Hard as it may be to believe now, one of the first building-related “technologies,” demonstrated to the public was an experiment designed by Nicholas Negroponte’s Architecture Machine Group--involving gerbils as architects and early computer analysis.
As recounted in Stewart Brand’s The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, the demonstration took place in fall 1970 at the Jewish Museum of New York; it transpired in a large glass case containing 500 two-inch wide blocks, and a colony of gerbils watched over by a computer-driven straightening machine.
As the restless gerbils went about their business, they bumped the blocks and moved some of them. A computer then calculated the outcome, creating a constantly changing architecture that reflected the way the little animals used their space.
Flash forward 40 years. A combination of low- and high-tech tools are shaping the built environment, albeit with much greater speed and creative freedom.
Today, a builder or architect knows long before a home is built what kind of energy performance it may achieve, although she still has to guess at how the occupants will change the space.
And it’s not just the initial design and planning of a house where technology is changing the rules. Many other participants in the home selling, building and remodelling market have technical gadgetry that wasn’t even on the wish list in 1970.
For example, realtors are showing clients full-blown, information-rich movies of available residences with the aid of Google’s mapping functions. Trades communicate with the back office via iPads, using them for everything from tracking tools and supplies to confirming that a header they’ve just put in place is level.
But it’s not enough to have a new gadget or software; what’s important is how once Old School disciplines mesh with innovative new tools, as I’ll discuss later in this article.
Pre-Visualization Leaps Ahead
Computer aided design (CAD) is one of the most obvious places where the process of building and selling green homes has changed. CAD came on the scene in 1990 – championed, most successfully, by San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk with their AutoCAD software -- and was heralded by those who embraced it as a way to speed up and smooth out the design process.
The mathematical efficiency of the CAD system eliminated draftsman’s license from drawings, instances when precision could be sacrificed for the sake of appearance, such as when bent “straight” lines were used to join carelessly measured corners.
Next came 3D, and on its heels, Rapid Prototyping, wherein specialized 3D printers are deployed to “print” a 3D model. The process takes virtual designs from CAD or animation modeling software, and then creates successive layers until the model is complete. It is a WYSIWYG process where the virtual model and the physical model are almost identical.
“The third phase, which we are just getting into now, is what is called 4D drawings,” says Eric Corey Freed, founder of the organicARCHITECT firm in San Francisco.
The added dimension isn’t something out of quantum physics, but rather BIM or Building Information Modeling.
“So now, instead of just having lines on a computer that you can print out and use as a floor plan, we have entities built into the drawing, little pieces of meta data, that provide a whole new level of information,” Freed says.
He illustrates his point by describing a figurative CAD drawing of a concrete wall.
“The computer knows that it’s a wall, and that it’s a wall with certain, specific dimensions, and, with BIM, it may even know that the wall is concrete – but you can even go deeper than that, and say, ‘it’s made of concrete and concrete costs this much per cubic foot’ or ‘it’s made of concrete and it weighs this much.
“So with BIM,” he continues, “you are inputting the things that you know about the project along the way, and what you have in the end is a smarter model,” he added. “From there, the possibilities are enormous.”
Freed envisions a day, not far off, when BIM drawings not only distill details like those he described above, but also pre-fill out LEED or NAHB green builder certification categories for the project, print out bidding documents based on the cost and sourcing information input by the architect, and possibly even identify potentially costly mistakes before they get off the drawing board – like pointing out that the intersection of two types of materials has the potential to become a point of building failure or water leakage.
But there’s caveat: Architects as a rule aren’t inputting as much information into their drawings as they could or should, and builders aren’t demanding that they do, he says.
“Now, the software to do all of these things exists, and there are third parties who are working on this stuff, it’s just that there isn’t anything out there that does as much as it could,” Freed says.
“But it’s coming,” he says.
After that, Freed says, it’s just a short few steps to “the great convergence,” the day when architectural drawings not only guide building professionals, but become living models for residents and building managers to use to operate their home or building more efficiently.
“Basically, what I foresee is a time when the usefulness of the drawings and models extend beyond the construction, and become tools that plug into the full lifecycle of the structure,” Freed says.
Another s relatively new technology is building management software (and hardware). Although primarily aimed at commercial buildings, it’s likely they will make gains in the home environment in coming years, in part because of the push for smart grid technology.
One of the leaders in the field is Agilewaves, which describes its product as a measurement infrastructure system for the new "perform as designed" requirement in integrated, code-compliant, building designs.
Founder Peter Sharer says the roots of his firm’s systems extend back to a consulting project he and business partner David Brock were doing at Adobe Systems in the mid-2000s.
“They had a very extensive, custom energy management system, and we both thought it was so cool we wanted to build a world class system of our own,” he says.
The Agilewaves system consists of a series of sensors installed inside the building’s circuit breaker panel, plumbing, and, if applicable, gas lines, with the information they acquire being fed into the company’s server. Clients then access the data – all of which resides in the cloud – via a proprietary gateway that they can access via any number of platforms including their iPad, IPhone, smartpad, or Google Android device.
“It’s all about giving he client, whether it’s the building manager or occupant of the home, actionable information in real time, the goal being to tune the structure to its optimal performance,” Sharer says.
“You know, I think there’s still a feeling out there in the building management world that IT is this big black box that they never had to deal with before,” says Carol Morrison, VP for Agilewaves. “Up until the past few years, their world has been this almost vendor-dominated universe.
“I think it’s finally changing,” she notes. “Based on what I’ve read and heard and seen, IT companies and start-ups are increasingly interested in the building space, and the number one that’s driving them there is the need, across a while range of applications, for real time, granular data.”
So could this data be integrated into a building’s design phase, to achieve a certain level of performance? Not yet.
“We’ve got the ability to export our data into a .csv file [architects] can use,” says sharer, “and we think the concept does have potential, but right now we’re focusing our efforts on implementing our monitoring technology the commercial sector, where we’re seeing accelerating growth, with some high end residential mixed in.”
“Personally, I don’t see green homes hitting the mass market yet,” he adds. “That would be one of the prerequisites for that to happen. A second factor is that in the mass market, energy management is kind of controlled by the utilities. Then, number three, is the fact that the roll out of the smart grid is going very slowly. These are huge challenges for a start-up to confront.”
The Google Effect
One area of innovation that seems to be able to leapfrog hurdles is the use of visualization tools to find, sell, and track homes and land. With the advent of Google Earth, Google Maps and Google Streetview, Google has transformed the real estate universe.
Thanks to Google’s mapping solutions, investigating a property – not to mention its proximity to the beach, the mountains, local winery, or local schools and shopping-- starts at the 10,000 foot level.
“Here at Google, we long saw this as the most helpful use of the free version of these tools,” says Anne Espiritu, the Internet search giant’s Global Communications and Public Affairs Manager.
“With relative ease, a potential real estate buyer could get on Google Earth or Google Streetview to check out houses and get a feel for a neighbourhood before they physically travel to locations,” she says.
“We also offer a business-oriented version of Google Earth--Google Earth Pro--that provides customers with some compelling features for real estate, including parcel data outlines (used to determine a parcel’s exact boundary, as well as the previous value of a home or last sale date) and an advanced measuring tool (for measuring buildings and line of sight),” Espiritu says.
She then went on to suggest additional ways realtors, buyers and others can use Google Earth Pro to fulfill their respective goals.
For instance, the technology affords the prospective buyer the ability to identify target markets using Google Earth Pro’s demographic data, and then to home in and investigate the construction, slope and land usage on and around a specific site, using aerial imagery, advanced measurement tools, and a new elevation profile feature incorporated into the software.
“Another use falls into the category of managing risk and minimizing cost,” Espiritu says.
Not only can insurance underwriters evaluate properties right from their office, calculating property size with an area measurement tool; they can also identify hazard and key underwriting factors, and even use the software’s circle tool to define risk proximity buffers and determine the distance to electric lines and police stations.
In addition, the realtor can use the software’s movie maker tool to produce dramatic, information-rich videos that cast an appealing spotlight on a given property while also highlighting points of interest, amenities and services nearby.
Once recorded, the video tour can be posted on a Web site, distributed by e-mail or shared offline as part of a presentation to home buyers, builders and even master plan developers.
“Google Earth is an exciting tool,” says Randy Hertz of Hertz Real Estate Services and Hertz Farm Management in Nevada, Iowa.
The companies primarily buy, sell, and professionally manage income producing farmland, and, in that practice, Hertz says, “Having access to mapping, aerial images and GIS software is important to analysing and communicating about land.”
But Google Earth isn’t the only technology Hertz uses in his real estate business.
“Another web application we use is Agridata,” he says. “It has some similar data to Google Earth, but moves on to allow us to pick a field, draw a soil map from digital soil data they have available, look at several years of aerial imagery, and topographical maps.
“It also lets us export the GIS outline of the farmland and import into other GIS software, on our own soil database,” Hertz says.
Augmented Reality: The Next Big Thing?
But Freed is anything but deterred when it comes to the future of technology.
In fact, he is already considering the future impact of another game-changer: augmented reality. With augmented reality, a direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment is augment by computer-generated sensory input such as sound or graphics. One of the most widely known examples is also among the simplest: the yellow “first down” line seen during television football broadcasts.
Examples of non-architectural or building trade uses include Golfscape GPS Rangefinder, an app that displays the distance from the front, center and back of the green; travel related apps such as New York Nearest Places and the London Subway, which provide a steady flow of information to tourists in unfamiliar cities; and SnapShop Showroom, an application for redecorating and buying furniture that lets the user “place” a “piece” snipped from an online catalogue into their actual room before they purchase it.
There’s even an app that tags the location of your car in a parking lot to help you find your way back to it.
“All of these things basically work the same way: You look through your smart phone, and the program displays data and information on top of what you’re viewing,” Freed says. “So potentially, I could walk around a job site and already see elements in place, in their environment, as they are being created.
“To go back to what I was saying earlier about CAD, with an augmented reality app your could literally overlay the CAD model onto the real world, do it in real time and position it perfectly -- just like your imagination would, but much, much better” he says. “The only problem is the tool to do that just doesn’t exist yet.”
But one can easily imagine the possibilities: A building inspector could literally walk through a worksite with a camera-equipped iPad or iPhone, and not only check items off his checklist, but also beam the information directly back to the building department.
The same technique could be used to take a look at a job and, in real time, identify potential unforeseen problems or areas where the work is at variance with the plan.
“You could potentially eliminate a lot of human error,” Freed says.
Remodeler’s Little Helper?
When it comes to remodels, often one of the most time-consuming parts of the process is getting an accurate survey of the existing structure.
“In the old days, an intern and I spent hours – and sometimes an entire day – measuring and sketching, essentially melding the structures dimensions onto a draft paper pad, and then we’d go back to the office and somebody else would then painstakingly put that into a CAD program,” Freed says.
But here too, innovation has created an easy-to-access workaround: Outside firms that will laser scan an existing structure and deliver an “as-built” drawing to the architect and/or building team.
“The result is a lot less time intensive and cheaper than if I had my staff do the work, and best of all, it’s super accurate,” Freed says.
Most of the work is performed by sophisticated software and algorithms that render the drawing as the laser scans building surfaces. Most 3D laser scanning services take the additional step of going back to the office and checking their handiwork, making sure dimensions close, and so forth, and then delivery of the “as-built” to the architect is as easy as pressing send on an email.
Freed says the laser-based technology is particularly useful when it comes to historical homes and building, where sophisticated moulding may run along an inaccessibly high ceiling.
“Those kinds of elements are real difficult to recreate of draw,” he says. “But with a laser scanner, you can literally set something up on a tripod on the floor, and get any level of detail you need – you can even get it in 3D, if you need.”
Another tool Freed leans on extensively is a FLIR thermal camera.
“It’s a great tool for seeing where insulation is either missing or damaged, or where heat is leaking out of the building envelop,” he says. “With FLIR, we can precisely target areas and tear open only the sections of the walls we need to. That’s pretty cool.”
A Thousand Words
While most of us embrace the latest software and technology as a time-, energy- or cost- saver, Erin Rae Hoffer, director of industry strategy at Autodesk, believes much of it plays an even more important role: That of communicating intentions. New technology can help.
“The issue the often arises with clients is that they haven’t been trained in the same courses that a designer or an engineer has taken,” Hoffer says.
“You know, we’ve all had courses which are focused on abstracting the real building and how it will be constructed into two dimensional documents that can go to the contractor or to the building department,” she says. “The whole profession is kind of built around these abstractions and these drawings. And most clients don’t have that background, and interpreting two-dimensional drawings of the three-dimensional home is not a natural thing.
“But if you can show them a computer model that allows them to almost walk through the project,” she continues, “then you really have something, you can have a meaningful give and take between everyone involved in a project, including the homeowners.”
To view this article as presented in our June 2011 issue, with additional photos and sidebars, please visit our Magazine Archive.