Look Both Ways Roundtable: Why Prioritizing Efficiency Doesn’t Have to Mean Compromising Beauty
Whether client or designer, beautiful and efficient buildings are something we all aspire to. Luckily, thanks to advances in technology, individuality and efficiency are no longer mutually exclusive. In a roundtable with UK and US leaders in industrialized design construction—the process of integrating design with manufacturing techniques to create unique, high-value projects; also called modern methods of construction or MMC in the UK—they discuss beauty through standardization, sustainability and operational efficiency, weighing value with risk, and adaptable designs.
Look Both Ways Virtual Roundtable Participants:
Sean Ashcroft – National Healthcare Market Leader – DPR
Howard But – Director of MEP Services – Hines Conceptual Construction Group Europe
Matt Cooper – Business and Operations Consultant – Arup
Ryan McMahon – General Manager, Manufacturing Informed Design at Autodesk
Chris Northwood – Technical Leader, Healthcare Sector – Laing O’Rourke
Jeff Schroder – Assistant VP Planning, Design and Construction – Atrium Health
In discussion with design leaders at NBBJ
Industrialized design construction—the use of manufacturing techniques in building projects—can dramatically improve costs, schedule and energy use. With the trend toward flight to quality and more owners and tenants concerned about ESG factors, industrialized design construction offers a viable solution. However, there is also a common misconception that this process can lead to buildings that are less beautiful or innovative—an equally important consideration when it comes to attracting and retaining talent and ensuring value. By integrating design with manufacturing techniques, it is possible to create projects that are both beautiful and efficient; here, experts from the US and UK detail how.
Beauty through Standardization
“There is value in making beautiful buildings, and there is also the perception of constraint in using prefabrication,” says Ryan McMahon, General Manager, Manufacturing Informed Design at global technology company Autodesk. For example, combining individual parts with opportunities to accelerate and simplify using prefabrication, bringing product into the equation early to avoid tensions and inefficiency later, and separating standardized elements and custom details to allow for greater focus all contribute to “a set of rules rather than a set of components,” as Chris Northwood, Technical Leader, Healthcare Sector at international engineering and construction firm Laing O’Rourke describes it.
In other words, to create a project that is unique while also taking advantage of the efficiencies that standardization brings, it is important to embrace constraints. For example, the use of specific materials, such as mass timber, and processes, such as prefabrication and on-site assembly, allow for flexibility of design and technique inside the agreed-upon IDC framework.
Sustainability and Operational Efficiency
Research and real-world application show that the use of IDC reduces a building’s carbon footprint. “We are really looking at embodied carbon, and what we see with IDC is that it unlocks a lot of carbon savings, which is still an area we are heavily exploring,” says Howard But, Director at international real estate company Hines’ Conceptual Construction Group. This is because IDC typically requires fewer carbon-intensive products like concrete and steel, and less transport.
“We are trying to manufacture elements of complexity off-site and bring them to the site to install them. The manufacturing process can get more efficient this way,” says Northwood from Laing O’Rourke. Looking to the future, increasing operational efficiency in addition to manufacturing efficiency can not only drive sustainability, but reduce costs and lead to beneficial outcomes for clients as a result.
Designing for Flexibility and Adaptability
Over-building and its effect on the environment, and the rapid pace at which buildings become obsolete means that designing for adaptation or reuse is more important than ever. “Designing with the intent to reuse later means you must understand at least some of what that reuse is going to be, and design it into the functionality of those components,” says McMahon with Autodesk.
One advantage of IDC is its longer planning phase, which is conducive to a design that is set up for deconstruction or reuse later. This planning period also allows for more time to embed adaptability in the design. A flexible system of elements, designing information into the digital twin, and the use of prefabrication can all contribute to a quicker, easier and less costly switch in acuity for healthcare, for example. However, it is important to remember that it is still not possible to future-proof a building entirely.
Taking the idea of flexible design one step further, Matt Cooper, Business and Operations Consultant at ARUP says, “There is an argument that ‘plug and play’ design allows you to almost infinitely change a building’s use to something that is different than what was intended. There is a huge opportunity to inform the market with an ‘Amazon for MMC’ that allows access to a crowdsourced database of different parts or materials and how they’ve been used.”
Better, Earlier Design Decisions
Early adoption—of both digital platforms but also of contractors and consultants—allows for better, earlier design decisions. Securing a team early in the process ensures a high level of collaboration and communication. “Bringing your trades and subject matter experts on early takes a lot of courage from consultants and other team members to educate the owner about why they need to go that route, but that’s what really begins to move the needle,” says Jeff Schroder, Assistant VP Planning, Design and Construction at Atrium Health.
However, it is important to remember that not all parties can or should be involved in all the details of a project. Using the metaphor of auto manufacturing, higher-level interactions yield higher-level choices: for example, the chassis vs. nuts, bolts and washers. While this analogy does not compare to the level of customization achievable in a building, the use of digital tools that allow flexibility throughout the process, a leadership team that trusts, empowers and challenges the design team and is willing to take risks, and consolidation of practices for greater efficiency yields manufacturable results but with varying degrees of freedom.
Weighing Value and Risk
An assumption that standardization leads to a less than beautiful building can discourage clients from pursuing IDC for their projects. However, those that are willing to take risks can expect benefits that include cost and energy savings, speed to market and an innovative design. “Often, constraints aren’t fully articulated early enough in the process. The opportunity lies in taking out the risk component and asking people to solve problems in a different way than their traditional roles allow,” says Sean Ashcroft, National Healthcare Market Leader at DPR.
Given the financial uncertainties that healthcare institutions currently face, IDC can also help to manage inflation through early procurement or manufacture of materials and components. However, there is value in both standardization and customization; the key is knowing when and how to implement both. “Trying to standardize and bring value to the end user, we fall into the trap of, ‘everything can be standardized,’ instead of pushing back and saying, ‘here’s the box, here’s what we can do inside that box to drive cost and efficiency,’” says Ashcroft.
IDC is already changing the way we think about design and attracting a wider group of people and more diverse thinking to the design and construction industry. The swell of enthusiasm around the topic—especially from young designers focused on where they can have the most impact early in a project and different demographics of people involved in project delivery—ensures that this method will continue to gain momentum and change the way we design buildings.