences across large building projects in Melbourne. He touched on the impact of time on new construction ideologies, noting how the Melbourne Convention Centre was still being designed and documented while construction was already underway. He discussed the impact of location on the Myer Bourke Street redevelopment, which incorporated issues of access, streetscape and ongoing commercial activities in the rest of the department store. And he addressed geometry, specifically the dimensions and proportions of Margaret Court Arena, which all revolve around the confined precision of a tennis match.

Lyon concluded with the observation that despite the pervading nature of new technologies, construction today is not that different from construction at any other point in history. Gravity still exists, we still have to lift things up, things still get wet, wind and weather still get in the way.

melbourne convention centreMelbourne Convention Centre by NH Architecture, Southbank, 2009

What did we learn?

With the exception of the aforementioned presentations, we found the rest to be dry. Most remarkable was the difference in paradigms embodied by the architects and academics on the one hand, and builders, engineer and software developer on the other. Whereas Pasquarelli, Tombesi, Lyon and other academics spoke intelligently about the broader issues of architecture production and their ambitions for high quality cities, the builders et. al. showed themselves to be incapable of seeing beyond the confines of their specific interests. Argyrou, Steedman and Phillpot did not argue against the value of well built cities, they were simply disinterested in it.

Argyrou focussed entirely on the technologies used by Unitised Building to facilitate construction of its unitised construction system. The company has a dedicated factory that looks after every element of a building, from superstructure to joinery. Each step in the assembly line is carefully managed: even the number of minutes it takes to a weld a join is estimated, monitored and reviewed. Apartments arrive on site fully built, even furnished, and assembly takes 16 days instead of the 110 it would take to build the same building using traditional methods. Despite this, the unitised apartments are marketed and sold like normal apartments: the buying public are not aware of the innovations that have taken place under their apartments’ skin.

Following discussion of this system, Pasquarelli asked a telling question: do many clients seek to use the efficiency of Unitised Building’s innovative construction process to achieve better design outcomes rather than cheaper construction costs? Argyrou confirmed that unitised construction is between 5 – 15% cheaper than traditional construction but dismissed the possibility of better design. His clients are only ever interested in the bottom line.

Tombesi also highlighted a potential hazard of the advent of unitised fabrication. Shifting construction off site and into factories has the reverse consequence of reducing in-situ expertise: manufacturing innovation pulls change from construction territories. If we want a construction industry that can achieve both low cost volume building and high cost craft building, we must be aware of the broad changes affected by individual innovations. Again Argyrou was disinterested, barely even registering awareness of the implications of Tombesi’s critcism.

the nicholsonThe Nicholson by Unitised Building, Coburg, 2011

Steedman and Phillpot were similarly tedious. Both touched on building integrated management (BIM) documentation, extolling its virtues, but their discussion ventured no further than their own areas of interest: construction costs, timely delivery and profits. It would have been enlightening to have Pasquarelli’s demonstrated expertise and Tombesi’s encyclopaedic knowledge pitted against such impassive self-interest.

We left this Agenda with more questions than answers. Most importantly, we ask what impact BIM and unitised construction will have on our built environment. Given the tendency for the profit incentive to drive decision making at every stratum of Australian society – from politics, through finances and development, to markets – what will prevent these innovations from doing nothing more than decreasing costs at the expense of quality?

During question time, we asked Pasquarelli whether there are any secrets to SHoP’s success in doing the opposite, in maintaining construction costs while increasing quality. His answer was notable for its reverberations echoing back across every technological innovation of the modern era: “We need cheerleaders for a high quality built environment. We need to advocate for this outcome with clients, builders and governments. Architects are the guardians of culture.”

So as always, poor built outcomes are still possible and advocacy is still necessary. It may be a brave new world, but quality vs. cost is still the same old battle.

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