Will Algorithms Be the New Architects?

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By Sam Lubell
Architecture is the latest field to feel the double-edged sword of computerization.

With automated cars and robotic assistants already a reality, the idea of using computer algorithms and artificial intelligence to design buildings doesn’t seem so farfetched. Some of architecture’s leaders are already employing a mix of these technologies, known as "generative design" or GD, which could soon transform the industry. 

At its simplest level, GD starts with a process—parametric design—in which designers enter a list of end-goals, or parameters, and software generates solutions to meet those goals. For example, if you want a building that is bathed in natural light, the computer might create designs with really large windows. It gets more interesting as the parameters get more numerous and complex and even start to include subjective goals, like comfort and well-being. 

One of the leaders in GD is Autodesk, the maker of architectural design software like AutoCAD and Revit. In 2016, the company hired New York architecture firm The Living to test some of its parametric design programs while creating a new Autodesk office in Toronto. Parameters included those specified by more than 300 of its employees, such as work style—solo or collaborative—and other preferences, as well as more objective factors, like available views and light. The computer took over, crunching the data to come up with about 10,000 configurations.The Living then used another set of algorithms to whittle down that number to eight. The humans chose from there. 

Such work raises the question: If this type of software gets really good, will computers eventually replace architects? David Benjamin, founding principal of The Living and an assistant professor at Columbia, says no: "It wasn’t the computer telling us what to do. We made the decisions based on human values."

"Architects are the conductors of the design process—they provide something that is very difficult to systematize," agrees Autodesk principal research scientist Michael Bergin, who says that while software could someday create predictable architecture, "the really good stuff will always need human guidance." He does think that GD will remove a lot of the back-end drudgery, allowing architects to take on more projects.

And architects are used to having to explain their value. As Benjamin points out, 90 percent of current building projects do not use an architect. Of the threat of being sidelined as a profession, he says: "It’s basically a problem that already exists, but it’s a new flavor. I think as a community we have to advocate for why we want the built environment not to be self-driving architecture. Cookie-cutter results are convenient, but we have to argue for why they’re insufficient."

• Analyzing data from a study on computerization by two Oxford professors, Planet Money found there’s only a 1.8% chance U.S. architects’ jobs will be automated in the next decade or so.
• But data from the same study pointed toward the conclusion that tradespeople’s chances of being replaced by machines are far higher: 82.4% for masons, 89.7% for roofers.