Arch_Manu Research Project – Digital Sustainability
The ACA is proud to support the important work of the ARC Centre for Next-Gen Architectural Manufacturing, which aims to address the urgent needs of the AEC sector. ARC Centre Director M. Hank Haeusler takes us through the project’s goals, challenges, progress to date and future plans.
What is the ARC Centre for Next-Gen Architectural Manufacturing and what are its main goals?
The ARC Centre for Next-Gen Architectural Manufacturing (Arch_Manu) has brought together Australia’s leading architectural practices, engineering firms and professional bodies to establish an Industrial Transformation Training Centre (ITTC), addressing the urgent and critical needs of the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) sector.
The AEC sector plays a vital role in the national economy, generating over AU$134 billion annually, contributing 8% to the national GDP, and employing over a million people. However, it faces significant challenges. It is a substantial consumer of natural resources, leading to unsustainable rates of carbon emissions and waste production. It frequently exceeds project budgets and timelines, often to the detriment of the community. Moreover, it has been slow to adapt to advancements in architectural computing and computational design, including industry-specific applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Digital Fabrication, and Big-Data (B-D) analytics.
Consequently, the sector is under mounting pressure to foster innovation and embrace advanced technologies. This is essential to address a growing array of performance and productivity issues that compromise efficiency and diminish international competitiveness.
These challenges are compounded by the lack of an overarching, sector-wide digital transformation strategy to ensure graduates entering the workforce have industry-recognised qualifications. Within the Architecture, Design and Engineering (ADE) industries, this lack of specialist personnel will continue unless the next generation of designers receive business-specific, industry-recognised training in relevant technologies.
To address this, we have adopted digital sustainability as the overarching framework for Arch_Manu’s initiatives.
Digitalisation is undeniably one of the most powerful drivers of current societal change. Digital sustainability distinguishes itself from traditional sustainability approaches already in use within the sector, as its primary role is to pose fundamental questions about what ADE industries can contribute to society and what digital strategies and tools are necessary to meet the overarching sector’s needs and desires in the 21st century.
Within the Centre, our 25 PhD researchers and three postdoctoral fellows will work closely with our 20 academics, six industry partners, four peak body partners (including the ACA), and four international university partners to address these productivity and efficiency issues in the sector. Our approach to bridging gaps in knowledge and practice is defined by our focus on three interconnected architectural research and training themes:
- Synthesis of creative operational processes and practices in pre-design
Creating more efficient, reliable and effective software, making it easier for Australian manufacturers to complete new product designs.
- Management of business processes and commercial models
Rethinking the standard business models to consider new digital Anything as a Service (XaaS) models for influencing what to design (synthesis) and manufacture.
- Analytics unlocking the potential of architectural data in post-design
Using advanced computation to unlock the commercial potential and operational efficiency of existing and new data in CAD, BIM and other formats.
What is your role with the organisation? What skills and experience have prepared you for this role?
I serve as the ARC Centre Director, based at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), responsible for defining the Centre’s strategic direction. I work closely with Dr Ivana Kuzmanovska, the ARC Centre Manager, and Deputy Directors Prof. Jane Burry (University of Adelaide) and Prof. Blair Kuys (Swinburne University of Technology) in overseeing the operations of Arch_Manu.
Before taking on this role, I served as the founding director of the Bachelor of Computational Design (CoDe) at UNSW. Launched in 2015, the CoDe degree was the world’s first undergraduate program explicitly focused on exploring computational thinking and methods within the context of creative design and the production of the built and urban environment. This marked a significant departure from the initial wave of digital and computational design technologies. CoDe fostered a closer relationship between the realms of design and construction and created opportunities to liberate architectural design from the traditional standardised building component manufacturing constraints, instead moving towards a second wave of data-rich design intelligence.
The degree’s vision was to address societal issues, including cultural, economic, environmental and social challenges. From the outset, the CoDe degree explored design practice through emerging technologies, positioning them to stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue, collaboration and innovation. Industry professionals played an ongoing role in shaping course content and influencing CoDe’s broader research directions. These practitioners also participated in course delivery and, most importantly, formally connected with students in the final year graduation course to collaborate on research projects.
In this graduation project, third-year students functioned as researchers, collaborating with industry practitioners to identify research problems and work together to find solutions. The advantages of this approach, for both students and industry, are numerous. The bidirectional knowledge exchange better prepares graduates for the job market and creates research outcomes that effectively address the contemporary needs of the AEC sector and real-world conditions.
Out of all these experiences, the ‘embedded graduation project’ most prepared me for my role as ARC Centre Director. The ten years of conversations with industry professionals allowed me to understand the challenges they face. These insights have significantly influenced the thinking and research focus of Arch_Manu.
What are some of the project’s recent activities?
We are still in the establishment phase, so we have been busy in recent months advertising and recruiting 25 PhD students who will commence their studies next year. These students will research topics within the three theme labs mentioned earlier – synthesis, management and analytics.
The PhD research topics were the result of 17 focus group sessions with over 60 experts from industry and academia. The sessions aimed to understand the challenges facing the ADE industries from a digital sustainability perspective. During these focus groups we sought to learn about current building design and production practice. We also explored forward-thinking initiatives that have been developed or considered, and what changes are necessary to realise these futures. We inquired about current workflows and technology use, as well as the value chain as a whole. Our aim was to identify the major challenges encountered in the design and delivery of buildings today, and explore potential solutions.
Digital sustainability was a key focal point of our inquiry. We aimed to understand the key challenges and opportunities in contributing positively to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how digital solutions and technologies could enhance sustainability across the AEC industry.
These interviews assisted us in developing robust and sector-relevant PhD topics. Additionally, we have devised an innovative engagement model to integrate PhD students into practical settings. Using a network of PhD researchers, academic supervisors and industry partners, students will be embedded in firms for a minimum of three months, to act as catalysts for change. The PhD and academic supervising team or industry partners can submit requests to Arch_Manu every three months. We then establish a research practice nexus to address the identified problems and challenges. The duration and nature of these engagements are adaptable and depend on the project’s needs. Each research practice nexus is supported by three post-doctoral fellows, each responsible for one of the theme labs.
However, PhD training is just one of our industry transformation training endeavours. Our mission is to provide sector-wide training. Therefore, we are in the process of developing 156 Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses for comprehensive sector-wide training. These courses will be divided into two categories. Skill-based topics, such as software proficiency and managing ADE practices, will draw from the experience of our colleagues at the Australian Graduate School of Management. Knowledge-based topics will translate research findings from the PhD topics into CPD courses. Currently, we are collaborating with UNSW’s lifelong learning team and the Australian Graduate School of Management to establish a framework including CPD courses, diplomas and graduate certificates.
What do you see as the main challenges of the project – short term and long term?
In the short term, we need to get the project up and running. Fortunately, we already have a highly experienced team in place, led by Dr Ivana Kuzmanovska as the Centre Manager and Farnaz Fattahi as the Executive Lead, who have prepared us to commence next year.
Looking ahead, the primary long-term challenges lie in connecting our research to the broader sector and managing the rapid pace of digital development and digitalisation. To achieve the net-zero goals by 2050 and fulfil our obligations under the COP21 Paris agreement, we must engage every architecture, design and engineering firm and support them in decarbonising the construction process.
Our aim is to develop digital tools, services, processes or methods that can benefit all practices – aiding small and medium-sized enterprises in rural Australia just as effectively as large firms in capital cities. However, creating these solutions in a rapidly evolving digital landscape will be a significant challenge.
We anticipate other challenges in achieving our digital sustainability goals, particularly in the legal and contractual frameworks within which the AEC sector operates. We are actively exploring the legal, social and economic dimensions of a digital sustainability framework for the AEC sector.
What are some of the Centre’s achievements so far? What are your future plans?
We have already achieved some significant milestones. We received an overwhelming response to the call for PhD scholarships, with approximately 180 applicants. From this pool, we have selected 20 PhD candidates who will commence their studies early- to mid-2024. We are particularly proud of the diversity represented within this group, not only in terms of professional expertise, but also with respect to gender, age and cultural background. We believe the varied perspectives derived from this type of diversity will contribute to the strength of research outputs resulting from the collaboration.
All our partners are highly supportive and deeply interested in the project. I recently returned from a trip to Europe, where I had the opportunity to visit our international academic partners and several firms. It was truly gratifying to witness the enthusiasm and interest from everyone regarding our work and future plans.
Digital Sustainability Framework
We view this project not merely as a five-year research endeavour but as a mission to develop a digital sustainability framework for the AEC sector. This framework must be completed and set in place by 2050 to align with the cut-off date for achieving net-zero emissions and fulfilling the obligations of the COP21 Paris agreement. The critical focus of this mission is the decarbonisation of the construction process through minimised emissions, while reducing reliance on non-renewable resources and mitigating waste generation.
This pursuit is not without its challenges. Issues with meeting project deadlines, budget constraints, and public expectations often clash with decarbonisation objectives. We must undertake simultaneous efforts to effectively address these challenges, while understanding the intricate relationship between decarbonisation, productivity and efficiency.
To effectively achieve policy targets, the transformation of decarbonised construction from a customised approach to a widespread market solution is crucial. This highlights a discrepancy between academic knowledge and its practical application. The previously mentioned focus group interviews uncovered a significant obstacle in scaling decarbonised building methodologies. It became apparent that this scaling requires navigating the fragmented and risk-averse ADE industry, where firms’ business models frequently deviate from or contradict decarbonisation principles. To fulfil policy targets, decarbonised construction’s current bespoke status must be transcended, and a viable mass market solution established. Bridging the gap between academic knowledge and practical implementation becomes essential in addressing this divide. Unless this gap is addressed and ADE business models are aligned with decarbonisation efforts, decarbonisation will remain a rhetorical commitment. Thus, implementing a clear and pragmatic business strategy centred around Digital Sustainability is crucial for meaningful progress.
Again, Digital Sustainability is a transformative approach that harnesses digitalisation to achieve sustainability goals in the AEC sector. This approach enables the delivery of sustainable outcomes that align with evolving societal needs. It also provides a contemporary framework for critically discussing and evaluating individual and collective needs.
Acknowledging that architecture encompasses strategic decision-making beyond physical space allocation, the role of practice directors in coordinating the adoption of digital tools is crucial. Digitalisation involves more than tool usage; it requires a clear and comprehensive digital strategy.
Thus, a transformative shift is imperative in the AEC industry’s business operations. Firms need to be empowered with defined strategies and toolsets that integrate research findings into their practices to incorporate decarbonisation efforts.
We have a long journey ahead of us, and our plan involves building capacity and expertise beyond only architectural manufacturing (the ARC research project currently funded) but also in a more holistic approach. Digital Sustainability explores business opportunities arising from digital transformation in Architecture, Design and Engineering. Our aim is to re-evaluate business models, capitalising on technology investments for financial gains while simultaneously enhancing energy efficiency, reducing carbon emissions, and minimising material waste. Furthermore, our approach facilitates the transition to renewable energy, allowing localised distribution within the built environment and aligning with broader energy transition objectives.
Architectural Business Research
To address these objectives, our future strategy is to integrate four areas of focus for decarbonising building methods: Designing for Computational Efficiency, Sourcing Greener Materials, Prefabrication 2.0 and Robotics, and Next-Gen Architectural Manufacturing. These areas form our architectural business research, paving the way for a digital sustainability business framework for ADE enterprises.
This framework will address the current issue of research results rarely being applied in practice, by providing a defined strategy.
- For Designing for Computational Efficiency, we aim to investigate how next generation design software optimises architectural and engineering workflows by integrating real time carbon, pricing, and other specification data into the earliest design stages. Emerging solutions automate design and engineering documentation workflows, de-risking the use of green materials for non-experts.
- For Sourcing Greener Materials, we believe that green procurement solutions enable project teams to meet increased regulatory requirements for lifecycle assessments by benchmarking traditional polluting materials against green or recycled alternatives. Emerging solutions integrate design software, material marketplaces, tendering platforms, and just-in-time material delivery services.
- Lastly, for Prefabrication 2.0 and Robotics, we explore how next generation prefabrication and 3D printing robotics can standardise construction processes while enabling highly diverse building outputs. By integrating with existing manufacturing supply chains and design software, Prefab 2.0 startups make it easier for non-experts to design using green materials and prefabricated components.
We have already made significant progress by securing funding for vertical, applied projects that build upon the foundational research conducted in the three theme labs: synthesis, management and analytics. One of these projects is a AUS$6 million CRC-P research initiative focused on 3D printing houses in remote environments using locally sourced materials, in collaboration with our industry partner, Luyten 3D. Additionally, a smaller, six-figure research project, funded by Infrastructure NSW and Multiplex, is dedicated to designing and fabricating the ‘BioShelter,’ an artificial habitat for marine species for the new Sydney Fish Market.
To effectively manage these and other applied projects, we are in the process of establishing a computational design office at UNSW. This office will bridge the gap between experimental teaching, the development of proof of concept, and the generation of scientific evidence in research, all with practical applications in mind.