8 Trends in Architecture and Engineering for 2021

The trends that project owners will see in 2021 architecture and engineering (A/E) projects reflect many of the changes around us. Success will depend on how well you respond to changes in our environment, climate and regulations, as well as changes in how and where we work. Dwindling sources of revenue may affect how we approach and complete projects. Yet, better outcomes are possible if you’re prepared to pivot quickly to attain the highest levels of innovation, efficiencies and agility.

Are you positioned to handle an unpredictable climate and the resulting impact on infrastructure? How can proper planning mitigate economic challenges? What innovations can help you improve the lives of people in your community? What new technologies can bolster buy-in from the public and project stakeholders?

This 2021 outlook will help you harness change and improve your projects in the year ahead.

1. Growing focus on sustainability and climate resilience

Protecting our natural environment, factoring sustainable principles into our built environment, and improving our nation’s infrastructure to be resilient to climate change are top priorities for cities and states. In fact, the Alliance for a Sustainable Future – a partnership between the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions – released a 2020 report citing that 60% of surveyed cities across the U.S. have launched or significantly expanded a climate initiative or policy.

Cities and states with plans to improve infrastructure must account for changing weather patterns that result in a drier, wetter or hotter climate, depending on location. As a result, more projects are being planned, designed and built with the changing climate in mind.

Protecting 27 acres of old-growth forest was one of many project elements that benefited the environment in this runway relocation by the Duluth Airport Authority.

Project owners who greenlight initiatives that benefit the environment and boost climate resilience can achieve greater buy-in from the public and key stakeholders. Innovative infrastructure can absorb stresses and maintain function in the face of climate shifts while remaining resilient to external pressures and even benefitting the surrounding environment. For example, green alleyways capture and filter rain water, sending only clean water into rivers and lakes.

Take a look at the video to the right and the case study below which highlight how the Duluth Airport Authority protected 27 acres of vulnerable forest and local wildlife with its climate resilient runway relocation project at Sky Harbor Airport: 13-Year Sky Harbor Airport Runway Relocation Protects 27 Acres of Forest, Nurtures Wildlife

2. Proactive and creative capital improvement planning

strategic planning, financial capacity and physical development
Your CIP provides a working blueprint for sustaining and improving the community’s infrastructure by coordinating strategic planning, financial capacity and physical development. 

Local economies are grappling with a significant reduction in business revenue, sales tax, gas tax and other revenue due to the pandemic. “One of the biggest trends I’ve heard from various cities is that they expect a 5-15% cutback in revenue over the next two years,” says Jenna Obernolte, SEH Rochester (Minn.) Office Civil Engineering Practice Center Leader. “Communities can and will move forward with reduced budgets, but planning needs to be even more strategic and precise.”

Whether you expect or are experiencing reduced revenue in the months ahead, here are 10 ways to prioritize projects within your capital improvement plan (CIP): 10 Ways to Prioritize Your CIP During Economic Uncertainty

3. Rising investment in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure

people biking along a trail
Bicyclists ride by on the Nine Mile Creek Regional Trail, an award-winning project for the Three Rivers Park District that connects four Minnesota communities: Hopkins, Minnetonka, Richfield and Bloomington.

Cleaner air, quieter streets, and more people biking and walking outdoors – this healthful silver lining during a challenging year is a trend that communities can capitalize on. In fact, trail usage is up 200% across the U.S. over the past year, and we expect this trend to remain in the months ahead. As explored in depth in this article – Why Your Community Should Invest in Bicycle and Pedestrian Infrastructure – eight benefits of investing in non-motorized infrastructure include:

  • Cost savings. Bicycle paths and complete sidewalks are comparatively less expensive than building new roadway infrastructure.
  • Increased public health and safety. Walking and biking are a great way to achieve moderate physical activity that leads to health benefits like preventing hypertension, diabetes, obesity and asthma. Plus, the number of bicycle and pedestrian fatalities can be reduced when communities invest in infrastructure, policy and education. The National League of Cities recently published 7 Ways to STEP UP for Pedestrian Safety in 2021, which includes multiple tools to keep people safe.
  • Economic development. Investing in bicycle and pedestrian trails can help you create a community that draws people in, and thereby draws in new businesses, events, development and a growing tax base.
  • It may already exist. In smaller towns and rural areas, there’s a good chance off-road bicycle and hiking trails already exist – but are not yet officially sanctioned trails. Unimproved roads, old rail corridors, logging roads and irrigation canals are examples of informal trails that you may be able to map and connect.
  • Increased tourism and recreation potential. Investing in infrastructure for recreation has the residual effect of drawing in tourism, which can benefit hotels, supermarkets, restaurants, shops and local events.
  • Equity and social justice. Convenient access to reliable transportation is essential for the livelihood and well-being of every community. It's particularly important for underrepresented populations, such as people walking in low-income communities, people of color and older adults. These communities typically rely more heavily on public transportation and non-motorized forms of travel, and are disproportionately represented in the number of people killed while walking according to Dangerous by Design 2019, Smart Growth America's three-year report on pedestrian safety.
  • Increased community wellness. Communities benefit when they prioritize events and infrastructure that bring people together, encourage physical activity and help reduce the impact that motorized transportation has on the environment. People are drawn to places that promote health, and they often come back – sometimes to live.
  • We’re all pedestrians. Multimodal infrastructure supports everyone in a community, no matter if we need to or choose to walk or bike to get to our jobs, schools, stores or services. We all want to feel safe and comfortable. Creating a framework that supports non-motorized travel is an investment we can all benefit from.

4. Technology brings better ways to visualize projects

This video demonstrates how stakeholders and the public can gain a clearer understanding of your project goals at various stages of completion through visualizations.

Visualization technologies such as 3D modeling, 3D digital renderings and 3D animation can help key stakeholders not only see how a project will look before it becomes a reality, but also experience it as if they were physically there. In addition, providing stakeholders and the public with a better understanding of your projects at crucial design stages increases buy-in and can save you money due to faster, more informed decision making.

As digital technology has moved us beyond hand-drawn renderings to computer-generated models in recent years, visualizations have become more precise, innovative and important. This engagement and planning strategy will continue to play a valuable role in the year ahead.

5. Virtual public engagement is here to stay

Project owners have found virtual public engagement to be as effective if not more so than in-person engagement events. More tools are available than at any time in history. Putting them to use in a way that boosts transparency, trust and the safety of your stakeholders can benefit your projects for years to come.

Virtual tour of Sky Harbor Airport
From high in the sky to under the water, the public took an interactive digital tour of fascinating project components at Sky Harbor Airport in Duluth, Minn.

While traditional engagement efforts will remain valuable especially as the pandemic subsides, virtual public engagement is creating greater efficiency and reducing costs. Seven tactics to help inform and empower the groups you’re targeting include:

  • Drone filming and photography
  • 360-degree high-definition webcams
  • Virtual meetings and video conferencing
  • Dedicated websites
  • Strategic social media
  • Email outreach
  • Online surveys

Learn more about each of these tactics and how to capitalize on them: 7 Ways to Practice Virtual Public Engagement While Physical Distancing.

6. The need for creative, multi-family land developments

Prairie Queen housing development
Creative housing options abound in this $100 million "missing middle housing" development in Papillion, Nebraska.

Home buyer behaviors are changing fast. More people of all ages are seeking to leave cities, yet still value the urban vibe and nearby amenities that cities provide. Many baby boomers are willfully transitioning out of single-family homes in search of flexibility and affordability. Likewise, early 20s Gen Z and millennials are bringing new ways of thinking to their housing searches. They are willing to rent rather than buy, recognize smaller cities are modernizing and offering similar benefits as large metro areas, and seek more recreational opportunities.

The challenge? A limited number of housing options fit their needs.

This strong market demand coupled with limited supply creates a timely opportunity for private developers and communities to capitalize by reviving a trend from the 1940s that provides creative housing choices. “Missing middle housing” is a neighborhood development with creative placement of a variety of house-sized building types, such as duplexes, multiplexes, bungalow courts, townhomes and live-work spaces. It’s labeled “missing” because this type of housing hasn’t been built much since the 1940s, and “middle” because they can be situated on empty parcels between a spectrum of housing types – such as single-family homes and mid- to high-rise apartments.

You can explore this emerging trend in multi-family housing development in depth here: Why Missing Middle Housing Is an Emerging Trend in Multi-Family Development.

7. Today’s project managers: more accountability and responsibility

This past year has reminded us that we need to be prepared for the unexpected – and capable of adapting. Your project managers need to listen, learn, experiment and embrace innovation to complete projects. Stricter budgets and tighter timelines drive the increased demand for efficiency and beyond, so project managers need to be more accountable, deliberate and technologically savvy to get your projects where they need to be.

Virtual Project Manager call out graphic

See these traits in action, and evaluate if your project managers represent them in this article by Toby Muse, a senior project manager and SEH's civil engineering leader over the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area: 5 Critical Traits of Today's Project Manager

8. Client experience remains pivotal

The client experience – that is, your experience in partnership with A/E firms – continues to be a top priority. Communities are selecting partners to lead their projects who are committed to collaboration, trust, transparency and exceptional service – understanding how important these traits are to project success. Forbes reports that 84% of organizations that work to improve the customer/client experience report an increase in revenue. And organizations with engaged employees outperform the competition by 147%.

One way strategic A/E organizations are prioritizing this trend is by placing greater emphasis on hiring and nurturing young professionals. Integrating the client experience into the growth and development of young professionals is creating a new generation of professionals committed to serving clients well and following through on project promises and budgets.

You can build on this trend by creating experiences for your interns and young professionals – giving them hands-on and applicable opportunities to learn, grow and develop. Internships offer a valuable opportunity, whether in person or virtual.

photo of SEH interns
This sample of 2020 SEH interns make up a new generation of professionals committed to serving clients well.

About the Authors

These three SEH vice presidents and regional leaders who guide the company’s operations across the nation provide insights on trends to watch and implement in 2021 and beyond. Their collective range of expertise directs SEH’s innovative work across key markets of environmental, transportation and infrastructure. Clients, in turn, have never been in better hands as they meet complex project goals in this ever-changing world.

Mark Broses

Mark Broses, PE* brings everyone’s strengths together to create something stronger as he leads SEH’s overall growth and operations in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. Over his productive career, Mark has served as project manager and lead environmental engineer – including leading environmental investigations and remediation at more than 200 sites across the Midwest. He is highly skilled at client relations, but is also dedicated to building a better world outside of his work at SEH. Serving on the Chippewa Falls (Wis.) Chamber of Commerce Board and Rotary District, Mark helps the success of local businesses and also championed a project in Bolivia that brought clean water to 5,000 people. Contact Mark

*Registered Professional Engineer in MI, WI, KS, AR, FL, NC, MO, SC, OH

Benita Crow

Benita Crow, PE* leads SEH’s operations and growth strategy in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. She is known for the quality and integrity of her approach, forming superb relationships with her clients and internal staff. Over the course of her career with SEH, she’s served as engineer, project manager and regional practice center lead by guiding various phases of planning and design for airport improvement projects across Minnesota and Wisconsin. Her innate ability to engage those around her results in a culture where people succeed and grow in their careers by embracing innovation to meet the ever-evolving needs of clients. Contact Benita

*Registered Professional Engineer in MN, WI

Paul Wells

Paul Wells, PE* oversees SEH's growth efforts in Colorado and Wyoming. Throughout his career, Paul has worked on projects ranging in size from multi-million dollar environmental impact statements to a 10-mile project in Colorado that added lanes to I-25 that included many interchanges and bridges. Having served as a manager and leader in both the public and private sectors, Paul has unique insight into his clients’ point of view. This insight contributes to Paul’s ability to cultivate trusting relationships that lead to success in every project we undertake and reaffirm how our teams commit to seeing multifaceted projects through the right way.  Contact Paul

*Registered Professional Engineer in CO

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