Phil Langley has been an architect for over 15 years and has spent most of that time designing buildings. However, over the past year-and-a-half, Langley has led a team of 23 at architecture and engineering firm Bryden Wood to create technologies that automate the architect’s role.
“When you design a building, the product that you give to a client is the building and then they get to use it as such. When you make software, it’s a very different process for us, it’s not transactional, it’s a very reflexive process as we work with our clients directly to find out what it is they really need. We don’t make software and then approach them to sell it to them, we actually build it for them,” said Langley, speaking at the PlaceTech Trend Talk London event.
Bryden Wood has a specific recruitment strategy, targeting particular masters programmes from universities in the UK, that align with the company’s goals.
“We’re very aware of the difficulty in hiring someone with a software development background. Bringing those individuals into an architecture firm with 200 individuals, there’s a disconnect there between the goals, so we try to build the team initially from people who understand sector somewhat,” said Langley.
Langley’s team is made up of 96% architects and engineers by background, who have then specialised in computational design. Over the past 18 months, the team has been charged with building a range of apps with a focus on automating design.
“Automation is coming to this sector, the clients obviously want to see reduced fees but for us, automated design means not just doing it faster, it means doing it smarter. It’s no good just repeating the same process but sticking it through an algorithm to make it a bit quicker. This is an opportunity to do things in a completely different way so let’s do it smarter as well, and doing it smarter means you can pass that intelligence directly onto a client.
“This is not about building things that help an architect do their job better. It’s about changing the kind of technology that’s used in order to develop, to design and develop buildings.”
Here are three apps Bryden Wood has developed
Children designing schools
The firm released an open source web app in August as part of an Innovate UK-funded project to design primary schools.
Users choose the location, school type and are able to start placing pre-configured clusters, classrooms, support spaces and all the things needed in a primary school.
“We demonstrated this app with some children, which was absolutely terrifying to take our software product to an audience – you have no idea what they’re going to say. The app allowed a teacher, a parent or a child to be part of a design process to do early stage planning of what their school could be,” said Langley, who hoped it would be like Minecraft.
“The kids were pretty happy with this and rather amusingly at the end of it and the feedback we got was they actually said this is great, this is better than Minecraft.”
Adoption of modular
A similar app was built for housing, which Bryden Wood created on behalf the Mayor of London’s office to encourage the adoption of precision manufactured housing.
Langley explained: “The GLA was pretty open as to what solution we could choose for that, it could have been a report, it could have been a series of documents, but we felt this would be a bit tedious and no one would ever read it so we wanted to create something more ambitious than that.”
The tool enables users to choose sites, place buildings, and find out how easy or not easy it would be to deliver the design with a range of precision manufacturing housing techniques.
The app is based on analytics using stakeholder development data, which stakeholders provided collectively, allowing analysis of room sizes and apartment sizes within recent developments.
Sharing data is a big conversation in the industry at the moment, Langley acknowledged: “That’s a big step to share your development data, it’s not that obvious or easy to do but it’s a super-positive part of the project.”
Users of the app can get feedback on metrics around the design’s efficiency, net to gross, and performance against briefs. If the user is a developer, they’re able to access this, play around with their metrics and pass that on to the architect for them to work off.
Motorway to go
The team has also been developing something called the rapid engineering model with Highways England to automate the design of smart motorway schemes. The programme is an expansion of the UK’s motorway network by converting the hard shoulder into an active running lane.
For Langley, this project “represents a clear example of how the adoption of technology approaches allows our business and people in our team to do things that we might not normally be expected to do, or even allowed to do.”
He continued: “We’re mostly architects in my team, we have never done any road design at all ever. If you want to do roads, you normally have to have done it for 25 years. But because we were able to get into it through a technology, we bring something completely different answering the question in a completely different way.”
The project produces automated design analytics for roads, and the example Langley showed was analytics of a real stretch of road for which the client would normally have to wait nine months, a year or years to receive. In this case, Bryden Wood was able to generate the data and present it into a web app within three days. The client was able to do more iterations, understand likely issues they might find, and have more certainty around delivery.
Langley’s team also created a geospatial version, using a virtual reality app which allowed the client to access network-wide data at a national scale, understanding road performance and construction schemes within a wider context and infrastructure network.
The big lesson
“No one normally designs roads like this, but a bunch of weird architects who decided to take a tech-led approach to design automation was able to implement some of these things for them,” said Langley.
“That’s a big lesson for me. We’ve been able to build apps and technologies that actually we never even planned to make. It wasn’t the idea, our intention was not to get to this level this quickly, our intention was to see where this would take us.
“We knew we needed to do something different, we know the role of the architect or the engineer is going to change, and we wanted to be the ones that instigated that change, and led that change, rather than being disrupted from the outside.
“Disruption from the inside is at least something you can maybe control, and it has provided us as a business with a huge range of opportunities in sectors that we can go into and capabilities that we have, services that we can offer, and value that we can provide.
“It’s been a game-changer for us and something that in a reasonably short amount of time has been a success for us, and a big indicator of the trajectory we think the industry needs to take, and also as well as ourselves as a business.”
Phil Langley was speaking at PlaceTech Trend Talk London sponsored by Mills & Reeve, Node, British Property Federation and FUTURE:PropTech.