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Digital Dimensions04
Once seen as distinct from the bricks and mortar world of construction, technology is reshaping the design, construction, and sale of green homes.

Hard as it may be to believe now, one of the first building-related “technologies,” demonstrated to the public was an experiment designed by Nicholas Negroponte’s Architecture Machine Group, involving gerbils as architects and early computer analysis.

As recounted in Stewart Brand’s “The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT,” the demonstration took place in Fall 1970 at the Jewish Museum of New York; it transpired in a large glass case containing 500 two-inch wide blocks and a colony of gerbils, watched over by a computer-driven straightening machine.

As the restless gerbils went about their business, they bumped the blocks and moved some of them. A computer then calculated the outcome, creating a constantly changing architecture that reflected the way the little animals used their space.

Flash forward 40 years. A combination of low- and high-tech tools are shaping the built environment, albeit with much greater speed and creative freedom.

Today, a builder or architect knows long before a home is built what kind of energy performance it may achieve, although she still has to guess at how the occupants will change the space. And it’s not just the initial design and planning of a house where technology is changing the rules. Many other participants in the home selling, building, and remodelling markets have technical gadgetry that wasn’t even on the wish list in 1970.

For example, realtors are showing clients full-blown, information-rich movies of available residences with the aid of Google’s mapping functions. Trades communicate with the back office via iPads, using them for everything from tracking tools and supplies to confirming that a header they’ve just put in place is level.

But it’s not enough to have a new gadget or software; what’s important is how Old School disciplines mesh with innovative new tools, as I’ll discuss later in this article.

Pre-Visualization Leaps Ahead
Computer-aided design (CAD) is one of the most obvious places where the process of building and selling green homes has changed. CAD came on the scene in 1990–championed, most successfully, by San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk with their AutoCAD software–and was heralded by those who embraced it as a way to speed up and smooth out the design process.

The mathematical efficiency of the CAD system eliminated draftsman’s license from drawings, instances when precision could be sacrificed for the sake of appearance, such as when bent “straight” lines were used to join carelessly measured corners. The latest CAD systems are actually somewhat intuitive. They typically have features that help the software guess at what the designer intended, and make it happen.

Next came 3D, and on its heels, Rapid Prototyping, wherein specialized 3D printers are deployed to “print” a 3D model. The process takes virtual designs from CAD or animation modeling software, and then creates successive layers until the model is complete. It is a WYSIWYG process where the virtual model and the physical model are almost identical.

“The third phase, which we are just getting into now, is what is called 4D drawings,” says Eric Corey Freed, founder of the organicARCHITECT firm in San Francisco (

The added dimension isn’t something out of quantum physics, but rather BIM or Building Information Modeling.

“So now, instead of just having lines on a computer that you can print out and use as a floor plan, we have entities built into the drawing, little pieces of metadata, that provide a whole new level of information,” Freed says. He illustrates his point by describing a figurative CAD drawing of a concrete wall.


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