From draughting tables to virtual reality – the digital evolution of building design

Technology has impacted on virtually every industry, as well as on our personal lives. Step back 20 years and who would have known a mobile phone would be at the heart of our day-to-day lives today.

Two decades ago, the work and tools of an architect were very different. From sketching by hand, to sitting at a draughting table, carefully and methodically drawing designs.

From a tape measure to touch-screen technology
Surveying a property for an extension or renovation would entail measuring with a tape measure and taking photos before painstakingly creating hand-drawn designs, which would then have to be redrawn when adaptations were made.

All said, our toolkit was pretty sophisticated for the time.

Today, it is quite different in many ways and not so much in others. Touchscreens, tablet devices, 3D computer modelling, laser measuring, GPS, digital photography….

Architecture has evolved in terms of technology, while the inspiration for design ideas and interaction with clients remains at the core, as it did then.

From the technology we use, to the advances in building materials we can choose during construction. This has created a revolution in the decision-making process when it comes to early-stage and near complete designs.

Digital transformation – it’s no longer about 2D
“We began moving to CAD (Computer Aided Design) in the early days. This transformed the way we worked. Saying that, we were still sketching designs by hand (and still do to a point) to take to clients and planners as ideas,” explained Doug Hughes, founder and Principal Architect at Hughes Architects.

“The computer technology has moved on rapidly. We now use Building Information Modelling (BIM) software in addition to CAD. It means we can design and evaluate a property as if it was in the real world. From local environmental factors to physical impacts on structures, such as ground movement, weather and other effects.

“At least we still go out on site. Yes, technology hasn’t stopped us from getting out of the office! But the ease of transferring relevant data and information from the site to the screen in the office is much more efficient. It’s more about data visualisation and collating and converting that information so we have a single design model to work on.”

Clients expect more
Technology has also meant that clients want and expect more. They are using technology themselves in their daily lives. Visualisation is something they’re already immersed in. From their own computers to television, shopping and even driving.

“That means when they work with us they expect us to be able to show them something that they have come used to. Visually they want to be ‘wowed’.

“That can be good and bad. And we have to manage that depending on the type of job and client. We have to adapt to their expectations,” added Doug

From fly-throughs to 3D
“Our early designs involved a series of sketches and drawings. I still encourage our team to do this as it can help creativity. But today, the majority of our work is undertaken using sophisticated computer software and hardware.

“We can now create a model where the client can see the building design from any angle, externally and internally. We can adapt and change it much easier.=

“For large-scale housing developments or commercial and industrial structures we can create a real-world scenario. Elements such as pedestrian accessibility, cycling, environmental changes, waterways, etc can all be mimicked to see what works and what doesn’t.

“This makes it much easier for demonstrating during the planning process in order to achieve approval from planning departments.”

Has technology made architecture better?
“That’s a question I often pose myself. In many ways the evolution of technology in architecture has had a massive and positive impact. But there are times when you look at the more traditional handcrafted approach. The sketches, pencil and paper, the physical work you had to undertake, and you realise that elements of that remain just as important in the process where appropriate.

“I for one get great pleasure at talking with a client about their ideas for a new home or remodelling their existing property and then creating a rough idea on paper in front of them. It generates a passion from both sides on the design and development of those ideas.

“But I too understand that the technology we have at our fingertips is also providing that inspiration and making leaps in the way we can minimise the impact of buildings on the environment. From the design to the materials used. The 21st Century is an exciting place to be in for architects and architecture.”

The photos to the right show some original architectural sketch ideas from nearly twenty years ago with some more recent designs used to show clients