Swedish architecture

PhD research suggests digital disruption inevitable for construction industry

19 November 2018
Online platforms could transform prefabricated design and manufacturing
Recent PhD graduate Dr Duncan Maxwell explains how his real-world research with the Innovation in Applied Design Lab led to conclusions about the future of construction.

After just a few years of practicing as a registered architect, a PhD opportunity caught Duncan Maxwell’s eye. A research position working with Professor Mathew Aitchison, Director of the Innovation in Applied Design (IAD) Lab at the University of Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning, saw the Scottish expat return to postgraduate study.  

Duncan Maxwell

“The research role was described as one driven by design skills and working with industry on real-world problems,” Duncan explained.

“This appealed to me as I was keen to continue work that would utilise my skills as a designer and was also excited by the opportunity to work on ‘live’ research problems with industry.”

Guided by his supervisor Professor Aitchison, Duncan’s PhD project began with a broad scope, leaving space to realise the potential of the project. He explained:

Initially, I was interested in learning how architects could design more effectively for prefabricated construction.

“This led me to look at how architectural design is traditionally briefed and how this was conducted by our industry partner (a modular housing company). A research trip to Sweden, at the end of my first year of study, led me to look into what methods prefabricated house building companies there were using, that were different to traditional architectural design processes. The Swedes are really global leaders in prefabricated housing design and construction. ”

What Duncan discovered on this research trip set him on a new investigative journey, examining the ‘product platforms’ being used in Sweden’s construction industry that are beginning to define new business models. He said:

Online ecosystems, from Airbnb to Uber, are fundamentally changing how traditional industries are operating. The construction industry should not consider itself immune from change.

“My thesis posited that these online platforms could improve existing construction platforms by gathering design inputs and linking stakeholders, in order to drive the creation of design-value and better outcomes for the industry, its customers, the environment, and broader society”

Duncan graduated earlier this month, cheered on by both his parents, who flew over from Scotland for the occasion, and his IAD Lab family. Post-PhD he is continuing to work with the IAD Lab on another applied research project, looking at using design-thinking to develop new processes, specially-designed to work with the unique constraints of construction.

Duncan left us with three reflections on what he learned in completing a PhD:

Be open to collaboration

Working with industry is challenging, but rewarding. There is a fine line that must be carefully trodden in this collaboration to ensure that research takes on board industry issues, but also responds to them in a way that is measured and accountable, that is distinct from consultancy.

Allow research investigations the space and time to grow

As a design-led PhD, what I set out to research and what ended up in my thesis really changed over three years. The initial terms of reference were very broad - deliberately so - to allow for investigative potential to be realised and to give unforeseen problems the space and time to emerge.

Try anything and everything

Across the period of my candidature, I tried a number of research methods to ask questions and generate hypotheses. I have always tried to keep an open-mind and I think that this is important in research, particularly when design-led, to ask questions or consider existing problems in new ways.


Top image: An example of the prefabricated Swedish architecture Duncan was studying. This apartment building is built completely from timber, and was delivered to site as a series of boxes, which are then assembled in a matter of days. This building was designed and built by the Swedish company 'Boklok', a joint-venture between two multi-nationals: IKEA and Skanska.

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