Navigating Complexity and Change in Architecture with Data-Driven Technologies

The architecture profession is increasingly facing the pressures of a rapidly changing era marked by urbanization, population growth, and climate change. To effectively navigate the complexities surrounding architectural and urban projects, there has been an acceleration in the adoption and integration of data-driven technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning. However, valid concerns have risen regarding the potential loss of the designer's creative control, with fears that their role may be reduced to a mere "parameter adjuster." Is this a genuine possibility or merely a reflection of resistance to change?

In a conversation with Carl Christensen, Autodesk's Vice President of Product, we delve into the impact of AI on the traditional role of the architect and explore the opportunities that arise with these technological advances. As paradigms shift, forward-thinking architects and designers could find themselves especially empowered to expand their influence and shape a new future for the discipline.

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Sun Hour Analysis, Autodesk Forma. Image Courtesy of Autodesk

In the last decades, and not always by choice, architects have been moving slowly behind technological advances, timidly embracing them rather on the fly. Computer-aided design, better known as CAD, was devised in the 1960s thanks to mathematical principles developed by the French engineer Pierre Bézier. However, the massive acceptance of 2D digital drawing and 3D modeling, mainly provided by the famous AutoCAD software, could only be estimated by the end of the 80s. The romanticized idea of hand drawing was still around (and we still love it), but advances in digital drawing in terms of accessibility, cost-effectiveness, and performance, along with easy-to-use interfaces and practical tools tailored to everyday needs, managed to convince and prevail. Almost five decades after its first steps, CAD became more common in architectural and design studios, and its obvious advantages in terms of productivity, precision, and flexibility brought it into university classrooms, where it began to be taught as a cross-sectional method of design for the architects of the future.

We hadn't finished getting used to AutoCAD, after also integrating three-dimensional modelers and plug-ins for rendering, when the BIM (Building Integrated Model) methodology broke out. This new model ended up interconnecting our evolving CAD systems with other specializations-specific programs, generating a collaborative digital model for the coordinated work of all the actors involved in the construction of a project, in all its stages and throughout its life cycle. New students started incorporating it from its early formative years, and the surviving architects had to broaden their skill set once more.

In the blink of an eye, Artificial Intelligence (AI), which had been quietly brewing for decades or maybe centuries, burst into our lives with the promise of helping even more.

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Daylight Potential Analysis, Autodesk Forma. Image Courtesy of Autodesk

What is the main power of Artificial Intelligence? At the very least, it empowers us to extend the positive impact of our designs in challenging times when traditional resources seem to be insufficient. According to Carl Christensen's vision, the accelerated pace of change in today's world is straining architectural practices and placing them at the center of some of society's greatest challenges. As project demands become more complex, the tools we use must evolve to better respond to these challenges. "The proliferation of data, AI, and machine learning creates opportunities to empower the architecture profession to tackle these challenges by helping them work more effectively and efficiently. These new tools open up a wealth of opportunities that empower architects to design better buildings for a rapidly changing and increasingly complex world," he says.

This high complexity, which further forces hand-in-hand work with other disciplines, requires powerful support. Regarding Autodesk's outlook, Christensen adds:

'We envision Artificial Intelligence serving as an assistant in the design process, with designers retaining their role as decision-makers, controlling the creative process, and ultimately making the final call. I think we'll see a huge change in how people work–being able to focus more on outcomes, letting the machines do more of the heavy lifting, and coming together around the important questions of how to create better cities.'

Looking ahead to the future, AI in architecture is already exploring automation in drawing generation, volumetric modeling, spatial quality reporting based on user feedback, and evaluation of plans for construction and regulatory compliance.

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Microclimate Analysis, Autodesk Forma. Image Courtesy of Autodesk

So, specifically, how is Artificial Intelligence actually integrated into the architectural design process? Is it necessary for architects to develop new skills or competencies to collaborate effectively with these systems? Carl Christensen doesn't think so. For him, the development of AI should focus on upgrading its user interfaces and learning capabilities to enhance architects' ability to perform their existing functions.

As a case in point, Autodesk Forma, a cloud platform that unifies all built environment workflows, already enables architects to integrate AI features into the design process. Christensen explains, "Its initial capabilities target the early-stage planning and design process with automations and AI-powered insights that simplify the exploration of design concepts, automate repetitive tasks, and help evaluate environmental qualities surrounding a building site, giving architects time to focus on creative solutions." Artificial Intelligence can also assist by recognizing tasks and suggesting better ways to accomplish them without introducing new processes. This is achieved through predictive scripting and machine learning technologies, which leverage the collective knowledge of all participating users.

How then will Artificial Intelligence translate into good architecture? If used and harnessed correctly, AI should bring us closer to better results, especially when addressing intricate processes that currently limit designs from reaching their full potential. For Christensen, AI expands the range of possibilities by proposing unconventional solutions: "We generally see that humans unconsciously choose solutions that are within the realm of what we already know is possible. You need to start somewhere, so you start using pure intuition. But that pure intuition is, of course, based on biases, and those quickly get built into the foundations of a project." He adds:

'People often ask us, if we introduce AI into this discipline, wouldn't design then be more standardized? But it's actually the other way around. Computers are able to think about more possibilities than humans. They can do calculations much faster than us, correlating incredibly large data sets with each other to derive fact-based insights. And if you combine the human way of thinking with computers doing the math faster, then we're actually able to come up with more complex solutions for better and more sustainable outcomes.'

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Wind Analysis, Autodesk Forma. Image Courtesy of Autodesk

As one of its most significant contributions, Artificial Intelligence could revolutionize our concept of sustainability by enabling the configuration of highly efficient projects beyond "green" trends or experimental solutions based on poor evidence. Referring back to the Forma software, the real-time analytics options provide essential insights to design teams regarding operational energy, microclimate, sun hours, daylight potential, wind, and noise. Unlike other complex and technical energy analysis tools that require constant model reconstruction and expert analysis, Forma offers direct integration with the project from its inception on a single platform with varying levels of detail.

Carl Christensen uses wind analysis, crucial in site design, as an illustrative example. To prevent the presence of uncomfortable or hazardous winds near a construction project, ensuring the comfort and safety of pedestrians, Forma offers a rapid analysis of wind patterns using a predictive AI model. This analysis provides reliable and real-time information, enabling early design modifications when decision-making is most convenient and likely to occur. Additionally, a detailed analysis with specific outcomes regarding wind conditions in various directions and speeds is also possible, aiding in documentation and understanding of the design's impact. The actual efficiency of this building will likely be higher and more accurate since the data was available throughout the design process.

The future is clearly uncertain, but it is undeniable that AI is here to stay. Its evolution is expected to bring forth new ways to address future challenges, from extreme weather conditions to unexpected pandemics, as well as radical changes in urban living. Moreover, the integration of AI with new materials and construction strategies, such as 3D printing and the circular economy, remains to be explored. In the face of rapid and sudden changes, a question arises: are we architects better prepared now than in the past to adapt to these transformations? Maybe it's AI itself that will assist us in navigating these transitions.

Carl Christensen, VP of Product at Autodesk

Passionate about driving digital innovation and product development, Carl is co-founder of Spacemaker AI, a cloud-based AI platform that empowers urban designers and architects to discover smarter ways of maximizing building site potential. With the acquisition of Spacemaker AI in 2020, Carl joined Autodesk as VP of Product, continuing his mission to revolutionize global city construction.

With M.Sc. degrees in Computer Science and Business Administration, Carl brings over 15 years of software development experience, team leadership, and expertise in leveraging AI to enhance workflows and achieve sustainable outcomes.

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Carl Christensen, Autodesk's VP of Product. Image Courtesy of Autodesk
About this author
Cite: José Tomás Franco. "Navigating Complexity and Change in Architecture with Data-Driven Technologies" 15 Jun 2023. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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