Our design tools help us to produce designs which, if not carefully considered, are divorced from responsibilities that we as designers have, whether that be its impact on the environment, economy, or society.
Taking sustainability as an example, we are already living through disturbing weather patterns due to a changing climate. The years to come will challenge the occupational comfort of those in our existing building stock as much as those planning to live in the buildings we are designing. Despite the obvious challenges ahead, the tools we currently use to design and develop the urban environment offer little to no native functionality that offers feedback relating to building performance.
Of these tools, only the object modelling tools we use today have a basic understanding of materiality and products, and rely on third party or industry-built applications to understand the embodied and operational carbon impact of our design decisions.
At the same time, the approach to entirely demolish and rebuild upon existing buildings as a default has no future. In fact, almost all projects we now approach are 'retrofit first'; this isn't going anywhere and will likely only increase. To have any genuine conversation with local authorities and (for the right reasons), we spend significant amounts of time analysing how much existing building fabric can be retained vs. replacing appropriate material with a more efficient structure providing more comfortable and efficient spaces. This analysis can take weeks and is a delicate balance that no design software tools support or understand.
This example just relates to the environmental impact of our work. As designers we also have responsibility for the societal and economic impact of our designs, with little in the way of software on the market. These toolsets should not be limited to the few design firms with the resources to build them themselves.
Software that enables responsible design
Future design software should, by default, have a basic understanding of materials, fabric and the ability to provide real time feedback to ensure that a design is aligned with predetermined performance indicators across comfort, environmental impact, social performance, and economic considerations. An environment should be enabled that is free from siloed or disconnected analysis workstreams and models.
Specifically relating to environmental impact, future design software should understand, by default, existing buildings and how retention and refurbishment designs can be facilitated. These tools should effortlessly incorporate and provide feature detection and systems selection from point clouds, existing survey models, LIDAR and photogrammetry data to enable designers from project inception to utilise the existing building data. Tools need to be able to accommodate the imperfections of existing buildings.