Will Computational Design Make Human Architects Obsolete?

Thursday, September 1st, 2016
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The fast-emerging field of computational design promises to dramatically raise the efficiency and economy of the architectural development process, as well as transform the role played by human architects themselves.

According to Will Gow, Studio BIM Manager, Cox Architecture, the latest advances in generative design mean that computers are already capable of independently producing architectural plans that satisfy most of the objective criteria for a given project.

The automation of key stages of the design process will have a profound impact upon the architecture sector, by reducing labour intensity as well as associated time and expenditure.

“I see generative design as having even more of an impact upon the profession than BIM has had,” said Gow. “With generative design, you can cut out much of the time that’s currently spent developing ideas, then discussing and analysing them repeatedly.

“The computer produces a range of choices that satisfy the criteria for the project, so that it becomes a matter of asking which one you would prefer.

“This brings huge cost benefits, because you cut down the time for the design process enormously.”

Generative design currently excels at the rapid creation of designs that satisfy a designated set of objective requirements, such as cost, constructability and performance dynamics, as opposed to meeting subjective style requirements.

Gow believes that computers may soon be capable of producing designs that satisfy aesthetic or stylistic criteria as well.

“With machine learning, you could say that you prefer a particular range or style of buildings and feed those into a computer.

“The computer then analyses those shapes in order to understand what the style of the design studio style is, and then produces similar designs of its own.”

The ability to use computers to produce designs that satisfy both objective and aesthetic criteria will radically transform the role of human beings within the architectural profession.

“It could reduce the role of human beings,” said Gow. “It will not completely replace them, however, as with other professions that deal with only objective performance benchmarks, such as engineering.

“Human beings will still be needed to make the subjective decisions involved in the architectural design process.”

Members of the architecture profession may have ample cause to fret about the impact of computational design upon their employment prospects. Gow notes, however, that the global architecture sector may be in urgent need of this new technology, given the huge volume of built assets the world will need to create by mid-century.

“By 2050 we will need 33 million buildings to accommodate 3.5 billion human beings. These are huge numbers, and the design tasks involved can’t possibly be completed by human being alone.

“If we get a machine to do some of the work, then have human beings come in with their expertise at the right points however, it then becomes a possibility.”

Despite the remarkable capabilities of computational design and its potential impact upon the architecture profession, the technology remains very much an emerging field in Australia.

“It’s not widely deployed in Australia – you only have a few people who understand the programming and the different types of software used in order to be able to produce this type of stuff,” said Gow.

“It’s basically used by the larger firms like Cox, that have established their own specialist divisions for computational design.”

Gow sees interoperability issues as well as a tendency towards conservatism as stopgap barriers to the widespread adoption of computational design by architecture firms.

“Architects don’t like to think of themselves as conservative, but I believe they are possibly more conservative than engineers, which is a strange thing to say given the reputations of these professions.

“Engineers have adopted some of the advances that most architecture firms still haven’t, and the general majority are very slow to adapt in architecture.

“But you can’t stop technology – particularly because it’s got a lot of economic clout behind it, and it enables you to get something done for a tenth of the cost.”

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