The Designer of the Future
I love this industry. I love being a mechanical engineer. Designing air conditioning and plumbing systems is not glamourous work. Perhaps it should be. Our designs create the healthcare environments for our loved ones to heal, the educational environments for our children to learn, the spaces where we live most of our lives.
Buildings are complex. Like many modern technological systems, buildings are more complex than a single individual can fully understand. Each component has a specialist: architect, civil engineer, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, AV/Data consultant, fire protection engineer, and food service consultant just to name a few. Together we focus our efforts to create an optimized product that meets the owner’s requirements.
It is not particularly hard to be an average mechanical engineer. However, being an excellent engineer is a formidable challenge. Our designs are littered with opportunities to increase performance and safety while decreasing cost and schedule. These opportunities routinely go unnoticed because they may fail to capitalize on the unique possibilities of the particular project or require making hard-to-see connections across disciplines and companies. Furthermore, any mechanical engineer who has asked an architect to lower a ceiling understands that our solutions need to address both technical and human requirements.
I love this industry because it offers endless opportunities for intelligent and creative people.
Great leaders embrace change which brings me to this confession. The prospect of technological change in our industry has made me uncomfortable. Will these changes eliminate the things I love about my work? These changes are well documented and include: industrialized/offsite construction, robotics and automation, internet of things, generative design and artificial intelligence, and additive manufacturing.
To alleviate my fears, I started down a journey of creating a vision for the Designer of the Future where computers can virtuallyin an instant produce thousands of design iterations. These iterations may be based on a set of rules supplied by a software manufacturer, a designer, or in the case of artificial intelligence, algorithms created by the computer itself. What role will humans play in the design process? This brings me to three areas that I would like to explore: owner value, the optimal solution and team collaboration.
One of the most elusive parts of the design process is clearly and fully understanding what the owner values and equally important, what the owner does not value. A designer must probe, question, and challenge what he or she is told.
An owner that requests a room to accommodate 200 people needs to be equipped with the ramifications of making such a decision. If that occupancy requirement is infrequent and for a short duration, perhaps the cost and operational complications introduced are not right for the project. The designer must educate and inform, while simultaneously listening and learning.
Due to the future speed of generating solutions, the ability of a designer to efficiently interact with an owner on the front end of the project will be of increased importance. The designer will use technology as a tool to quickly provide the owner with the understanding needed to make informed decisions.
A designer must probe, question, and challenge what he or she is told
With the owner’s project requirements defined, we move to solution generation. The optimal solution definition is not a trivial matter. Early in my career, I was determined to understand the best way to layout ductwork to a basic problem, six equally spaced air diffusers. I provided a blank layout to five highly experienced engineers. To my dismay, I received five different solutions. Optimization criteria varied from frequent downsizing of ductwork, thus minimizing pounds of sheet metal, to keeping the duct full size to be produced in a single spiral machine run, thusminimizing labor.
More recently, I was providing quality control of a completed plumbing design. The building was on a site with expansive soils requiring costly expansion devices in the sanitary sewer at each crossing of the building expansion joint. As I reviewed, I marked up simple changes that while moderately increasing the linear footage of the pipe, reduced the quantity of expansion devices by two thirds. That is when it struck me that this was not a failure of the plumbing designer. This was a failure of the team to define the qualities of the optimal design before we started layout.
In the coming years, our definition of the optimal design will evolve. There will be increased emphasis on Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA) and sustainably. Additionally, even with more powerful computers and more robust data-driven feedback loops, there will always be a role for the designer to use intuition and risk evaluation to guide the solution. Computers excel at processing hard data. Soft data has uncertainties, contradictions, and situational nuances. Soft data includes reliability of the supply chain with geopolitical uncertainty, performance of unproven new materials and methods, code and regulatory requirement interpretation, assessment of crew capabilities (whether human or robotic) in a novel situation, and weather conditions. Lastly, buildings are spaces that humans interact with. Human end users can be irrational and unpredictable. There will always be an art to design. I aspire to be the curator of the first generative HVAC design that goes viral in the AEC community.
The way teams collaborate is evolving. At my firm, we estimate, design, and coordinate for fabrication. Historically, these functions were performed by separate teams with separate software platforms: Estimating, Engineering, and Virtual Design and Construction (VDC), respectively. Today we use a common platform with a single model. The lines between the teams are blurred, creating opportunities for new workflows and efficiencies. Furthermore, as computers generate cross discipline optimizations and incorporate productized building components (i.e. building envelope products with set design rule), the lines between design specialists and companies will also blur. Accurate costing and constructability input during the design process will emphasize the benefits of the Design-Build project delivery model.
As I continue my journey to understand the Designer of the Future, it is apparent that technology will allow us to focus on more of the human factors which influence design as we curate technical solutions. Understanding owner value, defining optimal solutions, and collaborating effectively as teams are the skills needed now and in the future. This industry will continue to be a great place for intelligent and creative people. I choose to embrace the change, do you?