Esther McVey is wrong about architecture in every dimension – writes Robert Adam, Building Design

October 4, 2019

The housing minister’s much-ridiculed discovery of ‘3D architects’ betrays a deeper misunderstanding, writes Robert Adam

Esther McVey’s 3D architects “doing it with it on a computer” is rather like someone who has just discovered milk comes from cows. We all know that for decades architects have been taking up the most useful advances in digital technology, from the Sinclair calculator in the mid-70s to Rhino 6 last year.

McVey, like many architects, thinks that digital technology is a kind of fairy dust that sprinkled liberally will turn us all into Wonder Woman or Superman. In the end, however, buildings have to be designed by people who are trained to understand things in three dimensions, know how they can be put together and how they will stand up to wear and tear. Modelling programs can be a great help but are of little use without basic human intelligence.

Like all technology, digital technology only does what you want to do better and cheaper. And like all technologies it has its own advantages, limitations and characteristics. Digital product development supported by digital marketing can, as shown in Larry Downs and Paul Nunes’ book Big Bang Disruption, move very rapidly indeed, from experiment to obsolescence in a matter of months. This is a timescale unsuited to the construction industry where buildings generally take months and even years to design and years to build. New products that must stand in the open air for decades cannot be tested in months, however rapid their invention and production.

Add to this the idea that prefabrication will solve our housing problems. The call for prefabrication goes back to the years after the Second World War and, indeed, long before. The construction industry has been responding to it all this time. But it is doing so in sync with the facts of the industry. Trussed rafters and plasterboard are prefabricated construction. Sometimes large investment in factories to produce limited large-scale products falls foul of seven- to 10-year cycles of recession, whereas small-scale products are inherently more flexible and manufacture can more easily expand and contract.

There is no doubt that the use of digital technology can offer much more flexibility in product manufacture and that the quality of factory production can be much better than work produced by transient labour in a muddy rainy field. But it is as well to understand that different things work at different timescales.

On the one hand we have the extraordinary speed of development and production offered by digital technology, but we also have the lesser speed of erecting large, complex and often quite individual objects fixed down to and plumbed into variable bits of ground, and add to that the much slower speed of their lifespan. We can make large quality-controlled building elements in factories, but we also have a cyclical economy that affects investment and product take-up.

We should not be fooled into thinking that the latest technical developments in one discipline feed through automatically and in the same form to another. We mustn’t let the god of speed, which comes with its evil alter ego obsolescence, make us forget the importance of longevity – the elephant (and not the rhino) in the room of sustainability.

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