The future of design and AI in architecture
August 15, 2023
August 15, 2023
Ask the experts: How architecture has changed over time and how technology will influence the architect’s role
A version of this blog first appeared as “The future of design, a conversation” in Design Quarterly Issue 18.
We brought together two of the many lively minds in Stantec Buildings to discuss the future of design. Michael Banman and David Martin chatted with John Dugan, editor of the Stantec Design Quarterly.
Michael: In design and construction, you have technique influencing how ideas and materials come together, and then you have issues or challenges. But I would argue that these two influences—technique and challenges—have always advanced design.
Architecture reflects culture while at the same time advancing it. Architecture responds by using, creating, or advancing technology or technique to address whatever those issues might be. Today, for example, some of our most pressing issues include climate change and our response to the issues surrounding sustainability and resilience. This is coupled with our humanitarian crisis, as well as social issues, such as affordable housing, equity, diversity, and inclusion. After decades in the wilderness, architecture is once again engaging with technology to try and address the issues of the day.
David: In the book The Future by Nick Montfort, he makes the point that the future is not something you can easily predict. It’s something that gets made. We can try all we want to predict what’s next, but we need to be careful. There are going to be a lot of surprises within each seven-year innovation cycle.
It’s impossible to resist imagining the future because it’s fun. But there are wildly different ways of looking at it. The Royal Institute of British Architects here in the UK, in conjunction with the American Institute of Architects, did a survey of architects and engineers, and the top five value statements about the future of design had to do with social values, climate change, and carbon. Those surveyed thought these were the critical things they needed to manifest in the design process and our design outcomes.
Now contrast this with the future of design as the major consultancy firms talk about it. They are fascinated by the impact of technology and what that’s going to mean to the profession. For Stantec, we think most things on both lists are important.
When I think about the future of design, I think about job titles for roles in design that don’t yet exist. Who’s going to be the artificial intelligence (AI) manager on our team?
David: I saw a talk about the role of the architect recently which compared Filippo Brunelleschi, designer of Il Duomo in Florence with Leon Battista Alberti, who came after him. Brunelleschi represented a time when the role was all-encompassing. The architect was making decisions and directing construction for buildings centuries in the making, a true master builder and architect, while Alberti created the façade and left the details to others.
Today, in many places architects are forbidden by law from prescribing means and methods of construction. Elsewhere, in the Middle East it’s a contractual requirement. In southern Europe, architects might graduate equally trained in engineering.
So, some are projecting a future in which the architect will reclaim the former expanded role and take a more Brunelleschi approach. Others say no, we’re going to do schematic design because in a decade or two we’ll have new technology that will complete the working drawings. Our role will become more about conceptual steerage.
Design doesn’t stop at the conceptual stage. And the fine crafting of materials and space, along with architects’ unique ability to integrate formalism and creativity, will remain at the heart of our role. Will AI and other technologies really be able to replicate this?
Michael: In Western society, it’s about litigation and risk mitigation. There’s a Joshua Prince-Ramus TED Talk where he says that where there is liability, there is power. Whoever embraces the risk or takes on the responsibility, has power. If you back away from risk and responsibility, your influence will be diminished in equal parts. Society is just now putting things back together; we are once again demanding a more holistic approach.
An integrated design practice, like Stantec, is perfectly positioned to advance design by bringing together all the allied disciplines—using and advancing technology and technique—to address complex, multifaceted issues, such as climate change or social challenges. But we need to embrace that holistic thinking. As architects our duties and responsibilities need to expand in response to the issues, challenges, and problems we face today. We’re good critical thinkers and good problem solvers, able to think strategically and tactically at the same time considering a vast range of variables and constraints.
One thing we need to be cautious about is innovation for innovation’s sake. The fundamental question must be: how to do what we're doing better, not just different?
David: Technology is on a huge arc, so it seems like it should be easy to solve problems with automation. The challenge is that the problems are also on a similar arc. The problems we’re trying to solve as designers are much more complex, even without taking on the burden of societal change or larger global climatic issues.
Michael: One thing we need to be cautious about is innovation for innovation’s sake. The fundamental question must be: how to do what we’re doing better, not just different? Too many architects are trained to believe that different is better. Sometimes different is just different.
Michael: There’s a substantial shortage of skilled labor and builders. For buildings that will be sustainable and enduring, we need skilled trades and builders. As a society we don’t place enough value on the skills of tradespeople in the built environment.
On the other end of the spectrum, we’re seeing an increasing employment of robotics and automation to prefabricate parts for faster assembly on site. This is revolutionary for building with mass timber, where fabricators can machine columns, beams, floors, walls, and roofs like a Meccano set.
David: We will have a growing number of tools in the digital environment that will integrate AI and help us as designers. AI will rapidly integrate into management systems, too.
Material ecology and living facades will evolve with AI support. I’m very curious about 3D printing habitats as building components or printing biopolymers to replace plastic. I’m looking to those who are pushing the envelope in nature-centric design like professor Neri Oxman at the MIT Media Lab. She and others like her are advocating for an architecture which “grows” within natural systems as a “must do” for survival. She’s researching bees as the inspiration for a fleet of mini robots to build structures on Mars.
Michael: Look at business schools around the world, they are adopting design thinking as a way of training and educating students. What’s design thinking? Design thinking is the way architects have been trained to think and work since the beginning. Another example is healthcare, where they’re taking an interprofessional approach to treatment—creating a holistic approach to health and well-being.
Architects are trained to think holistically, to think about the big picture, how all the different pieces interact with each other and fit together. The more information we receive early on from our clients, from engineers, from the authorities, from the manufacturers, the better we can do our work.
David: Ray and Charles Eames put together a diagram in the 1960s. It’s not lost any salience in the intervening years. The diagram describes design as being the intersection of various forces and factors and the interests of the designer. It says that sweet spot is when the designer’s interest intersects with the client’s functional needs and society’s “concerns as a whole.” Right in the middle where they all overlap, that’s where you achieve true greatness.
Michael: It’s still all about achieving design excellence. If it’s not a great space, I’m not that interested. I have to be brutally honest about it. You can tell me a hundred great stories about a project, but what I’m really interested in is the quality of space, proportion, scale, materials, details, continuity, light, shadow, rhythm, sequence, and experience. It still must be a well-designed space.
David: It is both. A lot of which comes down to what elements we bring to it. For example, I’m curious about neuroscience and cognitive architecture—about incorporating that in benchmarking or in tools for design simulation. We know, for example, that 90 percent of people will aggregate close to one wall, within 5 percent of the total space—maybe we can trace that back to the hunter gatherers. How can we absorb that research into what we do? Architecture is not a linear formula. It can’t be solved by algebra and to your point, Michael, if it’s not a good space, who cares. But often that good space exists because a designer was involved in its creation and they take those formulas, the ideas, those tools and apply them—but in a deeply personal way.
Without that alchemy of the scientific process combined with intuition, a little bit of chance and aesthetic preferences, it’s not architecture, it’s not design.