Robots designing human places? It’s not sci-fi.

How technology is rapidly changing the way architects work.
Conceptual image depicting robotic design

Intelligent machines creating our homes, offices, schools, hospitals, airports, and cities might seem like something out of a futuristic movie. But the technology is here, and it’s already revolutionizing how architects think and do design.

“For hundreds of years, architects created physical drawings that served as instructions for others to carry out,” says Nick Cameron, director of digital practice at Perkins&Will. His team experiments with everything from immersive virtual reality (VR) and computational design to sensors that track and measure how people use their environments. “Today, robots and other technologies help us communicate better so we can bring the original intent of a design to life. Tomorrow, we’ll be able to get clients into even better versions of their finished spaces, even sooner.”

The use of digital tools in architecture dates to at least the 1970s, when prototypical computer-aided design (CAD) software was introduced. By the early aughts, 3D modeling—what’s often called BIM, or building information modeling—had become a staple, enabling the seamless integration of various structural, mechanical, electrical, and façade systems. More recently, it has evolved to allow for the automation of repetitive and time-consuming manual tasks.

“You can think of 3D modeling software as a kind of robot,” says Matt Petermann, a digital practice manager on Cameron’s team. “It streamlines workflows, shortens construction schedules, and gives project teams time for what they’re best at: being creative and following their intuition. Robots cannot replicate that. Not yet, at least!”

Robots may not be able to fully replace humans on design projects, but smart digital technologies that replace certain human tasks are gaining ground in architecture and construction in exciting new ways. Dexterous robotic arms that size and assemble intricate building components with precision are one example. Already, they’ve been used to construct life-size timber pavilions. 3D printers—think inkjet printers that apply additive layers of molten composite material to a surface until a three-dimensional form is created—are fashioning everything from public benches to single-family homes.

Other examples abound. Smart manufacturing machines are transforming steel coils into precise, ready-made components for wall frames, trusses, and joists—allowing designers to fully realize their creative visions without compromising for lack of custom parts. A new cloud-based platform dubbed Dynamic Design and Feasibility Workflow enables designers and fabricators to share real-time feedback with each other, eliminate repeat work caused by human error, and quickly fabricate and install custom parts. And a Roomba-like device recently developed by San Francisco based-startup Dusty Robotics can accurately print floorplans to scale on freshly poured concrete slabs.

“It might seem like these technologies can only be used by roboticists,” Petermann says. “But, if architects can communicate with these machines using the right software, our designs can be actualized with more fidelity, bypassing longer processes and avoiding expensive errors for our clients.”

In addition to their cost-cutting benefits and efficiencies, these “robots” can reduce carbon emissions associated with building construction by using precise material quantities and leaving little to no discards. As the race to meet the 2030 carbon reduction goals of the Paris Agreement heats up, both Petermann and Cameron predict such tools will be used to fabricate and assemble a new generation of buildings within the next decade.

"If architects can communicate with these machines using the right software, our designs can be actualized with more fidelity, bypassing longer processes and avoiding expensive errors for our clients."
Matt Petermann, digital practice manager, Perkins&Will

Digital innovations aren’t stopping at design, project management, or fabrication, though. They’re also making the client experience more exciting, engaging, and interactive. Augmented Reality (AR) can simulate a design solution—say, the position and placement of a desk in an interior space—and then allow the design team to make changes in real time based on client feedback. VR can allow entire teams, rather than individuals, to experience simulated environments all at once—a trend borrowed from the gaming industry. And Internet of Things (IoT) sensors can help monitor the progress of construction, the impact of heat gain and solar radiation, and trends in how people use a given space over time. Soon, they may even be able to accurately assess a person’s emotions: Are they happy in a particular place, or unhappy? The data collected from these sensors can allow for highly tailored design decisions unique to a particular project and inform future designs.

The high-tech possibilities seem endless. Yet, for all this impressive innovation, architecture at its core will always be focused on the human experience. After all, robots and other machines are but highly sophisticated tools—a technological means to a human-centric end.

“Even if I’m a technologist, I’m an architect first, and a human above all,” Cameron says. “A virtual structure isn’t going to cause physical harm to anyone if it fails. A real-life building will. It still needs to be watertight, to stand up to hurricanes, and to keep people safe. That’s where architectural knowledge, skills, and human experience are invaluable.”