The architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry is ripe for disruption, and emerging technologies are poised to usher in a new era of increased design and construction productivity, quality, and efficiency. While many members of the industry have been slow to embrace change, firms like The Lamar Johnson Collaborative (LJC) are setting a stellar example of what a forward-thinking AEC firm should look like.
Lamar Johnson launched his new firm with the idea of bringing together the very best people he’s worked with over the past two decades. This people-first philosophy endowed the firm with a depth of experience and range of capabilities that allowed them to hit the ground running and tackle large-scale, complex projects right out of the gate. Moreover, it gives them a unique perspective into the changes caused by recent technological advances. LJC may only be just over five months old, but as Johnson says, “it’s been 20 years in the making.”
Last month Anton Dy Buncio (COO, VIATechnik) and Gregg Young (Board of Advisors, VIATechnik) sat down with Johnson, Tod Desmarais (Managing Director at LJC), and Mariusz Klemens (Associate Architect and Urban Designer at LJC) to talk innovation, tech, and the future of the AEC industry — here’s what they all had to say.
Anton Dy Buncio (ADB): These days, everyone is talking about autonomous vehicles, coworking/coliving, prefabrication, machine learning/AI…what do these technologies bring to the table, and what are the limitations?
Lamar Johnson (LJ): We built our firm around the idea of integrating technology into the architecture and design process in a holistic and authentic way. Of course, technology allows us to implement a vision and respond to issues more efficiently, but it doesn’t necessarily compel us to think differently. We still have to do that ourselves. Technology can empower us, it can supplement our thinking, it can make us more nimble, it can help us deliver our ideas in a more complete and effective manner. At the end of the day, however, it’s the energy, effort, and brain power that people put into projects that really make the difference.
When you combine that mindset with the power of cutting-edge technology, you can achieve really great things. It requires a lot of confidence—in both yourself and your technology—to raise unasked questions, or suggest unexpected or innovative solutions, but we’re not afraid of presenting something unbelievable, because we know that what we’re doing works.
ADB: Are there any technologies you guys are particularly excited about? What kinds of tools are changing how you do your job, and in what ways?
Tod Desmarais (TD): One of the major areas where technology has impacted our profession is the way we interface with construction. On a basic level, construction hasn’t changed much over the past 5,000 years. You bring an assortment of materials to a site, and thousands of people then show up to assemble those materials into a building.
With technologies like 3D printing, however, we have this incredible opportunity to revolutionize established practices. 3D printing gives us the ability to integrate design and construction processes far more efficiently than ever before. Currently we design the building using a three-dimensional model, convert it to two-dimensional documents for bidding, pricing, and permitting, then the trades people convert the two-dimensional information back into a three-dimensional structure during construction; this is incredibly inefficient.
Now, we can design a building three-dimensionally, price it three-dimensionally, and build or “print” it three-dimensionally, all from the original model as part of a single seamless workflow. This streamlining of the design process will shorten a project’s timeline by months.
Mariusz Klemens: Generally speaking, technology allows us to make more informed decisions, run through iterative processes more efficiently, and generate better outputs for a wide range of projects. But just as importantly, it helps facilitate better communication with our clients and other project stakeholders, which is really the key to realizing its full potential.
ADB: Are technologies that enable emerging practices like prefabrication going to help?
LJ: To an extent. Prefabrication addresses a sequencing issue. It’s not evolutionary. It’s a step in the right direction, but it still depends on the same process of creating architectural drawings, giving them to the contractor, waiting for the contractor to pass them along to the subcontractor, and having the subcontractor draft shop drawings. In many senses, it’s still business as usual. Prefabrication allows you to construct sub-components separately, but the building process as such stays the same.
Gregg Young (GY): Do you see this evolving into something more useful?
LJ: If people can leverage the information embedded in Revit and other similar models to streamline existing inefficient design processes, then yes. If you can go straight from architectural designing to manufacturing, that’s an enhancement. Skipping those intermediate—and largely unnecessary—steps would be revolutionary. The industry has the technology to do this, we’re just not leveraging it properly.
TD: Agreed. What we’re trying to do right now is leverage all of the 3D design information in intelligent models earlier in the process. Instead of showing clients drawings or projecting 3D models onto a screen, we’re starting to put them “in” their building design with virtual reality (VR) headsets. With VR, clients can walk through their building and immediately understand the full-scale, space, and volume and how materials fit together. This helps clients arrive at decisions faster. By using VR to evaluate design concepts early on, we have the potential to speed-up project design schedules significantly.
ADB: And this lowers costs because it reduces the need for expensive changes late in the process.
LJ: That’s what we’re constantly preaching to our clients. The decisions they make up front are so much more effective and so much more efficient than those they make halfway through a project.
The technology that enables us to do this is expensive, but we look at it as an investment. This is part of the reason why I believe that the barriers to entry in architecture are so much higher now than they were, say, 30 years ago. In the past, all you needed was a lead point, a sharpener, and an eraser. Now, because technology is such an integral part of what we do, the barriers to entry are far greater. But there’s really no choice. You have to go all in.
I think it all comes down to being entrepreneurial, to believing you can make an impact. If you don’t have this belief, you may as well curl up in the fetal position and weep because then there’s no hope. But we—like you guys [VIATechnik]—believe we can change ourselves and change AEC as a whole, and I think that’s the kind of fundamental expression of optimism that our industry needs to embrace in order to thrive in the future.
While AEC may still be early in the tech adoption curve, firms like LJC represent an acceleration in the right direction. When leading minds in any field come together and pool their collective intellectual resources, the combined outcome is typically greater than the individual parts. We have the ability to turn our industry around—we simply need to adjust our priorities and objectives, then work together to accomplish them.