When can old be new? This is not a riddle, but an important question in the field of architecture, where architects are using new tools to create traditional buildings that are built to last.
Traditional architecture refers to the design and construction of buildings that are rooted in long-established cultural and historical norms. Unlike its post-war modernist counterpart which focusses on functionalism and minimalism, traditional architecture prioritises the use of design elements and aesthetic details that have been passed down through the generations.
In recent times, traditional architecture is having a renaissance, as more and more people realise the sustainability benefits of such an approach. While modernist architecture uses concrete materials and fad designs that are to be replaced every few decades, traditional architecture favours the use of local materials and timeless designs to construct buildings for posterity.
Examples of new traditional buildings in London include the RAF Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, and the Richmond Riverside rejuvenation project. The Poundbury project in Dorset has become renowned for its use of traditional design; it was a major project of the then Prince of Wales (now King Charles III) on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall.
However, traditional forms of building, while on the one hand sustainable, can also be expensive and time-consuming to build, and the skills required for construction are often in short supply. In particular, traditional architecture often involves ornamentation and construction methods that are not easily reproduced at scale.
The good news is that these old challenges are now being addressed by new technologies.
One exciting solution to these problems is by way of 3D printing.
A New York studio called EDG, for example, has been using 3D printing to both restore and recreate intricate details in historic buildings – as reported on 3Dprintingindustry.com. According to the report, EDG uses 3D printed plastic moulds to produce architectural features on site: "3D scanning old parts allows the company to create moulds for even the most intricate parts, including Corinthian columns, colonnades, cornices and whole facades."
James Rose, Director of the Institute for Smart Structures at the University of Tennessee recently argued that "3D printing will transform architecture forever" and that large-scale additive manufacturing could have as big an impact as the development of the steel frame in the 1880s. "I can foresee a future in which buildings are built entirely from recycled materials or materials sourced on-site," he has written.
When it comes to AI tools, architects are using neural network text-to-image systems (such as Midjourney, DALL-E and Stable Diffusion) to design buildings and decorative features. This software can create highly realistic renderings very efficiently, and these can be shown to clients at an early stage of the project, providing greater visibility and enabling the early resolution of potential issues.
Another architect has coined the term "AI Classicism" to use AI to apply the rules and proportions of classical styles of architecture and integrate them into building designs. They argue that this would make design more efficient, freeing up resources for construction and craftsmanship: "By eliminating much of the time-consuming design process, knowledge and skills could be more widely disseminated, making classicism more accessible. The argument that classical architecture is inefficient and too expensive may well become a thing of the past."
Other architectural firms that are exploring the potential of AI include Zaha Hadid Analytics + Insights (ZHAI), part of Zaha Hadid Architects, which focuses on workplace design. According to a recent interview in the New York Times, the firm uses AI to design more pleasant and individual office buildings, which better suit the needs of workers post-pandemic. Architect Ulrich Blum told the newspaper that ZHAI has a computer tool that can come up with 100,000 designs for a building's interior in 27 hours (an architect would have to produce 40 drawings a day for a decade to match its output).
So can these new methods be protected by patents?
Even if the problem is old, if there is a new (and non-obvious) technical solution, then patent protection will be available. At Keltie, we have many years of experience in analysing the patentability of new inventions, and can advise on whether it would be best to take the patent route, or whether your creation would be better protected in other ways, such as by trade secrets or even registered designs.
When the patent route is taken for an invention in a field like traditional architecture, it is essential to tailor the patent application in view of that field, making sure to emphasise the new ways in which the old questions are addressed without unintentionally making the invention appear obvious. At Keltie, we place a great deal of importance on getting the patent application right at the drafting stage so as to mitigate the risks of running into difficulties with demonstrating patentability later on.
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