How to teach the next generation

Three inspiring teachers are finding a way to fill the skills gap faced by the built environment, developing a new generation that can lead in a world undergoing continual technological, economic and political disruption


  • Clare Dowdy

23 September 2019

Image © Left to right: Joe Wigdahl, Abhisek Bali and Roscoe Rutter

CREATING THE DIGITAL ARCHITECT Associate professor M. Hank Haeusler, Director of Computational Design, University New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Over the next 10 years, engineering and architecture will go through the sort of transformation that Uber and Airbnb have forced on the transport and hotel sectors respectively, believes M. Hank Haeusler. And that will be down to computational design. "Architecture's workflows will be automated and design as a production will be done by a group of computational designers developing workflows similar to apps," he predicts.

As director of computational design at the University of New South Wales, Haeusler's teaching and research are driven by the belief that data, collected and evaluated by his faculty colleagues, provides vital information about the built environment. This data can be used as input variables for custom-made computational tools. Such tools can then be used by architects, urban planners and designers to generate advanced designs, and to optimise workflows in the architecture, engineering and construction sectors.

His is the only bachelor degree in computational design. "We look to equip students with tools and techniques of the 21st century," he says, citing digital fabrication, AR, VR, mixed reality as well as machine learning, "all in combination with strong theory background. We're educating the 21st-century thinker."

The curriculum has only included machine learning since 2017, and Haeusler admits that three years ago, it wasn't on his radar. He foresees that "machine learning will be a major game changer, the same as electricity was 100 years ago'"

In fact, the whole course is regularly updated. "If we snooze, we stop being innovative and being careful about how the industry will move in the future, so we constantly update."

Haeusler sees the department's role as educating students to be computational tool makers. "Everyone who's involved in making cities [from architects, engineers and urban planners to bankers and lawyers] will have that discussion on a computational platform." From day one, the students are taught programming skills, starting with Grasshopper  the programme in which most Zaha Hadid buildings are modelled.

Students apply their learning to real-life scenarios. Recently, they were tasked with creating an artificial sea wall for Sydney's new 861,000 ft2 (80,000 m2) fish market, which is being designed by Danish architect 3XN and is due to complete in 2023. The students have applied advanced computational methods to the green engineering of coastal infrastructure to provide new habitats or "bio-shelters" for marine life. "We are mixing local oyster shells into the concrete to design a site-specific material," he explains. 3XN and is due to complete in 2023. The students have applied advanced computational methods to the green engineering of coastal infrastructure to provide new habitats or "bio-shelters" for marine life. 'We are mixing local oyster shells into the concrete to design a site-specific material," he explains.

"Machine learning will be a major game changer, the same as electricity was 100 years ago" Prof M. Hank Haeusler

The course, which has been running since 2015, takes on 40-50 students each year. Haeusler estimates that 70-80% of his graduates have found jobs in Sydney's principal architecture and engineering firms. There's also increasing demand from companies such as LendLease and Arup, says Haeusler, "because of the ability of a computational generalist to be trained in the practice", in, for example, the field of transport. "I hear from the industry in confidence, that before they would have hired three architecture students, but now they hire one computational design student."

Such is the interest in the subject, that Haeusler is publishing a book about his teaching and research, Computational Design From Promise to Practice, which is due out this month.

He concedes that: "none of us really knows what the future will bring. But having design and a critical understanding of what digital technology can do, and what humans can do better an ethical and aesthetic understanding of those ideas and what the challenges are  would enable [my graduates] to be futureproof."


Alison Watson is on a mission to tackle the dearth of young talent in the industry. In the early 2000s she was a land surveyor on the Building Schools for the Future programme, a government investment scheme for secondary schools in England. Her frequent site visits led to many conversations with curious school kids. "I helped them to understand that the built environment was made up of specialists."

It struck Watson that as well as getting out on site, these children should be engaging with the built environment through digital technology. "The kids were all computer geeks."

Inspired by these experiences, Watson took some time out of work and devised a curriculum called Design Engineer Construct! (DEC). The accredited learning programme launched in 2012 and was soon expanded to include children up to the age of 18.

"There's every chance we'll see skills shortages get worse before they get better" Alison Watson

DEC applies pure academic subjects to the latest construction industry practices. Students work their way through an online workbook, developing their skills by undertaking a sustainable building project. And through the complementary workshops, they have face-to-face engagement with industry professionals. "The result is young people with real-world practical experience and employability skills," says Watson.

"They get to understand everything from site information to environmental surveys," she says. So rather than just thinking of bricklaying, these students gain knowledge about built environment careers such as surveying, architecture, engineering, construction management and sustainability management.

To complement the curriculum, Watson wrote a teacher training programme, because "most of our DEC teachers have no prior experience of the built environment", she says. She believes that there are opportunities for cross-curricular learning with subjects including maths, English and science as well as with other aspects of the wider curriculum such as citizenship and personal, social and health education.

To help fund the programmes she set up an adopta- school scheme for industry. To date, 45 firms, among them Arup, Balfour Beatty, Buro Happold and Mott MacDonald have committed to funding a two-year programme. The result is young people with real-world practical experience and employability skills. DEC graduates have found jobs at Arup, Laing O'Rourke, Mott MacDonald, Atkins and WSP, to name just a few. Others have gone on to Anglia Ruskin, Liverpool John Moores and Sheffield Hallam universities.

Such is the success of DEC, that despite being run by a small team at Watson's not-for-profit company Class of Your Own  it's going international from this month. DEC is taught in schools in the US, Malaysia, Thailand, Ireland, Lithuania and Dubai. Watson and her team work closely with a handful of teachers in each country "to ensure DEC is mapped to the national curriculum and local legislation", such as planning law.

In the UK

Meanwhile in the UK, the DEC curriculum is being used in 71 schools. However, as government education policy transitions to T-levels for skills development, that figure will fall, "which is crazy given the skills shortage", says Watson. "Time will tell whether English DEC schools will disappear altogether." Launching in September 2020, T-levels are an alternative to A-levels that offer a mix of classroom learning and "on-the-job" experience. Like DEC, they've been developed with employers and businesses to meet the needs of industry and prepare students for work.

"Given the university, industry and professional body support for DEC, I sincerely hope ministers might consider the impact DEC has on young people's aspirations and teachers' development, but it's doubtful. I think there's every chance we'll see skills shortages in England get worse before they get better. By then," cautions Watson, "it might be too late."

BUILDING THE FOUNDATIONS FOR INDIA'S FUTURE Prof Mona N Shah FRICS, Dean of RICS School of Built Environment, Amity University, Noida, India

Mona Shah has been working as an academic in India's up-and-coming sectors of real estate, construction and smart infrastructure since 2000. "The construction sector when I joined was very basic, driven by brutal government contracts and undertaken with public money," she says. "The casualties were quality and a long-term vision."

The present government's goal is to make India a $4-5tr economy by 2024. "We will be able to raise people out of poverty," she says. And to do that "we need better physical assets", hence prime minister Narendra Modi's focus on infrastructure and real estate.

The trouble is that there's a skills shortage. India has a requirement for 45 million people in construction at different levels, including 1.7 million skilled people every year, according to Shah, who admits that "we're producing only a few thousand" annually.

One person who can't be blamed for that skills gap, though, is Shah. Over the last two decades, she has taught an estimated 15,000-16,000 built environment students. These graduates, she believes, have the potential to improve the productivity and standards of India's construction and infrastructure industries. "We want managerial-level people to be the harbingers of change so that better practices are initiated."

Before she took over as dean of the RICS School of Built Environment in July 2018, Shah was dean of the National Institute of Construction Management and Research. There, she developed four new postgraduate programmes in the areas of real estate, infrastructure and smart cities. "The responsibility of having to pioneer these programmes and to enthuse students to subscribe, and the industry to accept them, meant that only innovation would help." So she introduced some novel techniques, from using the board game Monopoly to teach about real estate transactions; to explaining project management imperatives using Sun Tzu's The Art of War. She's also keen to wean students off rote learning "which is typical in our culture". These approaches are likely to be embedded in the new programmes she's now working on at Amity.

It's not just rote learning that is in Shah's sights. In India, students from technical backgrounds get little opportunity to develop soft skills. "Graduates can struggle with being challenged in front of an audience, or even putting points across confidently. Students come with a huge expectation of getting rid of these deficiencies when they enrol with us."

She's also into character building. In her previous position, Shah introduced a series of leadership talks, where the top brass from all walks of life industry, community, government, the armed forces, self-help cooperatives were invited by the students, thereby exposing them "to various concepts and theories of leadership, ethics and values".

And Shah believes that built environment students must be sensitive to fast-depleting natural resources and challenges to our quality of life. "To that end, the culture of frugality in the use of natural resources is to be inculcated. Frugal innovation, value engineering, affordability, alternative materials and technologies are concepts that need deep embedding in their learning."

"I take the long-term view, equipping [students] for 40 years of professional life" Mona Shah FRICS

India's built environment industries are peppered with Shah's alumni at vice-president and general manager level, or as founders of start-ups. "When I start a programme, I take the long-term view, equipping them for 40 years of professional life."

These jobs come in part through the close contact her departments have with industry. Which is good news for not just the students but their parents. "Unlike other places where students enrolling in higher education do so by choice and are mostly self-funded, in India it's the parents who largely influence these decisions." Middle-class parents take a loan out, which means "our students are coming here on the basis of somebody's asset sacrifice".

So Shah's responsibility is to those parents as well as to Indian infrastructure. And she takes this seriously. "We are giving a person to society and we have to be extremely careful what we are sending out. It's my job to give them the right inventory and ammunition".

The speed of change across our sector makes it imperative that we become more agile in the way we qualify, train and develop the profession. We explore these challenges at RICS Futures of of surveying