What is generative design? | Jargon buster

What would happen if architects could generate hundreds of designs for a development instantly – designs that perfectly meet a design brief? That’s precisely what generative design software does. Brian Ho, product manager at Delve by Sidewalk Labs, part of Google, explains what generative design is and how it can benefit real estate.

In one sentence, what is generative design?

Generative design is a way to produce many design solutions by defining goals and rules for what you want, rather than creating designs one-by-one that may — or may not — meet your actual needs.

What are the most compelling reasons for using generative design in real estate?

There are many reasons real estate teams would use generative design. Here are just a few:

  • Automation: developers often need to evaluate feasibility by applying the same process to a new site or development program. Generative design lets you encode that process, so you can quickly produce options and analysis just by changing a few key inputs (e.g. the project location or the target number of residential units).
  • Flexibility (and de-risking): real estate development is full of uncertainty and risk. Normally, even minor changes to fundamental assumptions (e.g. changing which parcels will be developed first vs. later, or switching a project from primarily residential to commercial) require starting over. With generative design, this is simply a matter of updating your inputs and generating a new option.
  • Better outcomes: for complex projects, it’s not obvious how best to maximise density or return without compromising other key project goals around sustainability and quality of life. Generative design enables developers to measure, compare, and make data-driven decisions about those competing requirements to get more value out of the project. For example, using Delve, developer Quintain was able to optimise its 12-acre mixed-use project in the Wembley Park neighbourhood of London. The developer was able to increase unit yield by 8% while also improving the performance of quality of life metrics like daylight access, sun hours, and open space.

What’s the role of the human in generative design? Does generative design even need human input?

Yes, there’s an important role for humans. By automating the process of creating and evaluating designs, generative design frees up humans to focus on more important work in a design process: defining our goals and preferences. Those are critical human inputs! But generative design automates other pieces — like making sure the numbers in a financial model spreadsheet match the latest massing study (or vice versa).

After you’ve created a useful option with generative design, humans can fine-tune designs and build upon them. For Delve, an initial massing study can then become a more complete architectural and urban design, with an emphasis on placemaking.

How would using generative design change what skills an architect or developer needs?

We want generative design to meet users where they are — using generative design should not be any more work than defining an early project brief. It effectively saves time for architects and developers so they can focus more on the later stages of planning and design using the data-driven baseline of assumptions for the project that have been determined using generative design.

Do you have any examples of buildings that were developed using generative design? Any big developers using it now?

The development and design process is already a kind of “generative design” — most major projects start with requirements, goals and constraints; development teams solve for those inputs iteratively by producing options, getting feedback and improving. The technology just speeds that up (a lot).

Some cool examples of generative design in building design are in settings related to engineering or manufacturing, such as factories where there are lots of rules and constraints about what equipment needs to go where.

Are there limits to what generative design can and can’t design in a building? If so, what are they?

In the long run, we’re excited about expanding the use case of generative design into other parts of the real estate design and development process. But there will almost certainly be parts of designs that remain separate. Placemaking — creating amazing experiences, buildings and neighbourhoods that we live and work in — will always require a human touch from experts, stakeholders and communities.

Brian Ho is product manager at Delve by Sidewalk Labs, software that helps real estate teams create designs “better, faster and with less risk”.

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