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Architecture: ‘We are in an era where we are creating highly intelligent buildings’

Architecture: ‘We are in an era where we are creating highly intelligent buildings’

OLUSEGUN PAUL ADETOKUNBO LADEGA is an architect by training. He is the MD/CEO of Interstate Architect Limited. Ladega has been in practice since 1981. Over this period, he has garnered enormous experience and a reputation in the Architecture profession. In this interview with select property editors, he speaks on the building and construction industry; how architecture has evolved and the impact of technology on the age-old profession. He also speaks on Interstate Architects and its history as an erstwhile foreign practice. CHUKA UROKO, Property Editor, reports:

At 70, Interstate Architect Limited is, unarguably, an age-old professional practice. How has it been like practising for that long?

It’s been very interesting because those 70 years was a period of profound changes in the practice of architecture, procurement of buildings, and even the means by which architects carried out their work.

The period also marked profound shifts from analogue hand drawing, through mechanical drafting to the era of digital drafting and drawing. Now, we are in the era of building information modelling.

So it means that we are talking of a practice that has traversed this whole spectrum through analogue basic hand drawing to simple calculation devices like the slide rule to the time when you had an electronic calculator to full digitalization of the whole process where computers became the means by which we carry out our works.

This clearly shows that architecture as a profession has evolved. But in what significant way has the technology and the use of computers helped your practice?

Not only have computers transitioned us from basic digital drawing to full building information modelling, but also now we are in the realm of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual Intelligence (VI). These are helping us to create digital twin-building designs.

This means that you have a building that’s standing or a building that will eventually stand and you have a digital replica of it created in virtual reality which you can go in and interact with that is where we are now and it’s been quite profound.

The procurement process has moved from a simple transaction to a very complex procurement process and even buildings have gone from buildings with just simple technologies inside them. In the early days, it was just simple and basic, having plumbing, electricity and a few other things.

But now, we are in an era where we are creating highly intelligent buildings. Now, we have buildings that respond to demands within and outside their environment. We also have lots of technologies that are incorporated into buildings that enable us to create higher levels of comfort and efficiency. Today, we also have buildings that respond to climate, environment and activities within them.

How has this evolution impacted your practice as a business?

Interstate Architects started as the resident architects’ office for William Harvey Watkins Gray and Partners which was a practice based in the UK. It was founded in 1900 in Bristol, England; opened a London office in 1931 and was awarded the consultancy services for the University Campus Hospital (UCH), Ibadan.

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We learnt that for the construction phase which started in 1952, architects had to be sent down from the UK to be on-site to monitor the construction works. So, that’s the origin of our firm.

Watkins Gray had a reputation for healthcare buildings, so very quickly, other healthcare buildings followed like the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Lagos Island Maternity and others which necessitated the establishment of more of a Nigerian office.

So, from just the resident architect’s office, it had a Nigerian office based on the amount of business that was coming and that transited into the firm making money in other areas of the economy outside the health care sector.

We became privileged that by 1963, the practice had designed and supervised the construction of the first Central Bank of Nigeria office in Kano and from then till date, Interstate Architects have remained the architect of choice for the Central Bank of Nigeria. So that’s a relationship that has lasted almost 60 years now.

In what ways have these developments impacted the way you work as a professional?

The UCH was built from hand drawing, basic calculations and a co-using log book to do all the calculations. The building is still standing. But today, I can do all that I want to do from a very simple app on a handheld device and achieve the same technologies/results.

The development has helped us to become more efficient in our work, we have become more accurate, we have been able to deliver our service much faster and the most important is that any building project designed by an architect is delivered through a collaborative process where you have to work in collaboration with many other professions.

The four most basic ones are Electrical Engineer, Mechanical Engineer, Structural Engineer and Quantity Surveyor but there are so many specialists that the architect works within the process of delivering a building. The new technology makes collaboration very easy, more efficient, and more effective.

The fact is that with the technology that we have available to us today, through building information and modelling, we all can work together in a virtual space. All the members collaborating with the architect can work together on the project. Not just do we have meetings, but we can jointly make amendments to the design as it goes along and each one adds its own.

Collaboration has become much more effective, design processes are not just highly automated, but also highly integrated. So, integrating Engineering into my buildings becomes more effective, because we are working in the same virtual environment and can make changes as we like. That’s the beauty of what we have now; you don’t need a physical meeting.

How do you relate the evolution and growth in this profession to the industry and regulator?

The industry in general has issues. First and most important is that a lot of regulations and standards were developed in the analogue era. They still serve us in a number of ways, especially when you look at the environment and standards.

But when you look at standards, there is a need for a very significant review because the way we work is completely different from what a lot of those regulators envisage. They didn’t envisage the profound and disruptive impact of digitalization on the design process.

It’s quite possible now to have a building realized without issuing a single piece of paper to anyone, whereas before, everything was loads of paper and we had our own tracking systems in those days because a building is a very complex organism.

So, as we are going along, issues are coming up and you are going back to the drawing board to come up with a drawing that expresses the amendment that has to be done after which you issue a drawing that is now a later version.

We had a way of tracking; all our drawings are numbered and then you put a revision under this and you have your revision note. This is how the revision note was done and everyone followed. At the initial stage of digitalization, we still issued papers which meant your version history.

Then we had digital version history which is the kind of thing you see with Microsoft word. But now, with building information modelling, it’s a completely different way of catching fish because the model is updated and the updated model, as of today, is what everyone in that collaborative group has and so we now call it a single source of truth.

A single source of truth means that there is one single digital model of the current state of design information; it’s a completely different world from when we had virtual history and numbers. No one can contend with the fact that I don’t have the most current information because everyone is interacting with one single model and the date of your last visit is there.

What has happened is that it is now possible for me, without issuing a single paper, to deliver a building from conception to full realization on site. That means that the whole process of regulating the service has to factor this in. I should be able, by virtual means, to file my documents for approval.

Now, does your profession have enough manpower for technology to do what you are talking about?

Yes. Manpower is not the issue because those of us handling the technology at this other end of the industry were not born with it. But the fact is that technology became available, acquired and we learnt how to use it.

I have attended hundreds of courses that keep me up-to-date with the latest technology and also enable me to deploy and use the latest technology. I know that all the public sector institutions have annual provisions for training in their budgets and there are times that we go for these international conferences and training. We meet our colleagues from the public sector attending expos and lectures.

The issue is never personnel. Some of the most brilliant professional colleagues that I have met are people in the public service. You will be shocked at the calibre of people, in terms of the high level of knowledge and intelligence, that you have in the public service.

Why are you not deploying some of these technologies to prevent building collapse which is blamed on inadequate monitoring of construction sites?

I don’t work in public service so some of the things I would say would be from my interactions with the system. May I tell you that you are speaking from the limit of your knowledge of the system?

I agree with a lot of what you have said but please also note that one or two things you have said are based on your limited knowledge of the happenings in the system. So, I would say I am speaking from my experience of interaction with the system which may not have exposed me to the totality of what is in the system.

From my interaction with the system, I think there is a number of small things that is preventing this. First is the structure of the organization. Bureaucracy is good but, at times, when not applied with agility, could also be a big problem.

Bureaucracy is very good and necessary because the bureaucratic structure allows for transparency and accountability. That’s why there are different points and layers of responsibility on code; it makes the system accountable.

It also creates a proper reporting process within the system. However, at times, it could be a problem in terms of if someone has to have a higher authority to grant permission for certain things to happen, or simply as I think I have learnt from some processes, there are insufficient resources.

If people have to go for monitoring, they have to first get to the location which means that transportation must be available and the state of public transportation in Nigeria is not such that can be relied on to enable those that are to perform these duties to perform effectively. So, it’s important that there are official vehicles available.

Secondly, simple basic resources have to be available and, in some instances, you just realize that something regarded as insignificant becomes the stumbling block in the way. There are handicaps, but there are largely handicaps that can be easily removed.

They have decentralized the process because we have zonal offices and they should be able to monitor their activities, but the fact remains that there is still a need for more personnel because in some instances, there is more work than the personnel can cover.

We still have a culture of impunity in Nigeria as we have noted in one or two collapses. As long as we have this culture of impunity where some people can get away with breaking the law or some people are able to show that they are above the law and nothing happens.

An instance is a young man is being threatened for doing his job right by an upper hand and then he feels he is not getting sufficient protection, what do you think the young man would do? It’s either one of these things: He walks away from the system or chooses to fight the system and knows that there could be dire consequences.

Bureaucracy may not work at the speed it should work to enable those who should do the job performance in some instances, but not always. In other instances, you have powerful interests that the whole economic interest is served by subverting the system and they are so powerful. An instance is the Ikoyi building collapse.