Lauren Poon CallisonRTKL

Why architects must embrace automation

Automation is often a dirty word in the parlance of economists and governments, writes Lauren Poon of CallisonRTKL. Once associated solely with manufacturing, today automation, alongside robotics and artificial intelligence, are more often linked to potential job loss and inequality.

Focusing solely on the negatives of automation misses the enormous opportunity it affords to design. For architects and planners, automation enables us to address the challenge of envisioning the places of tomorrow in a constantly changing environment.

In the technology world, constant change is a hot – and positive – topic. It ought to be the same in the building industry as well.

Earlier this year, Jensen Huang, CEO of graphics-processor company Nvidia, revealed that his company’s graphics cards, used in mobile phones and computers, are 25 times faster than they were 5 years ago. This “supercharged” rate of change affects how we live, as well as the materials and systems we build with.

A traditional building process could take anywhere from 2 to 5 years – even longer for large projects – from design to construction. This means that the nature of society when we start designing will change tangibly by the time the project is completed and lived in. Changing work habits and modes of transportation and communication all have an impact on how we craft the programme of a building.

To design relevant, authentic buildings and places people care about, it’s not enough to begrudgingly keep up with advances in tech. We should accept change and embrace the digital tools that can help us as designers.

A building is a reflection of the culture that it sits within, so naturally the design development process is complicated, complex, and sometimes chaotic. It requires iteration and testing to determine whether a proposed design concept is successful at resolving the multiple objectives of the project stakeholders and wider society, as well as orchestrating the competing space demands and programme usage requirements.

A designer’s ability to generate and analyse multiple options in a manual process is limited by time and resources, and as much as we don’t like to admit it, so is the quality of the design solution. Using automated processes, we can produce every conceivable design option, faster and with quantifiable measures of performance.

Recently, at CallisonRTKL we have automated the flow of information between Autodesk Revit, the 3D modelling software, and Microsoft Excel. This seemingly simple task enables us to go from having the capacity to manually draw and test the value of 5 options to automatically generating and testing 700. With a range of options in hand, we can then use automated workflows to analyse, gain feedback and insights to learn faster.

Revit Screenshot

Autodesk’s Revit can be linked up to other software to automate testing of different designs much faster

Automation doesn’t just enable us to focus more on the critical task of design because we are liberated from repetitive tasks; it also fundamentally changes what design is. A sketch on a napkin is still important in establishing early design ideas and intuitive judgements about a space, but now setting the objectives and defining the inputs and relationships for automated processes are just as important.

Defining the goals or objectives is the hard part, because it requires judgement, empathy, understanding, history, and instinct. This is what is uniquely human. In defining relationships and inputs, we are designing a building as a system of related data and geometries, not a static object of fixed qualities or dimensions.

Architecture Technical Drawing Unsplash

Changes during the design and development process can be the bane of a designer’s existence because, in manual processes, we often don’t have time to adequately re-work the design in response to new requirements. Designers have traditionally dealt with this problem by trying to limit change by imposing decision deadlines, stage sign-offs, and starting again if given new instruction. But in our new world paradigm, change is inevitable and happening at an exponentially accelerating pace.

We can’t develop successful design solutions in this world by trying to limit change itself. This would be naive and doesn’t make progress towards solving the true challenges society is faced with, now or in the future.

We have always worked with tools to aid us in the design process. New digital tools are just developing at a faster rate, which means learning must be continuous.

Architects and designers have a societal, ethical and moral duty to use the best tools available to design the best solutions possible. The future of our buildings and cities relies on it.

  • Lauren Poon is a senior architect at CallisonRTKL

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