Glenn Howells shows how IT can inject time into creative process

Jonathan Carthy, head of IT at Glenn Howells Architects, shares how the practice is adopting tech, the tools that are allowing designers to create emotional journeys for clients, and how the role of architects is changing.

Here’s an edited transcript of Jonathan’s presentation from PlaceTech Trend Talk Birmingham.

When I joined Glenn Howells, around seven to 10 years ago, we were all running on Macs and doing a lot of paper-based work, it wasn’t the most efficient and effective environment in the world.

I have been tasked with looking at what we can do to improve efficiencies, to help designers become more creative. We’re here to tell stories, elicit emotions, design beautiful buildings, and ultimately fulfil the needs of our clients. Without the time to design, that doesn’t happen.

From paper to iPads

The traditional architecture practice has lots of paper, pens, people leaning over desks and working quite late. We had to change all that and change it quickly. We’ve moved on to industry-class workstations, Revit, Autodesk’s AEC Collection, but the most important and the most exciting developments for me have been the introduction of iPads and the use of VR.

We are based in Birmingham, we do a lot of work in London and a lot of our senior staff are spending time up and down on the train from Euston to Birmingham and connectivity on the train is not great at the best of times. In this day and age, we try and be as efficient as possible, so iPads are key here.

After a client meeting we will make the changes on the iPad on the way back rather than scribbling on a piece of tracing paper, photographing it and sending it back to the Part 1s and 2s in Birmingham to make the changes. Every single team in the practice has multiple iPads. I love walking around, I love seeing their use, I love seeing what they can produce.

Virtual Reality

We initially thought that VR would help us with clash detection and help us bring a client on a journey – let’s look at your completed building, what does it look like when you walk into it? What does it look like at night time? What does it look like with some plants? What does it look like with the lighting? How does it all feel? However, it wasn’t the biggest benefit. A lot of our clients weren’t sold on the idea of VR, as not everybody likes wearing a headset and it can make you feel a little nauseous.

The benefit for us is in prototyping, we can see what it looks like in real time. The likes of Enscape and Lumion helped massively on that. One of my favourite stories I have been told by the architects, in terms of VR, is we were producing a bespoke reception desk for a hotel and in 2D on your screen it looked pretty cool, all of the dimensions were correct, everybody’s happy. We spun it up in VR, put the headsets on, walked in, saw where the receptionist was. They were about 20ft away from where the customer would be, it clearly didn’t work.

We would have likely wound up building that desk, and not fulfilled our obligations, had we not seen that in VR.  As an aside to that particular episode, at the same hotel we were looking at the acoustics and it seemed a little bit baffling to me to use your eyes to hear sound, we used VR to understand the acoustics in the lobby environment.

We had a piano playing in the bar to our left, we had people milling about on our right-hand side, we wanted to make sure that the sound, the conversation with the receptionist was nigh-on perfect in terms of sound. It was about understanding what we can do to make that environment as efficient and as effective as possible.

Generative design

This is probably my favourite project, it was done using Grasshopper in Rhino. This was the project that would not be possible for me with a small team in the period of time we had without the use of computers.

Westonbirt Birmingham Glenn Howells

It’s a meandering walkway on undulating land. To try and design that as a single person and change the shape and the direction it takes to go around trees, the re-working on that would take hours. If our designers were doing it manually, it just couldn’t be done.

Now that was a few years ago, that’s not the future, that was really the present. One of the things we want to do is make sure our designs or architects have as much time as possible to do what they’re paid for, to design, create, tell stories, and elicit emotions.

We spend far too long doing CAD, making things stick together and understanding naming conventions and understanding how things must work. We want to automate that, we want to let the computer do that and let the designers decide upon the best course of action and flesh that out.

Generative design is the way we’re looking at moving forward, we’ve got all the data, everybody’s got data, we know the requirements, the square foot, costings, commercials, and we can stick it into our generative design tool and watch that produce multiple options.

There is a danger though with some generative design and I worry if computers are designing buildings, are we just going to end up with the same buildings? Maybe it’s okay for high-density housing but how does it work in terms of culturally significant projects?

Telling stories

For the public consultation at the Paradise project in Birmingham we were using VR headsets and Enscape to let the public walk around and let them understand what was going on and that went down a treat.  We had some great feedback on that and we’re going to do a lot more with the headsets at public consultations.

Enscape is the tool that really allows our designers to get real time feedback on the developments. Our architects will access Enscape for mid-level visuals, and then we will pass these on to the visualisers who will spend some time using Autodesk 3ds Max and Unreal Engine. The Unreal Engine for those of you who don’t know is a gaming engine. it’s used to produce video games. Video game technology is coming into architecture and it’s here to stay, so much so that when we’ve been looking at the future, we’ve been asking ‘what sort of architects are we going hire in the future?’ The architects we hire in the future will be vastly different to the architects we’ve hired in the past.  We’ll be looking at game developers and engineers, we’re looking at graduates to come out of university with programming experience, applied science, rather than just people who know CAD. We now need to understand how to develop in-game engines and to understand how to tell stories.

We’re using a tool called VU.CITY. One of our biggest problems is understanding how our building would look in a city, London in particular. If we want to put a 30-storey tower in London, how is it going to look? What do we like in terms of planning? What other developments are there? VU.CITY helps us understand that and we’ve started looking at using it for projects Birmingham and Manchester.

Vu.city City Model

A lot of our clients are asking us to do marketing pieces, to produce the animations, tell the story, sell the vision for them, we’re now becoming storytellers and directors. It’s an interesting progression and I think further down the line a lot of architectural practices will take that in-house rather than outsourcing them, the technology is there.

Cloud computing in particular has enabled this to be feasible. You can produce animations in such a short period of time, and relatively inexpensively using cloud technology. I see such great visuals going up on our walls, I see clients coming in and being walked through the visuals, using headsets. It’s all about using this technology to tell a story, not allowing technology to lead us, we can’t afford to allow technology to determine the way in which we move across as an architectural practice.

We need to allow this to enable our users to actually tell the stories, get the clients excited and ultimately get the buildings going up. We’ve got economic pressures and clients who can be quite demanding, they want things done yesterday. As an architectural practice it’s not always that easy, technology is allowing us to do that.

Kingdom Hearts Glenn Howells

This is a still image from a video game called Kingdom Horse and it uses Unreal Engine. It’s a really good illustration of the fidelity and the beauty of the graphics. You couple this with great storytelling and the architectural firms of the future are effectively going to be like film-makers. They are using tools such as game engines to bring the client on a journey that’s going to be emotional and it’s going to sell buildings.

Jonathan Carthy was speaking at PlaceTech’s Q1 Trend Talk in Birmingham, organised in partnership with FUTURE:PropTech, Node and Mills & Reeve. See all the videos and full coverage here

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