We spoke to Michelle Kaufmann, architect and co-founder of Flux Factory, about the effects of software on design, why architecture should embrace the sharing economy, and the importance of making healthy, affordable housing accessible to everyone.
What made you decide to launch Flux? How did you get your start?
I started out with the goal of making good design accessible to more people. About five years ago, I started working with Google X, which is Google's think tank group, and looking at how to apply technology to the world's biggest problems.
Buildings are one of the problems we’re trying to solve. They use a lot of energy. They create more carbon than any other industry. They're unhealthy. We're just scratching the surface of really understanding how the materials in our space actually impact our health. And at the same time, buildings are still so expensive, and there are a billion people who don't have access to healthy housing.
I spent a year and a half working with software engineers to solve this problem. And then we started Flux. We’re working to address the current major challenges, like architects and engineers all working in different silos. They don't share information, which means it's really hard to innovate. We asked ourselves, what if this industry embraced the sharing economy? What if this industry could share all their ideas, so every time you start a building, you're starting with the very best ideas from everyone? That's how innovation becomes viral.
“The building industry is unique in that there’s been no increase in productivity in the last 50 years, which is kind of frightening and depressing. But it’s also very exciting, because that means this is the category to disrupt.”
— Michelle Kaufmann, architect and co-founder, Flux Factory
How is software changing the architecture game right now?
We are building software to connect all the different tools that are out there. Right now, architects tend to work with one kind of software and engineers work with another. There are different kinds of software, but they don't connect with each other. So while you're designing a home, you don't always have the information you need. You don't find out what it costs until after you've designed it, and that’s too late.
One of our big areas of focus is connecting all of these different software systems and data points into apps and software that allow the computers to do things like counting, data scraping, and the other mundane work that architects spend so much time on. The software can pull together massive amounts of data to help you take advantage of best practices and find the best suppliers. So architects are freed up to be the artists they want to be.
Frank Gehry was one of the very first architects to embrace software. For him, it was a means to an end as a way to achieve the curve shapes that he was designing. The software helped architects figure out how to build them. Now the younger generation of architects are using software in a different way. They're thinking about it in terms of logic and coding. And that's a very interesting and different shift from what it has been for the past 15 to 20 years.
Tell me more about how software is helping you make better design decisions in terms of efficiency, affordability, and accessibility?
Software breaks down the complexity of design. And that translates into better buildings and better designs—whether it’s helping us use more energy-efficient materials, more sustainable materials, or local materials that use less carbon to transport. Having tools to help us make those decisions while we’re designing is really powerful.
One of the most exciting parts and necessary parts of embracing software in this new way is that we can make buildings more affordable and accessible. That can happen in a variety of ways—from cutting the time engineers and architects spend working on a project to reducing the complexity of a building with efficient design and materials. Creating buildings that use less energy also means less long-term cost. Sustainable homes still need to cost the same as non-sustainable homes. They can’t take longer to build. And they need to be easy to build. And that's where I think software can really come into play.
Today, people are thinking about their homes as a long-term investment for their families. So they consider which materials are going to last, how much maintenance is required, and the lifetime costs of living in a home. And once we actually look at the process with that lens on, we design things very differently, and we value things very differently.
How is the building industry rethinking physical space in the digital age?
One of the things we’re working on as company is understanding why and how people are happy or unhappy in certain areas. What spaces do people enjoy? What spaces do they find cumbersome? And as we start aggregating that information, we will learn how to build better spaces for people.
What we're going to be seeing more and more is smarter materials, fewer materials, lighter-weight materials. We’ll be forced to be smarter about how we use things in order to keep costs down. You get more for less and everybody has more resources for the things that make them happy. As the younger generation grows up and embraces the sharing economy, they too have this sense of getting more out of less. I think we're going to see cities growing a lot more, people moving from the suburbs back to the cities, and a rethinking of how we're actually utilizing those spaces.
With Flux, we're concentrating on pulling together many separate data sources, including zoning, codes, and best practices, in an integrated way while linking the different software systems that architects and engineers use. Our goal is to create a network where these things can all connect to allow people to share the best information and have access to it instantly. So when they start a building, they're not starting from scratch—they’re starting from the very best starting point of the very best building that was built before them.
What drives us is not making fancy, beautiful, amazing, crazy, curve-shaped buildings. It's really making sure that thoughtful, healthy, durable buildings are accessible to everybody on the planet. We're at over 7 billion people now, and that number is growing quickly. So we have to get really smart, really fast.
Can you speak more about disruption in the building industry? What changes do you see on the horizon, and where do you see them happening?
The building industry is unique in that there’s been no increase in productivity in the last 50 years, which is kind of frightening and depressing. But it's also very exciting, because that means this is the category to disrupt.
A lot of the disruption is going to come from linking data and linking software into something that’s easy for people to use and to design with. If developers have the chance to work on a green building that doesn't cost more or take more time than a non-green building, why wouldn't they do that? They would. But we have to provide a way for it to happen.
We have a grand, audacious vision for the big picture. But getting there requires creating bite-sized apps and starting to build a global network. Currently, we've been working in Austin, San Francisco, and other parts of California. But we're also starting to work in places like Singapore. The work we're doing is applicable everywhere, but especially in areas where they’re building a lot. Parts of Asia and South America are places where we see this being utilized very soon.
In terms of the buildings themselves, we're learning more about what our materials and our buildings are really made of. We're learning more about how we can design better mechanical systems to help our health rather than hurting it. And that's going to be a big part of the next 10 years. As we start understanding these things more, our priorities will start shifting a little bit.
This is how sharing and software can make better buildings. If you have the right information and you can see what things are made of, of course you're going to make better choices. When we mix what’s we’ve learned from the past with software and the newer technologies, that's where sustainability really becomes magic.