How New Technologies Are Evolving to Embrace Sustainability in Architecture

When we talk about technology, we often think of robots, supercomputers, data centers or smartphones. But technology also refers to the invention of the first chipped stone tools or the development of the steam engine, which brought about the first Industrial Revolution. The term comes from the combination of the Greek words techne (art, craft) and logos (word, speech) and is nothing more than the application of knowledge to achieve goals in a specific and reproducible way, for practical purposes. In the construction industry, which moves large amounts of resources and people, more technology means incorporating new methods, tools, automation and software that can improve efficiency. As a historically innovation-resistant industry, the construction sector has a huge impact on the environment due to its carbon emissions and exploitation of raw materials. However, as it turns to the digital world, builders have seen technology as a means to optimize practices and identify, build, and manage their projects.

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Data integration of the IGU data into the BIM model of the HQ of Züblin in Stuttgart, Germany. Image © Saint-Gobain; photographer: Olaf Rohl, Aachen

The fundamental principles behind sustainable buildings include reducing resource consumption (energy and water efficiency), maximizing the use of renewable or recyclable resources, protecting the natural environment, and creating a healthy environment for users. This is particularly relevant if one considers the large impact of the industry and buildings on greenhouse gas emissions and the growing demand for new housing around the world, as the urban population continues to increase. As Sami Atiya, president of Robotics and Automation at ABB, points out, "Construction is where the automotive industry was about 50 years ago in terms of the density of robots and automation. It’s coming from a lower base, but it is going to grow much faster." Below we have listed some technologies that can actively contribute to making buildings more sustainable and, even if they are not exactly new, have shown promise.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) and the increased control of processes

Today, BIM is increasingly used to improve the control and management of designs. It is a methodology that digitally and three-dimensionally represents the physical and functional characteristics of a building, allowing professionals from different areas to work together in the elaboration of a precise and detailed virtual model, with valuable information to build and mantain a building. Unlike CAD (Computer Aided Design), which creates two-dimensional lines without distinguishing between elements, BIM incorporates multiple properties into each element, in addition to their graphic representation. This enables users to intelligently manage information throughout a project's lifecycle, automating processes such as programming, conceptual design, detailing, analysis, documentation, manufacturing, construction logistics, operation and maintenance, renovation, and/or demolition.

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Modeled Constructive Elements. Wolf Point East Building / Pappageorge Haymes. Image Cortesia de Graphisoft

Greater project control means less waste of labor and materials, as well as significantly reduced errors.

The technology allows interdisciplinarity between the different fields of knowledge involved in the design. It ends up interfering with the traditional dynamics of project phasing, demanding a review of the stages and their respective scopes. The BIM system has been modernizing and integrating itself more and more into the cloud and with laser scanning, as well as allowing more accurate energy simulations (which interferes with the performance of new buildings).

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OHSU/PSU/OSU Collaborative Life Sciences Building by SERA Architects and CO Architects. Image © SERA Architects

Industrialized, modular and prefabricated construction

Prefabricated buildings are also far from new. Especially after World War II, European and North American countries saw many examples of catalog buildings, mainly residences. Today, however, innovative digital tools are greatly facilitating prefabrication, with the aforementioned BIM allowing for more accurate representation and integration with other stakeholders. This allows the manufacturing of ready or semi-ready modules in factories, reducing construction time and the number of errors and waste. 

The Open Source approach also allows a user anywhere in the world to download a design and manufacture it locally, or receive a DIY kit through e-commerce platforms like Amazon or Alibaba, which can send prefabricated materials to a construction site's doorstep.

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Modular Timber School by gmp Architects. Image © Marcus Bredt

This can also make buildings more versatile, with the possibility of adapting them to the different needs that may arise over time and even to social and regional particularities, through the incorporation of elements (porches, internal courtyards), the distribution of environments or local materials for coatings and structure.

Digital Twins in advanced building methods

When we talk about a “Digital Twin” we refer to an exact digital representation of an object or a physical asset, such as a car, a bridge, or a building. But more than just a simplistic three-dimensional model, it is an informational model, with all the project's details from the planning stage to its operation, maintenance, and information about future use or reuse. Essentially, Digital Twins are dynamic, active entities that evolve in real-time, learning and updating themselves thanks to Artificial Intelligence. They can communicate with their physical twins in order to solve problems before they even occur, evaluate new opportunities, and prepare for the future.

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BIM model of 1 Londsdale Avenue Commercial Building, North Vancouver, BC. Image © KK Law, Courtesy of

In the construction industry, digital twins process the following information, among others: operational data from mechanical, electrical, hydraulic, and HVAC systems; data on parts and maintenance; environmental data obtained with IoT sensors.

According to Renaud Jahan, Chief Information Officer Innovation at Saint-Gobain, “Digital twins make it possible to simulate processes, materials and systems and develop construction scenarios while optimizing energy efficiency, and also provide real evidence data on what the product really is and where it is located on an operative level.”

For example, machine learning algorithms or pre-programmed software sequences can make a climate control system much more economical. In addition to changing the intensity of airflow and temperature depending on the weather, the system can learn and understand the demands of each floor, at any time of day, and even take information from weather models or the possible occupancy of a room during an event. This is particularly important since much of the carbon footprint of buildings is emitted in their operational phase, which typically is not given enough importance.

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Prototype TOVA / Posgrado 3D Printing Architecture IAAC. Image © Gregori Civera, Mehdi Harrak

The incorporation of digital twins to simulate and optimize building performance can directly interfere with the carbon footprint of a constructed building. Through this, it is possible to achieve significant reductions in embodied carbon, which refers to the emissions associated with the entire life cycle of a building, including the extraction and production of raw materials, transportation, construction, use, and end-of-life disposal. This is usually calculated using a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), an assessment methodology structured to measure such impacts. By including information about the materials used in the construction of a building, as well as its energy consumption and operational data, it becomes possible to simulate the environmental impact of different building design and construction scenarios, gaining a more complete understanding of their impact. In addition, the integration of LCA data into three-dimensional models (digital twins) can make insights readily and immediately available.

Applications can also provide essential data to assist in decision-making. The GLASSPRO App and GLASSPRO Live are unique services of Saint-Gobain Glass, bringing new perspectives on building design and glazing prototyping through digital simulation. Accurate predictive glass facade physico-realistic rendering reduces the need for physical glass samples, allowing a sustainable approach for prototyping. Furthermore, it speeds up the decision-making process with regards to selecting the ideal glazing for the façade, with the desired aesthetics corresponding to the intention of the architects and designers.

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Glass Kubus: ©Vincent Bachmatiuk - Urban Scene: ©Vincent Bachmatiuk and Cyril Gendrot - M2 Saint-Gobain Tower: courtesy of Valode et Pistre, image by Vincent Bachmatiuk and Cyril Gendrot

Can 3D printing and robots change the construction industry?

Automation opens up the possibility of experimenting with new aesthetics, reshaping design and construction processes. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the accumulation of layers of a certain material –which can be concrete, plastic, metal, earth, and more. In the construction industry, this is done by using large-scale printers that deposit the materials while following a three-dimensional model created on the computer.

With this, it is possible to optimize the design and reduce the amount of materials by about 40%, and although the costs are still high, it is estimated that there will be a gradual and significant reduction as new mixtures of more durable materials are developed.

Many researchers point to 3D printing as a way to meet the demands of the rapid urbanization that some parts of the world will experience in the coming decades. Especially in developing countries in Africa and Asia, which will experience significant population growth, 3D printing technology can provide buildings that are affordable, flexible, and possibly climate resilient. This not only applies to entire buildings; infrastructure and furniture can also be developed.

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PERI 3D Printing. Image Cortesia de PERI

In addition to extrusion printers, various types of robots are starting to show up on construction sites. In the next decade, we may witness several different inventions in the field of building automation and robotics that will also completely revolutionize the architecture, engineering, and construction businesses, as well as more forays into virtual and augmented reality. From using machines that stack blocks and install window frames, to drones that scan the terrain or the building itself to monitor the progress or safety of the work, the role of the architect and the builders themselves may become more of a manager and mentor, especially in repetitive or cumbersome processes.

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TERMES. Image © Radhika Nagpal
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Cortesia de SCI-Arc
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© Stefano Borghi

Writing an article about technology and innovation can become quickly outdated, since it is inevitable that something will be left out, or that it will be read in a few years' time with disregard or irony. Even if the writer has gone to great lengths to find the most state-of-the-art technologies, something will always be left behind. What we can say without doubt, however, is that the construction sector has enormous untapped potential to improve efficiency and make buildings and cities more sustainable. And while this is a major problem today, it can also become a model and vector of change for a better, more encouraging future.

About this author
Cite: Souza, Eduardo. "How New Technologies Are Evolving to Embrace Sustainability in Architecture" [[PT] How New Technologies Are Evolving to Embrace Sustainability in Architecture] 17 Oct 2023. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884
Modular Eco-Housing . Image Cortesia de Yvonne Witte


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