Can computers design buildings? What automation means to architects

Can computers design buildings? What automation means to architects

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We’re living in a world where computers can do our taxes, drive our cars, and book our holidays. Could it also design our buildings? Back in 2013, a study by researchers at University of Oxford has given architects a mere 1.8% chance of being automated. This is because ‘creative tasks’ which involve a high degree of human manipulation and human perception are difficult to automate.

However, just because certain types of creative occupations can’t easily be replaced, doesn’t mean that their industries won’t see disruption. With the advent of BIM, mixed reality, 3D printing, and other emerging technologies, architects are uniquely placed in the entire digital transformation of construction ecosystem.

CAD vs BIM

During the 80s and 90s, CAD software has replaced the drafting board for architects. Although the software acts as a ‘digital’ drafting board, architects still need to decide what kind of drawing they’re making – plan, section or elevation, before they start drawing. The drawings are created and edited independently.

BIM, on the other hand, allows architects to create a complete building design in documentation package. Plans, sections, and elevations can be produced from a single unified model. Such models can contain many project-related data, synchronized with live preview function of the building model. For architects, BIM software will be a single production tool, which comes close to automated design.

Autodesk and Google are two of several technology companies pursuing the potential of automated design. Autodesk introduces its experimental design platform, Project Dreamcatcher, which they called ‘the next generation of CAD’. Dreamcatcher is a generative design system that enables designers to craft a definition of their design problem through goals and constraints. The system generates thousands of design options that meet specified goals, allowing designers to explore trade-offs between many alternative approaches and select design solutions for manufacture.

In 2014, Flux, the first startup to spin out of Google X laboratory, launched its platform that lets the building industry design eco-friendly homes by drawing on big data. The platform used AI to cut waste in the design process, and allowing users to easily share information. The popular platform, however, was shut down at the end of March this year, despite having raised $40 million. The company announced that they will be transitioning to a new, as-of-yet unknown business model.

So, can computers really replace architects?

Many argue that computers don’t have an aesthetic sense as humans do. But with machine learning, if computers are fed with the right parameters, they will be able to recognize what people find aesthetically pleasing.

Architecture consists of vast amounts of contract documents and models with repetitive parts. Even today, these fragments are already increasingly reliant upon technology and outsourcing. As machines gain in intelligence, less and less human intervention will be required to assemble those documents and models.

Many architectural firms have made the transition to BIM. The conventional paper-based, proprietary approach of doing business is now traded with collaborative, information-based operations (the BIM approach). With BIM, design impact on cost, equipment availability, staff capabilities, and buildability can be visualized. It also becomes easier to generate several solutions and trying different what-if-conditions on various design options.

Such automation is providing a plethora of benefits to architects, including:

Time-saving

Traditional CAD workflow uses 2D drafting tools that are not responsive to design changes. With BIM, any changes made will be in 3D and all drawings will be updated simultaneously. This saves a lot of time for architects and reduces the risk of human error.

Quality control

When the production process is automated, there is a degree of embedded quality control in the entire design phase. Furthermore, the 3D model is shared, assessed and fully coordinated between all members of the design team, resulting in great accuracy and consistency in output.

Budget control

Since the entire project is modeled and properly documented, cost prediction will be more accurate and transparent throughout the project.

Competitive edge  

Many architectural practices are small in size. By leveraging efficiencies of the BIM process, smaller firms will be able to compete with larger firms.

There is a growing argument that BIM is standardizing the way buildings are designed and executed. BIM actually standardizes the process of realizing a design. Architects are still the mastermind in creating the design in the first place.

Automation will not degrade, let alone replace, the creativity of architectural practice. Rather it is helping architects modernize their legacy business and reform architecture as a stronger profession in the digital era.

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