The 21st century might see the most significant impact on urban development in the history of humanity. Cities across Canada, North America, and many other countries are facing housing affordability and sustainability challenges that the incumbent construction industry has proven unable to address. The need for urban housing is staggering: the continued shift from rural to urban areas, combined with the overall growth of the world’s population, could add up to an additional 1 trillion sf of housing needed by 2050. With Canada’s population expected to increase to 48 million by 2050, a continued demand in urban housing is also expected.
Our industry is facing several challenges in the coming decades. Aside from the need to develop sustainable and affordable solutions, construction is a fragmented, slow, and risk-averse industry. Low margins and unpredictable markets have incentivized stakeholders to avoid potentially disruptive changes. However, incremental innovation will not be enough to rise to this challenge. With the rising cost of materials, shortage of skilled labor, and more stringent code regulations, the problem is only getting more difficult to solve. Both industry leaders and city planners agree that change is needed to address these challenges with building solutions that are fast to construct, and less expensive to build and operate. Vancouver, for example, has recently enacted the Greenest City Action Plan and the Climate Emergency Action Plan to work towards carbon neutrality.
Intelligent City is taking a unique approach in tackling these challenges. Through the convergence of technological innovation, the company is taking a product and platform-based approach to buildings, acting as a one-stop-shop from design to delivery. By combining the seemingly opposing ideas of repeatable and scalable production with new forms of highly configurable design, engineering, and manufacturing solutions based on mass timber, this approach promises to provide breakthrough innovation to an industry that has been lacking productivity gains for over 75 years.
Product Thinking and Platform-Based Design
When considering buildings as products rather than the accumulation of services from several contractors, the entire value chain of the AECOO industry must be rethought. Instead of assembling a team of consultants for a single project, Intelligent City has developed a building platform with pre-engineered, but variable, solutions for the configuration of buildings between 4 and 18 storeys in height. The key aspect of this development has been the variability of the platform and the product thinking behind it: such upfront investment only makes sense if the platform can be utilized to configure different building designs for various stakeholders in different markets — developers, owner-operators, or non-profit, in Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, or Toronto.
Systematizing and automating construction will not need to result in a one-fits-all solution. With the help of parametric thinking, it can be customized, personalized, or optimized. Parametric software fundamentally enables the interaction between a building platform and its configuration for a project. Parametric, or, generative design, is a process that encodes each design decision as a parameter, clearly defining the relationship between design input and output in the form of an algorithm. Through integration, parametric software can not only be used to sweet-spot building performance or cost efficiency but also enable an interactive work environment in increasingly complex stakeholder situations. Intelligent City sees an untapped potential — particularly in combination with mass timber — to leave behind the formalism of the last decades and instead enable buildings that are low carbon, high performance, and far more cost-efficient.
In other industries, the term “platform-based design” describes an integration-oriented approach to developing products that share compatible hardware or software. This approach establishes a general knowledge base within a company on which variations can be realized. It is also an interdisciplinary process and requires constant exchange between disciplines of design, engineering, and manufacturing.
Intelligent City developed a “parametric platform” for its mass timber building system, which is not defined by a fixed set of building elements and components, but by parameters. For example, the grid spacing can be anywhere between 9ft and 14ft, with no particular steps in between. Similarly, the position of windows, interior products, or material choices can be varied seamlessly. Most importantly, the producibility of building components is crucial for the success of such a platform. To support this new way of thinking, Intelligent City has built one of the first robotically automated manufacturing plants for producing building components in Canada, so that as s a result, the entire value chain from design to construction can be integrated and aligned.
When it comes to BIM integration, parametric design and platform-based development can also have additional advantages. Instead of working on a typical BIM process with iterative input from consultants, the parametric platform can automatically generate “smart” building parts that follow all the established rules. The result goes beyond BIM as it is a fully automated workflow that generates 3D models directly for manufacturing, instead of needing additional translational steps.
When it comes to mass timber construction, several factors have to be taken into account. The parametric mass timber building platform that the company developed for 6-18 storey mixed-use urban housing is compliant with current mass timber high-rise regulations in Canada and the US. This market segment was carefully selected because of its potential for sustainability and density between low-rise sprawl and high-rise concrete. At this height, mass timber buildings excel not only because of their structural performance and fire safety, but because they enable an urban typology that is dense enough for public infrastructure to be economically feasible, and low enough to promote local resilient communities and connectedness.
The convergence of parametric design, platform-based building systems, and manufacturing automation enables a “design system” within which building variations can be designed, analyzed, optimized, and cost out. Having advanced knowledge about critical project data from the earliest stages of the design, allows our clients a highly informed decision-making process. This kind of integrated and parametric thinking enables scalability and mass customization at the same time. This is key for a new technology to take a foothold in the AECOO industry. While we respond to local needs, we must think global.
When design, engineering, materiality, and construction converge within a vertically integrated company, buildings can become products. Like a laptop, phone, or car, the resulting design and quality of a building becomes as important as its manufacturing process. For buildings, however, the product should not embody a singular solution, but each iteration can be unique in its expression through the integration of parametric design principles.
To achieve this at scale, Intelligent City’s mass timber building platform consists of modular hollow core floor panels with pre-installed services, as well as high-performance façade envelope panels with Passive House certification. All building components were based on an interdisciplinary development approach with product-thinking at the heart: starting out with a clear set of design intentions, the team worked through mass timber construction details, manufacturing automation principles, and logistics. Structural requirements for different building heights or seismic requirements were also part of the development process. In addition, the team developed robotic manufacturing workflows to assemble large building components, which allows for a higher degree of adaptability as well as assembly speed and quality. Intelligent City is currently ramping up its production in British Columbia, with plans to expand into Ontario and the United States in the next years.
The AECOO industry has been stuck in a dichotomy to provide services for bespoke one-off solutions while trying to de-risk through project management instead of integrated technology innovation. A shift from service to product and from fragmentation to an integrated and variable mass timber platform that is pre-engineered, tested, and certified, enables a path to high performance buildings, outstanding livability, affordability, and carbon neutrality. Through deep integration, technological innovation has the potential to finally enable the breakthrough our industry has long been waiting for.