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Architects, designers and general contractors explore an adaptable future at Connext

Part event, part destination, Connext is known for its interactive tours, engaging exhibits, technology demonstrations, and vignettes of specialty built interior spaces.

On Oct. 4-5, DIRTT welcomed Partners, Clients and industry guests to the company’s annual Connext summit in Chicago’s downtown core. – Photo courtesy DIRTT
On Oct. 4-5, DIRTT welcomed Partners, Clients and industry guests to the company’s annual Connext summit in Chicago’s downtown core. – Photo courtesy DIRTT
On Oct. 4-5, DIRTT welcomed Partners, Clients and industry guests to the company’s annual Connext summit in Chicago’s downtown core. – Photo courtesy DIRTT

Rebecca Cooley sits in a glass-walled room at the newly redesigned Chicago DIRTT Experience Center (DXC). The DIRTT partner and VP of Manufactured Interior Construction at AOS is in the midst of being interviewed about the future of flexible interior space when a smile from a passerby catches her attention.

She pauses, and waves back excitedly to the general contractor on the other side of the low-profile glass wall.

“Everyone is so happy to see one another. It’s been a long time,” she explains, laughing. 

On Oct. 4-5, for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, DIRTT welcomed partners, clients and industry guests to the company’s annual Connext summit in Chicago’s downtown core. Part event, part destination, Connext is known for its interactive tours, engaging exhibits, technology demonstrations, and vignettes of specialty built interior spaces.

Despite some pandemic-related limitations with travel, the event attracted hundreds of people from across North America who came to see the new space in person, and even more guests who joined via virtual tours.

On Oct. 4-5, DIRTT welcomed Partners, Clients and industry guests to the company’s annual Connext summit in Chicago’s downtown core.
On Oct. 4-5, DIRTT welcomed partners, clients and industry guests to the company’s annual Connext summit in Chicago’s downtown core. – Photo courtesy DIRTT

What’s next for those who build space

Connext has long established itself as a must-see event for architects, designers, end users, and contractors looking for a wide range of design solutions for interior space

But this year, the event also attracted experts and influencers from design, architecture, and commercial real estate who came together to take part in a series of interviews focusing on where their respective industries are heading. 

In conversations hosted by DIRTT, leaders shared insight on three key markets that benefit from flexible, adaptable interior solutions: workplace, healthcare, and education. 

It’s all about adaptability in the workplace

“People who don’t already have a prefabricated solution in their buildings are thinking more about future-proofing than they ever have before,” says Brandis Baldwin, DIRTT Champion and Manager at Pigott. 

The need to adapt and change space was the most-referenced industry trend coming out of all interviews at Connext, as both architects and general contractors agreed that the build-it-and-leave-it approach to creating space is a thing of the past.

“I think it’s flexibility and future-proofing of space that’s really the main attraction for people who are innovative in their thinking, innovative in their approach to building out their spaces, and really grasp the concept of manufactured construction,” says Martine McCluskey, Director at Intellistruct by Bialek.

On Oct. 4-5, DIRTT welcomed Partners, Clients and industry guests to the company’s annual Connext summit in Chicago’s downtown core. – Photo courtesy DIRTT
On Oct. 4-5, DIRTT welcomed partners, clients and industry guests to the company’s annual Connext summit in Chicago’s downtown core. – Photo courtesy DIRTT

Also top-of-mind is the era of hybrid work, and many leadership teams are looking to adapt and optimize their space for those who are working in the office, as well as support a distributed workforce who dial-in remotely.

“Leveraging technology in the workplace will be a huge trend over the next year because we’re still in a hybrid environment,” says DIRTT’s Chief Commercial Officer, Jennifer Warawa. “We’re still trying to create equality as it relates to everybody participating in meetings. And when you think about diversity and inclusion, that’s incredibly important.”

Prefabricated interior construction solutions haven’t always been the most obvious for some architects, but that is rapidly changing, interview guests said.

For workplace environments, modular and prefab solutions have proven to save organizations money in the long-run as space needs to flex and be repurposed for various uses — a trait that is increasingly important for workplaces inviting people back from home.

Looking ahead to those future needs DIRTT CEO Kevin O’Meara says there will need to be tighter coordination between designers, GCs, and end users.

“There’s labor shortages that will impact how everyone designs and builds,” O’Meara says. “There’s adaptability requirements driven by the need to ensure spaces are resilient. And with the exploding costs of conventional construction materials, there’s a need to reduce change orders and provide predictable cost for a finished space. The entire construction ecosystem is going to have to be sensitive to these things.”

On Oct. 4-5, DIRTT welcomed Partners, Clients and industry guests to the company’s annual Connext summit in Chicago’s downtown core.
On Oct. 4-5, DIRTT welcomed partners, clients and industry guests to the company’s annual Connext summit in Chicago’s downtown core. – Photo courtesy DIRTT

Healthcare industry increasingly turns to prefab

In public healthcare spaces, technology and reducing downtime are key conversations driving design considerations, says Chris Burke, Healthcare Strategic Accounts at DIRTT. 

“There’s going to be a lot more digital transformation discussions coming up as we start to look at how spaces are used, how flexible they need to be, and what types of programs are going to go into them,” Burke says. “Healthcare facilities are looking at how to best integrate things like telehealth, and IT infrastructure. There’s going to be material changes.”

In addition to technology, healthcare leaders are also looking at making space inside hospitals and clinics less permanent.

“We’ve designed rooms to be able to be rapidly repurposed into three different use cases,” says Burke. “It’s important to look at the materiality of the space, how easy it would be to change the space, what components could be consistent or static, and what components could be flexed.”

As it relates to cost, when prefabricated interior components are brought into healthcare design early in the process, it leads to cost-savings and reduced downtime. Burke describes a recent project where a 10,000 sq. ft. clinic was built 20% faster than it would have been with a conventional construction approach. And when all was said and done, the project cost 4% less.

Education sector seeks wellness solutions

As students head back to class after more than a year of virtual classroom experiences, those who build space in the higher education sector are embracing change, and seeking flexibility.

Jessica Figenholtz is an architect and Associate Principal, Higher Education, at Perkins&Will. - Photo courtesy DIRTT
Jessica Figenholtz is an architect and Associate Principal, Higher Education, at Perkins&Will. – Photo courtesy DIRTT

“The number one priority for university presidents across the country, hands down, is the mental health and well being of not only their students, but faculty and staff,” says architect Jessica Figenholtz, Associate Principal, Higher Education at Perkins&Will.

Referencing survey results, Figenholtz says universities and colleges are increasing their investment in space that supports not just mental health and wellness, but other varied needs of everyone on campus. From space where students can retreat to decompress, to flexible, multipurpose environments that can be adapted to function as classrooms in one instance, smaller learning sub spaces in another, and even an open atrium for large events if required. 

Demand for these types of adaptable spaces make education a prime sector for industrialized  construction, says Rebecca Cooley. Post-secondary schools require as little construction downtime as possible and “need to implement technology and programmatic changes, creating space with the ability to adapt in order to stay current and attract students or faculty.”

All roads lead to change

If the pandemic proved one thing to everyone in the design and construction industries, it’s that change is inevitable. And while change may have been uncomfortable and costly in the past, Connext showed that industrialized interior construction solutions provide a system that allows organizations to manage change with predictable outcomes.

Luke Dawson is Vice President of Brand and Strategic Marketing at DIRTT.
Luke Dawson is Vice President of Brand and Strategic Marketing at DIRTT. – Photo courtesy DIRTT

That adaptability was front and center of the brand DIRTT exhibited at Connext. “DIRTT needs to be synonymous with change, and also synonymous with adaptability because change is a good thing,” says Luke Dawson, Vice President of Brand and Strategic Marketing at DIRTT. “Social change drives an impact on people, place, and the built environment. Ultimately, DIRTT’s strength is being able to help people be relevant today, but also ready for what the future brings.”

For more insight and information on design and construction, visit DIRTT’s editorial platform, Make Space.

Written By

DIRTT is a global leader in industrialized construction. Its system of physical products and digital tools empowers organizations, together with construction and design leaders, to build high-performing, adaptable, interior environments. Operating in the commercial, healthcare, education and public sector markets, DIRTT’s system provides total design freedom and greater certainty in cost, schedule and outcomes. Learn more at dirtt.com.

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