CONSTRUCT Featured Speaker: The Future of Specifiers Entails a Commitment of Head and Heart

By Craig Webb

Paul Doherty is thinking simultaneously these days about microscopic viruses and supersized cities. He believes AEC’s future includes both.

“We are in the age of pandemics,” says Doherty, a  featured speaker at the CONSTRUCT Virtual Conference launching Oct. 7. “COVID-19 is just the latest. They will continue to be in our psyche.”

As CEO of The Digit Group, Doherty helps plan cities that are designed to anticipate future trends and respond to current woes. For instance, take the rise of self-driving, autonomous vehicles, and them imagine how they can change the built environment.

“For 100 years it’s all been about pop-up cities: They started out as trading posts and blossomed into auto-centric urban environments,” he says. “We celebrate the auto so much we gave them their own houses.”

New Parameters, New Possibilities

But with autonomous vehicles coming, you don’t need to create plans that take into account the current width of the roads, Doherty said in a recent interview. “You won’t need curbs. And how do you get around when buildings are placed based on climactic needs, so you can have passive solar, passive cooling? … The future isn’t about placement on a street grid. It’ll be about meeting societal, economic, transportation needs.”

Likewise, Doherty believes the coronavirus pandemic has left people much more open to the notion that structures should be healthier places to occupy.

“Just putting up a bunch of buildings isn’t good enough anymore. The fact you specify the building properly on time [isn’t special]; you’re supposed to do that. What you should be doing is looking at the contextualization of the building, how it’s supposed to fit in. Can you build in wellness? Can your building help me do my 10,000 steps a day for my health?”

Doherty believe the pandemic will bring particular attention to HVAC systems. Some changes will be simple, such as moving air intakes higher up the building. “You go to central London [today] and, with all the auto exhaust, you’re pulling in more polluted air than your systems can handle.”

Negative Becomes a Positive

A more complicated change will involve creating negative air pressure inside a space. “When you pressurize the air, you’re limiting the amount of space that a droplet can go to 20 centimeters from its origin, and then it drops 90 degrees,” he says. In addition, the air in spaces with negative air pressure then can be pulled into ducts that lead directly to the outside, again keeping that potentially virus-carrying droplet from entering another room and infecting someone else. Doherty says he’s working now with companies developing ways for existing HVAC system to individually control a building’s dampers and boxes that can result in negative air pressure.

“This is the start of how we can create a safe environment for people,” he says.

Above all, Doherty believes specifiers need to be a combination of geeks and storytellers, people who revel in science and data but aim to create places that connect with people. He credits the specifiers who came before him for creating a New York City landscape that inspired him in his youth. “They gave me an opportunity [to understand] that the knowledge behind the building is not just important for building the building, but for the stories afterward.”

“Specifiers are the conscience and the knowledge behind how digital assets are delivered,” Doherty says. “The opportunity for the next generation is to take that to the next level. The story isn’t just ‘come on in, specs are cool.’ We’re providing a script to reimagine the profession. … The more that people understand that data is only an element, you’re going to get a lot of fresh blood.”

Learn More About Doherty and The Digit Group