Speaking at the ULI Carolinas Meeting in February, consultant Paul Doherty of The Digit Group described how 3-D printing, building information modeling, and piezoelectricity are reshaping the built environment.

Doherty’s firm focuses on smart cities, smart buildings, and the tools that can advance architecture, construction, engineering, and development. “We real estate developers are under threat because of our inability to move quickly,” said Doherty.

Data Will Reshape the World

“Data is going to drive our industry,” said Doherty. “It used to be that he or she who controlled the schedule controlled the business; now, it’s who controls the data.”

If engineers, architects, and others input all of their data describing a building’s spacial relationships and variables, the information can create, for example, a giant 3-D model. “In downtown D.C., you can run the data to show energy usage [across the city] and what the retrofit costs should be; you can analyze it and make better decisions,” said Doherty. To boot, individual edifices can be smart buildings, acting as servers and sharing data directly with one another.

And information detailing the layout of the built environment can be used to allow autonomous vehicles to navigate a city more efficiently. “We won’t need a street grid, lights, parking lots, or stop signs,” said Doherty. “We can map the entire built world.” That will affect the energy business, water use, and the further development of technology.

Data are also what make tools like building information modeling (BIM) useful. A computer program that replicates hand drafting, but in three dimensions, BIM uses all of the inputted data to examine the geospatial relationship between what the information says—about where a pipe should be, for example—and reality.

And BIM can also help with one of the building industry’s big problems: a shortage of cheap labor. Even if a worker is relatively untrained, he or she can don a pair of virtual-reality goggles that have BIM running through them so that the construction plans line up on the walls, showing exactly where everything goes. The result? The worker can do the job in record time, said Doherty.

“In the next ten years, the value of the digital information in your building will be more valuable than the building itself,” predicted Doherty.

A Better Kind of Prefab

“Can we do shelter better?” Doherty asked rhetorically during his talk. He pointed out that the concept of living in shipping containers was a much-talked-about idea not long ago. But, he asked, “Who wants to live in a shipping container? We can do better than that.”

In fact, he said, a construction firm in China has developed a prefabricated house that can be manufactured in seven minutes. Modular homes in the United States formerly used panels, which often were not particularly aesthetically attractive; but the Chinese process uses a computer program to create unique, customizable shapes with zero waste. And they can be loaded with a motherboard so that the house itself is a computer, creating a “smart home.”

There is reason to think that a market exists for the technology in the United States. Both Facebook and Google recently invested in modular housing units for their workers, many of whom cannot afford to pay market prices in Silicon Valley.

Powering Up through Motion

In the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, travelers are able to try out another new technology. In a small photo station near a TSA checkpoint, they can jump, stomp, or dance in order to generate energy and to power adjacent lights; eventually, the lights will be bright enough to allow a photo to be taken.

The station uses piezoelectricity, a renewable energy source that turns mechanical pressure or vibrations into an electrical charge. That charge is stored using graphene, a “miracle material” that lies in a one-atom-thick layer and holds more energy than the best batteries commercially available today.

The technology has incredible potential, said Doherty, and the price is dropping. Eventually, those travelers at Atlanta’s airport could power the entire gate simply by walking to their destinations. What if Atlanta’s Mercedez-Benz Stadium—which is known for its cutting-edge technology—used a piezoelectric system under the field, so that the players powered the lights? What if sidewalks were underlaid with the technology and could power cities?

Those new innovations are coming. “Smart cities—it’s here to stay,” said Doherty. “We need to be part of that conversation.”