Posts tagged with "Technology":

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Robots prevail in our society, but what roles can they really play?

Amelie Klein is a curator at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, and she organized the show Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine, a centerpiece of the Vienna Biennale. The Architect's Newspaper (AN) sat down with Klein to discuss robots and the speculation that comes along with them. The Architect’s Newspaper: What role does speculation play in your new exhibition Hello, Robot., which is on view now as part of the Vienna Biennale? Amelie Klein: Well, it is funny because dealing with robots is inherently dealing with a lot of speculation. But our definition of “robot” is very broad, so it is not always so clear. What is a robot? Architect Carlo Ratti says there are three criteria: A robot must have sensors that gather; intelligence that interprets; and actuators, or tools, that produce a reaction. This is slightly different than what we usually consider to be a robot, which is more about doing something physical or having artificial intelligence. But if we look at the smartphone as a robot, we are not in the speculative; we are talking about the real. However, at the same time, the stuff we see that resembles science fiction robots is built to work for like five days, usually at a fair next to a highly sophisticated technician who will help make it run. So in that regard, it is not really as advanced as we might think. If you look at what is around, it is mostly all super fragile and doesn’t work at all. So robotics today is inherently speculative. But what about design? What role does design play in realizing new futures? Bruce Sterling always says, “Science fiction is never about the future, it is always about the present.” Speculation is looking at the present and taking it one step further. Paola Antonelli once gave a presentation in the mid-’90s about the future of work. She had commissioned a piece to Hella Jongerius, who came up with a bed with a screen built into the piece of furniture. Today, that is ridiculous to think of having [a bed with] a built-in screen, but at the same time we all work in bed. So people are articulating these ideas in a way that corresponds to our own reality today. Since the modernism movement, we have had this fetish of function—as if functionality is what makes design. I don’t think this is a very useful concept for what design can offer. Design practices like Dunne + Raby and Superflux use speculative design to talk about how we deal with our physical environment now. They are asking some very important questions, which has liberated design from this fetish of functionality. Do you see the same level of speculative thinking in architecture? There is certainly speculative thinking, such as Greg Lynn’s work or the Vertical Village. Archigram and Ant Farm were also highly speculative. In general, in the 1970s there were radical architects, but maybe this is not so prevalent anymore. What we have found in our research for this show is really well-researched architecture that isn’t necessarily speculative, it‘s just real—such as parametricism. We had this moment when all these architects came up with a new aesthetic that was born from the digital. But now people are really bored with that and they are looking at what else we can do with that technology. If you look at what Ratti is doing, he says that the medieval city will always look like the medieval city, but we will just use it differently. What is really new is actually invisible. The same is true for design. We might have new gadgets, but it might be more about how we interact with these objects, not how things look. It is interesting. It is almost impossible to build architecture that relates to technology, because it ends up obsolete with a few years and must be retrofit. Achim Menges is dealing with some of these issues at the University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Computational Design and Construction. He is asking, “What does it mean to have larger cities, and how will we deal with having to construct more buildings?” It is less about speculation; it is very much about nuts and bolts in a very architectural way. He is thinking about how we can use architecture like nature uses material. For example, every building is built to carry maximum weight, which is a waste of material. He looks at how we can save material. How much room for innovation is there? So we can speculate about new ways of making? I rarely get excited about a chair, unless it totally rethinks how to make a chair, such as the CurVoxels 3-D Printed Cantilever Chair, which is based on an algorithm that feeds into a robot that prints it in the air. It does for furniture design what Menges is doing for architecture. CurVoxels Design Research Group took the Panton Chair by Vernor Panton and tested a new method [of fabrication] with a very traditional chair. It is like the old analogy of the iron bridge, where it looks like a wooden bridge, even though it’s made of this new material. We are figuring out still what the possibility of these materials is and what that might mean for making and what that might mean for aesthetics. So how can design speculate about the city? One thing that is very fresh and prescient is a project by Dunne & Raby called United Micro Kingdoms, where they reimagined how four communities would live. For example, the digitarians would have a society that was quite authoritarian. It is also kind of neoliberal, as they are obsessed with cost efficiency, etc. It raises issues that we might not be thinking about, like how do we pay for autonomous vehicles? We may not own these self-driving cars—we might have to share and rent them. We have these great visions of the city without congestion and everything is running smoothly, but it likely won’t happen that way. We will probably see something more like what Dunne & Raby came up with, which is very easyJet-like, with bare-bones amenities. If you pay more, it might be luxurious with more privacy and speed. This is how we live today, so why would it change? There is hope. Superflux was invited by one of the Arab Emirates to give a presentation about potential cities of the future. They suggested that cars must be given up, and these oil sheiks, who are filthy rich, said, “Forget it! I am not going to do that, my son is not going to do that!” Superflux anticipated this and, working with scientists and physicists, created a series of air samples that illustrated what the air would smell like if we don’t change our present habits. It worked to convince them. The sheiks didn’t want their sons [sic] to live in air like that. This can be very powerful, if designers look to social progress rather than simply working within the neoliberal or market frameworks. All this technology is being sold as changing the world, but how are Airbnb or Uber changing the world? They are undermining conventions in society that we have worked for centuries to install. They are not saving the world, they are taking us steps backwards, and it is causing disenchantment and disappointment. Critical thinking is all we have to avoid these hyper-efficient futures. The experiments might be inefficient, but we need that and we need speculation to move forward.
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A tiny start-up partners with Peterbilt to roll out self-driving big rigs

As of 2015, over 70 percent of all freight transported in the U.S. was moved by truck. That represents a whopping $726 billion in gross revenues from trucking alone, and each year, trucks haul everything from consumer goods to livestock over billions of miles in the United States. All of those numbers are growing—so much so, that according to the American Trucking Associations, the industry is running into a major driver shortage. Long hours, days away from home, and the stress of driving 80,000 pounds at 70 miles per hour is not for everyone, but one company is hoping to make the task easier through automation. Embark, a small startup based in Silicon Valley, is led by a number of engineering school dropouts. Its goal is to develop affordable semi-autonomous semis using neural-net–based deep learning technology. By developing hardware that can be fitted onto existing truck models, and software that learns as it goes, Embark has quickly and cheaply developed some of the most promising autonomous vehicles in the world. “Analyzing terabyte upon terabyte of real-world data, Embark’s DNNs have learned how to see through glare, fog, and darkness on their own,” said Alex Rodrigues, CEO and co-founder of Embark, in a statement that coincided with the introduction of the technology this spring. “We’ve programmed them with a set of rules to help safely navigate most situations, safely learn from the unexpected, and how to apply that experience to new situations going forward.” Rather than try to replace drivers, or redesign the trucks or roads, Embark is focusing on working with what already exists. Collaborating with Texas-based truck manufacturer Peterbilt, Embark is retrofitting the popular 579 semi models with sensors cameras and computers that can read existing roads and take over driving tasks from long-haul drivers. When the trucks must navigate more complex urban settings, the human driver takes back command. This focus on solving the open-road problem, instead of the entire range of driving situations, has streamlined the development process. Currently Embark is one of only three companies permitted to test autonomous 18-wheeler semis on the highways of Nevada (the other two companies being Freightliner and Uber). With the Peterbilt collaboration and a recent announcement of $15 million in additional financing, Embark has become one of the leaders in the race to automate transportation. While Google, Tesla, and a slew of other car companies target the finicky consumer market, Embark has its sights squarely on a market struggling to keep up with demand. With hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, and billions of pounds of freight being moved, it seems only likely that it will be the self-driving truck, not sports car, that we will be seeing on the road sooner rather than later.  
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New timber research finds exciting potential in steel and concrete composites

With mass timber projects on the rise around the United State, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and Oregon State University (OSU) have partnered to produce two new reports on how timber buildings can overcome their technical limitations by integrating steel and concrete. The new composite systems being proposed would allow timber construction to rise higher than before, with longer floor spans. The OSU Testing Report, released earlier this month, looked into the possibility of combining cross-laminated timber (CLT) floor systems with a concrete topper, to improve the strength of the flooring as well as lengthen its span. To accurately represent real-world conditions, the SOM team first drew up plans for a “typical” 11-story residential building and indicated where the wood columns would normally be. With the floor span determined, the CLT flooring was stress tested for load, bending, cracking and shearing, before and after the application of a concrete slab. A 2.25-inch thick concrete layer was applied over a 6.75-inch thick CLT floor for the experiment. After testing smaller, individual sections, an eight-foot-by-36-foot full-sized mockup was created and subjected to load testing, only failing after engineers applied eight times the normal service load, or around 82,000 pounds of pressure. One complicating factor is that CLT can be charred for a higher fire rating at the expense of its strength, and any real-world application of CLT would need to be thicker than in testing conditions. Still, the results are a promising first step to increasing floor spans in timber buildings as well as improving their acoustic properties. The second report was produced in conjunction with the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) and examined how steel framing can best be integrated with timber floor systems. Because steel framing can span much greater distances than timber with smaller columns, and because CLT is lighter than concrete, a building that uses both should get the best of both worlds. In SOM’s modeling, this combination model was equally as strong as a steel and concrete building while offering window bays of the same size as a typical residential building. Ideally, high-rise timber construction of the future would combine both of these techniques, as the concrete slab topper adds extra seismic protection. With timber construction offering the potential for more sustainable, durable and quickly assembled towers, hybrid research could be a stepping stone towards bringing mass timber construction into the mainstream. All of SOM’s timber research reports can be found here.
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How will autonomous vehicles change the way architects think about cities?

City planning operates on decades-long cycles, while infrastructure is typically built out using forecasts that extend current trends. If self-driving vehicles are poised to deliver the revolution in urban transportation that Silicon Valley has been promising, how should urban infrastructure accommodate them? With less parking spots needed, how can designers effectively reclaim this urban space? Anticipating the Driverless City, a recent conference hosted by the AIA New York (AIANY), brought together Uber executives, planners, architects, and policymakers in pursuit of a holistic approach to adapting to life with autonomous vehicles. Speakers acknowledged the same general themes over and over again, despite their differing backgrounds. With self-driving cars possibly arriving in New York City by early 2018 and real-world tests already happening in other cities, one of the most discussed topics was the need to plan for an autonomous future as soon as possible. Nico Larco, co-director of the Sustainable Cities Initiative, stressed that "planners think in 30-year increments, and autonomous vehicles are already hitting the streets today. Urban planners should be terrified." Autonomous vehicles will touch on every facet of urban life, from water management through the reduction of impermeable roads, to electrical grid infrastructure, and drastically reshape the economy. Larco, and many others throughout the event spoke of the need for government to begin working with planners and policymakers to redesign cities from the ground-up. Leaning on a "people, places, policy" framework is a good starting point, as architects and planners can strategize about how autonomous vehicles could possibly affect each of the three. Sam Schwartz, former NYC Traffic Commissioner and founder of transit planning firm Sam Schwartz Engineering, described how a future society with self-driving cars could tilt towards "good," "bad," or "ugly" outcomes. The ideal scenario would be one where the use of autonomous vehicles has encouraged mass transportation use, acting to move commuters to and from high-capacity transit corridors. Because self-driving cars can pack tighter and don’t need to park, streets would be narrowed and the extra space converted to public parkland. Conversely, in a world where autonomous vehicles are owned only by individuals, pedestrians might be walled off from the street, and our roads might be more packed than ever. According to Jeff Tumlin, principal and director of strategy at Nelson/Nygaard, the way we think about self-driving cars directly stems from concepts first presented at the 1939 World’s Fair. Nearly 80 years later, architects and planners wanting to design for a future with self-driving cars, busses, and trains, will need to go beyond simply extending our current car culture.
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Boston-area smart city aims at city’s booming tech sector

While tech giant Alphabet recently announced it would develop 12 acres of Toronto waterfront into a smart-city-technology testing ground, a similar undertaking has already begun 12 miles south of Boston. Developer LStar Ventures has big plans to turn this 1,500-acre site, dubbed Union Point (formerly South Weymouth Naval Air Station), into a “smart” development that will specially cater to technology companies. On the surface, the project is an eco-friendly exurban development with a leafy, bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly mixed-use master plan. In addition to offering housing, retail, residences, restaurants, three million square feet of office space, and eight million square feet of commercial development, Union Point would connect to Boston—and its booming tech industry scene—via a nearby MBTA commuter rail. Boston-based Elkus Manfredi and Watertown, Massachusetts–based Sasaki are master planning Union Point and working with engineering firms such as Arup, Vanderweil Engineers, and VHB on a range of sustainable features, including natural, on-site wastewater treatment systems. However, where Union Point really sets itself apart is in its information technology infrastructure. The city will lay the foundations for its tenants to use its streets and buildings as testing grounds for smart city technology. In addition to omnipresent wi-fi, “Union Point will have a site-wide fiber-optic cabling system to support commercial tenants, building assets, and IoT [Internet of Things] systems,” said David Wilts, associate principal and digital master planning leader at Arup. In other words, companies will be able to install sensors to collect data on air quality and building performance, and even be able to set up public digital signage. In this way, Union Point could easily support smart city ventures similar to Chicago’s Array of Things sensor network or New York City’s LinkNYC towers. The first stage of development is a $25 million sports complex designed by Elkus Manfredi and Sasaki that will feature multiple fields, including a rugby pitch, playground, park, restaurant, and renovated gymnasium. Including this complex was crucial in the two-year process of getting local communities on board with the development; its fields will be available to the three nearby towns at reduced leasing rates. Technology, however, is a notoriously fickle thing to design into a project. For example, the video-call screens installed in Korea’s smart city mega-development Songdo are already obsolete. But Union Point hopes to avoid that by only laying the groundwork for its tenants. “LStar Ventures aspires to be the leader in the practical application of technology that we know, that we can imagine, and that is beyond today’s imagination,” said David Manfredi, founding principal at Elkus Manfredi. “That is why the armature that we create must be flexible, durable, and adaptable over time.” The Boston-area is no stranger to smart city developments, as the 45-acre Cambridge Crossing tech hub was also unveiled this year.
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Experimental Swiss apartment wants to bring timber into the 21st century

The Wood Materials Science department at ETH Zurich in Switzerland is pioneering new ways of utilizing timber and wood construction by imbuing the traditional material with extraordinary properties using its new Vision Wood apartment prototype. The multidisciplinary team—guided by department head Tanja Zimmermann and wood materials science professor Ingo Burget, and joined by a slew of industry partners—developed the prototype apartment in an effort to find new uses for the continent’s abundant, but mostly underutilized, beech lumber. Beech lumber is a hard and versatile wood with superb structural capabilities, but it is also prone to sun damage, rot, and warping. To combat these maladies, the team developed a slew of experimental applications of beech wood building components that have been waterproofed, magnetized, and mineralized in order to broaden their residential applications. The team, for example, subjected the wood to laccase-catalyzed reactions in order to derive a wood fiber–based insulation that eliminates the need for synthetic binding agents. The fully sustainable biopolymers—made from lignin compounds and modified starch naturally found in wood—were molded into tongue-and-groove-shaped insulation blocks that can be packed into building cavities, providing a nontoxic insulation material. Another innovation came in the form of an exterior-cladding coating application developed from gelatinous nanofibrillated cellulose. The varnish improves UV protection, waterproofing, and resistance to microorganism infestations and cracks for exterior wood treatments. The apartment interiors—which will be occupied by a pair of doctoral students—are rife with new applications, including antimicrobial wood surfaces treated with an enzymatic method developed by university researchers that utilizes a bacteriostatic iodine coating to kill bacteria. The application has been used on door handles in kitchens and bathrooms in the unit in an effort to improve indoor hygiene. The apartment features hydrophobic wood sinks in the bathroom that have been treated in situ with polymerizing agents that not only repel water from their surfaces but are also designed to give the appearance of untreated wood. The researchers inserted iron oxide nanoparticles into wooden blocks to develop a magnetized task board that utilizes the natural structure of wood to create a material that can be selectively magnetized as well. On top of that, the team developed a fire-resistant mineralized wood panel system that can be used for doors and other interior applications in lieu of toxic flame-retardants. This panel system can be entirely sourced and fabricated in Switzerland and features reduced dimensions relative to traditional lumber construction due to the wood’s structural capabilities. In all, the test apartment points a way forward for wood construction that relies on abundant and local wood sources, while also pursuing sustainable and nontoxic material applications.
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One of Boston’s biggest developments will bring a tech hub to the city’s “last frontier”

Cambridge Crossing, a 45-acre development at the nexus of Cambridge, Boston, and Somerville, will provide another hub of tech and life sciences to the greater Boston area. The San Francisco-based developer, Divco West, has already begun construction on two structures within the complex as of this week, including a 430,000-square-foot office building intended to house science and tech groups. CBT Architects are the designers behind the master plan. Previously dubbed NorthPoint, the mega-development will include 4.5 million square feet of mixed-used space. Divco West has pitched the project as a more affordable alternative to Kendall Square, a neighborhood further south in Cambridge housing large tech companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook, alongside pharmaceutical companies and start-ups. Cambridge Crossing will include five office buildings and nearly 2,400 condos or apartments. There will also be extensive ground-level retail space including restaurants and shops. Eleven acres have been set aside for a public park at the campus' center. "We've had some very good interest from prospective tenants already," Tom Sullivan, Divco West's president of development, told The Boston Globe. Office space within the development has been largely marketed toward tech, life science, and research groups, all thriving industries in Boston. The site could also potentially house part of Amazon's second headquarters, but not all of it–the tech giant's RFP requested up to eight million square feet of office space. In 2015, Divco West paid $291 million for the total acreage, which includes 17 individual parcels across what has been described as Cambridge's "last frontier"–the city's largest remaining infill development. The site will be even more accessible with the relocation of a Green Line light rail stop four minutes away. Plans for the development are moving through staggered permitting processes in each of the three cities involved. There is no set timeline for construction yet. Divco West expects the development to garner interest among organizations seeking cheaper spaces with more amenities in the increasingly expensive rental landscape of Boston.
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Specsheet >Customizable HVAC systems and innovative weather barriers

CÔR WI-FI THERMOSTAT Carrier
The latest version of the Carrier Côr wi-fi thermostat is enabled to work with Apple HomeKit. Users can utilize iOS-enabled devices to control their Côr thermostat from anywhere with the iOS 10 Home app or Siri on iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch. The HomeKit technology is end-to-end encrypted with authentication between the heating and cooling system and the iOS device.
SKYLINE SLIM TILE FACADE Neolith These thin tile facades feature large Neolith slabs with near-zero porosity, making them resistant to changes in temperatures and extreme weather conditions, sun exposure, scratches, graffiti, and warping. The tiles are also surface-treated with a Pureti coating to reduce the effects of pollutants and decrease long-term maintenance costs.
 
VRP Friedrich Friedrich recently launched a variable refrigerant packaged (VRP) heat pump system, a total HVAC solution that also incorporates air and humidity controls. It includes a precision inverter compressor that reduces sound, and combines variable refrigerant flow designed for hospitality, multifamily, and commercial applications.
SMART VENT Keen Home Keen Home is introducing a wireless, app-enabled zoning system that redirects airflow to regulate individual room temperature. Powered by AA batteries, the Smart Vents conveniently create a Zig-Bee mesh network controlled via a smartphone app. The app provides open-close controls that can be programmed with daily schedules to close vents based on room occupancy. Aerodynamic airfoil louvers ensure quiet operation and airflow.
LONGOTON TERRA-COTTA RAINSCREEN FACADE SYSTEM Shildan/Moeding Longoton is a high-performance terra-cotta facade panel system that can be incorporated in horizontal and vertical configurations and also function as a rain-screen. The panels are available in 16 standard colors, custom colors, custom glazing, and standard and varying finishes and profiles.
TDP05K Ruskin Eight moisture-resistant flex sensors and multiple velocity and temperature points make these thermal dispersion airflow and temperature measuring probes super-accurate. The TDP05K probe can measure a velocity range of from 0 to 5,000 FPM and will display the flow and temperature at each sensing point.
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Adam Greenfield’s new book questions our bright technological future

Technology is never value-neutral, and yet American culture often embraces new technologies as if they do not contain the seeds of every other aspect of American life and were freed of messy political and social consequences. The sort of pervasive technological positivism is inextricably tied to a certain spectrum of political philosophy, namely of the neoliberal and libertarian variety. The technocracy that worried many philosophers in the 20th century has now arrived, and it is potentially scarier than any of them could have even imagined. Adam Greenfield is a leading critical voice on technology. Employed as a consultant for urban planning, design, technology and architectural firms, Greenfield has been in the trenches of emerging technology. He has conducted research for firms like Razorfish and Nokia, and taught at New York University and the London School of Economics. He has been a critical voice among urbanists on the use of urban data and smart cities, and for the past 15 years, he has run the thoughtful and influential blog Speedbird.  In his book-length essay, Against the Smart City (2015), he analyzed the proposals of many (still unrealized) smart cities and projected the dystopias they could become. He took the ephemera, renderings, and brochures at face value, analyzing the technologies and value claims made by the companies promising brightly-rendered automated futures.  His latest book Radical Technologies (2017) allows us to contextualize the present moment of technophilia and how this set of technologies have radically transformed or disrupted everyday life. Chapters are divided up by technologies such as smartphones, automation, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, digital fabrication, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Each chapter takes readers through how each technology works and though the social and political implications that these transformative technologies pose. Throughout the book, Greenfield constructs a complex argument for critical engagement with technologies by laying out the best and worst-case scenarios for each technology. He is at his most convincing, however, in his big-picture skepticism. The zeitgeist of our moment is a general trust in business and technology leaders to change things for the better, and technologies offer an easy fix in place of uncomfortable political compromises. Technology is often used a band-aid in place of policy or to fill the void of ethical debate. We are told that the best one can hope for are nudges for certain types of behavioral improvement as we cheer on far-reaching automation for seamlessness, efficiency, and profit. These “world-changing” technologies rely heavily on the belief that they bring something positive into the world or at least require the trust that their convenience outweighs the consequences. However, they are unleashed onto the world because they support the growth of a post-Fordist capitalism as it accelerates toward a more automated future, one that Greenfield calls the “post-human everyday.” Most early adopters take it in faith that technology creators have our interest and enjoyment in mind. However, the technology sector (like architecture) often doesn't care about its unintended effects. Although Greenfield rarely touches on the specific ways that these technologies inform architectural practice, each of the areas he covers has major implications for our field—whether to open up new job specializations or market opportunities, or how they will radically transform our aesthetic tastes and disrupt our belief systems and ethics. Technology's impact can be seen everywhere from Patrik Schumacher’s declaration of “parametricism as a philosophy” to the way that nearly every large design firm now has a technology wing and research groups, spinning off tech startups wildly into the ether. The ubiquity of digital fabrication, IoT, AR/VR, and smart phones has already reshaped huge portions of the AEC industry and will continue to shape it in technology’s image. Inherent in being a critic of technology is that one can be wildly wrong in a very short amount of time. Technologies often change rapidly (sometimes within months), fall into disuse or disappear as they are superseded. What this means for writing about technology is that observations will easily feel dated. Criticism of technology remains at its most useful when it contextualizes the ways that technology is everyday life—the ways that is it is part of society. Greenfield’s guide to the everyday after the iPhone and technologies like it is an important piece of critical thinking that should resonate widely. Greenfield will be speaking about Radical Technologies in NYC on September 14th-16th. Thursday, September 14th 7-9pm: Verso Loft Friday, September 15th 1pm: Columbia University GSAPP with Laura Kurgan Saturday, September 16th 7-9pm: McNally Jackson Books with Aimee Meredith Cox
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Meet the honorable mentions in our 2017 Best of Product Awards!

Last week we shared the winning designs from our largest-ever Products Awards across 15 sundry categories, including technology, textiles, HVAC, furniture, facades, and more. Scroll through the slideshow to see the the honorable mentions from each category, evaluated by our team of judges for innovation, aesthetics, performance, and value. You can find our winners and honorable mentions featured in our September issue—out September 6! The Best of Products Awards Jury: James Biber Partner, Biber Architects Olivia Martin Managing Editor, The Architect’s Newspaper William Menking Editor in Chief, The Architect’s Newspaper Patrick Parrish Owner, Patrick Parrish Gallery Tucker Viemeister Founder, Viemeister Industries Pilar Viladas Design writer and editor HONORABLE MENTIONS To view images of all honorable mentions, please click through the slideshow above. Finishes & Surfaces CONDUCT by Flavor Paper PUZZLE by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby for Mutina for Stone Source Bath LINEA SHOWER BASE by Fiora VERGE WITH WASHBAR by Bradley Corp. Lighting SYMMETRY by Visa Lighting LIFT WITH BIOS by Pinnacle Architectural Lighting Textiles SIGNATURE & LEGACY COLLECTIONS by KnollTextiles SHADE by Chilewich Openings GPX FIREFLOOR SYSTEM by Safti First CURVED by Vitrocsa Technology & Innovation MATTERPORT PRO2 3D CAMERA by Matterport PORTABLE ULTRA SHORT THROW PROJECTOR by Sony Kitchen 4-DOOR FLEX REFRIGERATOR by Samsung VERTICAL BAR BLOCK by Henrybuilt Interior Commercial Furniture GLASSCUBE by CARVART KANSO BENCH by HBF Interior Residential Furniture STEMN SERIES by Fyrn DICHROIC TABLE by Rottet Collection Structural FIRE AND WATER BARRIER TAPE by 3M SCHLUTER-DITRA-HEAT-DUO by Schluter Systems Smart Home Systems EVOLVED MINNEAPOLIS FULL ESCUTCHEON HANDLESET by Baldwin Hardware PANOVISTA MAX by Renson Facades PHOTOVOLTAIC FACADE by Onyx Solar TRIANGULAR RAINSCREEN PANEL by Shildan HVAC EME3625DFL LOUVER by Ruskin AIRFLOW PANEL by Architectural Applications Outdoor Public GO OUTDOORTABLE by Landscape Forms ULURU by Metalco srl/id metalco, Inc. Outdoor Residential CLOUD BENCH by Bend Goods VERTICAL LOUNGER by DEESAWAT  
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Architects must redesign their profession before technology does

This is the third column of “Practice Values,” a bi-monthly series by architect and technologist Phil Bernstein. The column focuses on the evolving role of the architect at the intersection of design and construction, including subjects such as alternative delivery systems and value generation. Bernstein was formerly vice president at Autodesk and now teaches at the Yale School of Architecture.

Disabling (Professional) Expertise

In 1977, social critic Ivan Illich argued that the mid-20th century should be named “The Age of Disabling Professions,” asking whether “if this age, when needs were shaped by professional design, will be remembered with a smile or with a curse.” Illich’s skepticism about the importance and role of doctors, lawyers, and architects was an inflection point in the ascendance of the professional class that began with the industrialization of America. What followed for architects—who, at just about the same time as Illich’s query, were subjected to the emergence of alternative forms of project delivery (like design-build), new incumbents treading on our turf (like construction managers), and influence from extrinsic forces (like lawyers and insurance companies)—was several decades of existential angst with which we are all familiar.

Forty years later, there are more architects, and more work for us, than ever—yet the existential angst remains: If recessions, construction managers, and liability insurance underwriters didn’t manage to dismantle the profession, now what? Answering that question comes the Oxford duo of Richard and Daniel Susskind and their 2015 tome The Future of the Professions, an exhaustive examination of how the broad influences of digital technology may be the end-of-times challenge to the professional class so desired by Illich. The Susskinds argue that it will not be a loss of faith in architects, lawyers, and accountants, but rather the broad democratization of expertise through big data and data sharing, expert systems, and automation that will “transform the work of human experts.” As knowledge work begins the same transfiguration in the world of computation that manufacturing experienced with machine automation, the bespoke relationships curated by architects with clients will be circumvented by widely accessible knowledge systems, architects will no longer be the anointed “gatekeepers” of professional knowledge or judgment, and the increasing complexity of building problems will face economic pressures demanding that architects provide even more service for less money. Large swaths of professional services will be routinized by computers, further decomposing those services into discrete automated tasks. New systems of design and construction delivery will reconstitute from traditional professional scopes disintermediated by algorithms and big data.

But if the essential value of architects is our ability to design—see the world creatively, synthesize disparate information, generate new and innovative ideas—aren’t we safe from this digital onslaught? Not so fast, according to the Susskinds, who ask, “To what problem is judgment the solution?” They cite the 60 million disputes on eBay resolved with automated mediation (and no lawyers), medical advice dispensed by WebMD on smart phones around the world, or the online tax-preparation software used by millions of taxpayers each year; many of these folks would have never dreamt of hiring a lawyer or an accountant. And this is the core of their argument: Technology will democratize expertise, making it available to many more recipients than could ever by curated by 1:1 professional relationships.

Since society created the professional class to codify and distribute professional expertise, shouldn’t this trend to democratization be embraced? And since architects design a small percentage of the built environment, isn’t this trend, in theory, all for the good? Should architects cede our authority to algorithms, it’s likely we’ll lose all control and influence over the forces that often reduce great design aspirations to mediocre results. It is difficult to argue, however, that the changes that automation and the resulting process innovation that the Susskinds predict will put great pressure on the role of our profession while simultaneously eliminating the need for broad swaths of production work like working drawings.

How to respond? As far back as Illich’s original provocation, architects have decried our diminishing influence while embracing new technologies and their opportunities with at best mild enthusiasm and at worst outright hostility. This wave of automation-innovation will be much more profound than CAD or even BIM. Perhaps it offers a chance to deeply examine the value proposition of architecture and architects, and, using our skills, to design our roles in the future supported and accelerated by new technology rather than, once again, threatened by it.

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AN recaps the inaugural Tech+ expo in New York

"If you took GPS out of people's phones now, they would die." That was the bold claim Google's Aaron Luber made at the inaugural Tech+ expo today. Hyperbole? Maybe, but Luber made the point of how dependent we are on technology to navigate the built environment. Moreover, how else does technology impact our surroundings?  Presented by The Architect's Newspaper, the inaugural Tech+ expo saw 500 architects, designers, and tech experts head to Metropolitan West to get the low-down on how technology is shaping the built environment. The day was shaped by industry professionals discussing and showcasing technology that is developing a role within the design process of numerous firms and enhancing client-architecture relationships. Luber estimated that by 2018 almost all Android-based cell phones will be running software called "Tango." This software, he explained, when used with another software package called "Trimble," allows GPS to work in-sync with programs such as AutoCAD to allow clients to view their projects live on-site. Luber called this a "visual positioning service," which, for all intents and purposes, was an augmented reality machine. As for virtual reality, however, a host of VR firms, including Iris VR, Insite, and NVIDIA was present at Tech+ with their stalls showcasing their latest products. VR has, for a while now, been used to enhance the client-architect relationship through walk-throughs and other demonstrations. Despite confessing to being trained in "analog fashion," Keynote speaker Hao Ko of Gensler said: "Maybe the days of drawing plans and sections are gone now, we don't need 2D drawings anymore." Technology, he went on, has enabled us to present more coherent representations to clients. Before architects had to make physical models to enhance the experience, and these models were made at larger and larger scales—something Eero Saarinen was very familiar with, as Ko displayed a picture of the Finnish-American architect's legs sticking out of a model of the TWA terminal. Plans and models, though, can work together too. Graphisoft demonstrated how its software amalgamates section and plan drawings into 3D models, allowing both architects and clients to read what they see at the same time. Using ArchiCAD and exporting to Graphisoft, architects can also share 3D models with those using iPhone's too. Likewise, LERA demonstrated that tuning off layers can reveal construction sequences, among other things. What to take from all this? Ko summed the event up in his keynote: "To make the most of the future, we have to live in it," he said, before going on to describe the NVIDIA California office complex designed by Gensler. "Technology does not wait, and neither should architects."