The following extract is from The Fifth Estate’s latest ebook, Visit Tomorrowland: Buildings for a Sustainable Future.

There was a time when designing and constructing a new building was reasonably predictable. Architects and engineers knew the parameters, relying on past experience to predict how the inhabitants would use the building and to choose the best materials for the location.

That was then.

Now, a changing climate, rapidly developing technologies and radical changes in workplace use and design have changed all this. The property industry is in a brave new world where what worked in the past will not necessarily work in the future.

So how do we create buildings that will stand the test of time and also meet our changing needs?

It is not an easy task. Buildings of the future will need to be flexible, super smart and to be much more than mere bricks and mortar. Add to that the urgent need to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings, and it is clear that the property sector has a massive challenge ahead of it.

Not that long ago smart buildings focused on heating and cooling systems and solutions that lowered energy use and operating costs. Now advanced sensor technology and new user demands have shifted the focus to the Internet of Things, networked devices and advanced analytics of the building’s operation.

Buildings must also cater to the health and wellness of occupants and anticipate what their users want in a whole new way, delivering a service far beyond providing a mere space.

This was highlighted by CBRE’s recent research into what companies expect from a workplace. CBRE surveyed 100 senior decision-makers in large organisations and ASX 200 companies across Australia. What they found was that companies not only expect buildings to be smart, with all the technology that entails, they want them to be flexible and to promote wellness of the inhabitants.

Buildings as a service

The next frontier in retaining tenants was to not only meet their needs but also those of their visitors and clients. This concept of “buildings as a service” was behind last year’s acquisition of UK-based user experience designers FreeState by design firm Hassell.

At the time of the merger, FreeState creative director Adam Scott said the company started with the people in everything it does, imagining their ideal journey as a basis for designing their “ideal future environment”.

“What that means is that brands – and places – now live or die by how well they inspire attraction, involvement and a sense of belonging,” Scott said.

Corporate Australia has embraced this concept with enthusiasm, with “innovation labs” springing up across the country. At accounting and advisory firm KPMG’s new Innovation Lab at Barangaroo, clients get to brainstorm surrounded by the latest toys and technologies – interactive screens, 3D printers, drones, and virtual and augmented reality sets with some old fashioned whiteboards and play doh thrown into the mix. This is the type of work environment we can expect to see more of in the future.

Engineering firm Arup has been a leader in the innovation lab concept, setting up digital studios in London and Australia to research how people use and interact with technology and how technological developments will change infrastructure needs.

One of the firm’s clients, Google, is an early adopter of high-tech construction methods. Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters was built using robotic cranes to put large prefabricated sections in place and is a prime example of how buildings can be flexible and adaptable. There is also talk of Google developing kinetic buildings, which can be moved, and which respond and adapt to the environment.

Multi-disciplinary teams

Some of the most exciting work being done globally on new high-tech materials and building production methods involves multi-disciplinary teams involving researchers, architects, builders and manufacturers.

One project – LASIMM (Large Additive Subtractive Integrated Modular Machine) – involving 10 partners, is exploring the potential of metal-based 3D printing to enable fast production of prefabricated building components. The team comprises six companies, including the entire supply chain needed to produce such a machine, two universities and two research institutes.

One partner is architectural firm Foster + Partners, well known for its innovative buildings and recently chosen by Lendlease to design its Sydney headquarters at Circular Quay Tower. A recent project of the firm is the Apple store in Dubai, which features filigreed carbon-fibre shutters that fold around glass walls of the store, shading the interior during the day and opening to views of the city at night.

The LASIMM project is working on developing large-scale and flexible all-in-one hybrid machines that will enable the production of building components directly from CAD models. The machine uses robotic elements and would enable the building industry to move away from standardised components and towards bespoke solutions for every building. The result would be that components could be produced within a reduced timeframe at a fraction of the cost.

Research is the key

Alex Sinickas, research leader, Foresight, Research & Innovation with Arup, is conscious of the role engineers play in creating buildings that will last.

“It’s our job as engineers to design for the future. We need to be able to design buildings that will withstand a one-in-300 year hurricane even if it happens tomorrow,” Sinickas says.

“The real problem is that the next 10 years are not going to look anything like the last 100. Climate change, along with people’s expectations of what a building should do, means we are able to rely on history less and less.

“As a society and as an industry we are also too reactive – we react after an event like a flood, or any disaster. The other option is to do research and be prepared.”

Sinickas says there are four big trends influencing building design and construction now and into the future. These are:

  • Designing for reconstruction and re-use – recycling materials and re-using spaces
  • Development of new materials – sustainable and high tech
  • The rise of data and machine learning, including artificial intelligence and augmented reality
  • Human experience – how people want to use the built environment.

Recycling and re-use comes to the fore

The recycling of both materials and spaces has only just started to have a significant impact on how buildings are made because it now makes economic sense, Sinickas says.

“The circular economy is less about building materials and more about the money behind it. It has become market driven because it makes sense to be less wasteful. If you make it worthwhile for people to care, they will – the industry has to either save money or make money.”

New materials: beauty, innovation, sustainability

The development of new materials such as cross laminated timber (CLT), bamboo, green concrete, high-performance glass, graphene and lightweight solar cells that can be applied to just about any surface is being driven by a push to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings, but also by people’s desire to have beautiful, innovative buildings.

The integration of nanotechnologies into construction materials will see buildings pushed to a new level in the next decade. Old materials such as timber and concrete are also being re-invented.

Buildings as organisms

The use of building data has also reached an exciting era where buildings are almost regarded as organisms. This is also being driven by the ongoing problem that buildings designed to be high tech are too often operated as low tech.

“We either train people or get the buildings to operate themselves. We are working on a project that involves getting a building to recognise patterns. We have sensors that measure the building environment and generate the analytics on that. That’s fine, but as engineers we want to act on that. Do you send the information to a building manager or get the building to do it?”

Now that sensors are light enough and cheap enough to be used in a wide range of situations it is possible for buildings to respond comprehensively to conditions. In a cold climate a building can flush the pipes with warm water to stop them freezing or in a warm climate it can close the blinds to moderate the temperature. A dynamic façade can open and shut in response to the sun with individual tiles expanding to cover a space or contracting to open it up.

Self-built buildings, where construction is done by robots and drones, are still at experimental stage, Sinickas says.

“The difficult thing with all new technology is getting people to trust it. We have to test for unknown events. So we have to satisfy all the current conditions and future events before people will use new materials.”

Expectations are high

Expectations of buildings are high and this will only increase in the future.

In commercial buildings people expect a seamless high-tech experience with fast internet speeds, comfort and aesthetics. Enlightened employers also want their staff to be well. Arup is working on a project that looks at building acoustics, whether there is an optimum level for humans and how that can be used in design.

In its Sound Lab the firm uses virtual reality to allow clients to experience building design options so they can make better decisions. Augmented reality (think Pokemon Go) is not far away.

“It’s not the technology that’s important,” Sinickas says. “It’s the problem you’re trying to solve and communicating that to a regular person.”