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Will AI enable architects to be more human at work?

André Goyvaerts
20/2/2023

Present Tense

Artificial Intelligence has revolutionised sectors such as finance, healthcare, marketing, and information technology. Yet a question remains as to how it will affect the architecture and construction industry. Will AI aid architects to spend more time designing or will it eliminate the designer as middleman?

A Paradoxical Stairway. Image by André Goyvaerts, generated using Midjourney

When we consider the use of AI and its ability to utilise deep learning to produce work at such a fast pace with limited cost concerns, it could potentially be an efficient way for government bodies to procure buildings without the requirement of an architect as an intermediator.

During his 2015 TED talk “What happens when our computers get smarter than we are?”, Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom claimed that machine intelligence will be the last invention that humanity will ever need to make [1]. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has vastly revolutionised industries such as finance, healthcare, marketing, and information technology [2]. But how has it affected the architecture and construction industry? Will it play a role in aiding architects to spend more time designing or will it eliminate the designer as middleman?


Upon the release of text-to-image software such as DALL-E in 2021 and Midjourney in 2022, the potential for AI to impact the creative industry has become a reality. This has brought both fear and curiosity to the forefront for architects. So far, text-to-image software has caused significant controversy within the field of art due to a potential loss of client base for artists. With a text prompt, any user can generate artwork within seconds, though many have debated whether the work could ever be considered “art”. Additionally, the use of an artist’s name within a text prompt to generate images in their style has caused subsequent issues of copyright infringement [3]. On the other hand, it has been argued that the general use of text-to-image software to augment existing practices has enabled artists to speed up the process of producing concept work and enabled designers to communicate with their clients in understanding their ambitions [4]. The creation of images in this way for architectural purposes could be beneficial for the architect during the early stages of design. However, use of text-to-image software would not be considered useful by many past these stages due to the inability to translate these AI-generated images into detailed construction drawings. As with concept sketches in a notebook, the architect must still use their knowledge to produce the final project outcome [5].

A living, breathing room. Image by André Goyvaerts, generated using Midjourney


However, it is still possible that clients may turn to AI for reasons of cost and efficiency in the commissioning of new buildings. To use an example that might concern architects: it is already common practice in Ireland for the Department of Education to procure school buildings using a generic repeat design to quickly produce buildings [6]. This can be partly attributed to the 2008 recession and baby boom, which prompted the need for schools both quickly and with a focus on cost. When we consider the use of AI and its ability to utilise deep learning to produce work at such a fast pace with limited cost concerns, it could potentially be an efficient way for government bodies to procure buildings without the requirement of an architect as an intermediator. Similar to how text-to-image software learns from existing art and photography to generate recomposed images, it is highly achievable for AI to generate a floor plan utilising precedent layout drawings of existing buildings. We must consider how this would impact the architect's role in the built environment if the art industry is any indication. How might we deal with copyright infringement should building designs be generated by AI using references to the work of existing architectural practices?


Contrary to the belief that AI will mitigate the role of the architect, many have argued that AI should not be the enemy, but rather the liberator, enabling the architect to be more human at work. Adel Zakout, of furniture-sourcing platform Clippings, has claimed that in the coming decade designers will benefit from AI by utilising it to perform admin tasks within the office, thus allowing more time to create [7]. In addition to this, the deep learning of AI could be extremely beneficial to the architect in reviewing designs under the scope of building regulations or other desired parameters. This potential could limit human error within the design process. We are already seeing real-time use of AI in this way. ‘Architectures’, an AI-powered building design web tool is already working on a process whereby the software has been trained to fully adapt to specific building typologies and design rule specifications [8]. It generates building typologies within pre-set parameters, customising a bill of quantities and financial planning and the integration of BIM. Created by Smartscapes Studio, they claim that this software intends to cooperate with the user, utilising AI to enable the user to speed up the development process of a project significantly [9].


We have also seen the use of AI within parametric architecture, aiding in the development of more complex forms, light analysis, and environmental efficiency. Practices such as Zaha Hadid Architects have already begun utilising AI in their projects to determine both form and optimise building performance [10].

Art installation concept. Image by André Goyvaerts, generated using Midjourney


The use of AI within the architecture and construction industry could be seen as a double-edged sword. With the potential for it to reduce the duration of admin tasks within daily practice, it is no wonder that some architects have begun to utilise this new technology in practice. However, whether it will be advisable for architects to rely on AI to regulate or design their project is debatable as it could lead to potential claims of negligence or a loss of knowledge within the profession. Be that as it may, the integration of advanced technologies into daily practice is inevitable. Its potential to generate complex forms, optimise lighting design, and environmental efficiency means that AI platforms could be regarded as game changers for the built environment. We should consider their potential proactively rather than fearing their use. Architects should not see them as replacements but rather aids that could enable them to be more human in the workplace.

With the potential for it to reduce the duration of admin tasks within daily practice, it is no wonder that some architects have begun to utilise this new technology in practice.

Present Tense is an article series aimed at uncovering perspectives and opinions from experts in their respective fields on the key issues/opportunities facing Ireland's built environment. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact info@type.ie.

Present Tense is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.

References

1. N. Bostrom, ‘What happens when our computers get smarter than we are?’, Nick Bostrom, [online video], 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnT1xgZgkpk, (accessed 10 February 2023).

2. A. Jarra, ‘The Future of AI: 5 Industries That Will Be Most Affected’, GetSmarter, [web blog], March 09 2022, https://www.getsmarter.com/blog/market-trends/the-future-of-ai-industries-that-will-be-most-affected/, (accessed 10 February 2023).

3. K. Chayaka, ‘Is A.I. Art stealing from artists?’, The New Yorker, [website], February 10 2023, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/infinite-scroll/is-ai-art-stealing-from-artists, (accessed 10 February 2023).

4. B. Dreith, ‘How AI Software will change architecture and design’, Dezeen, [website], 16 November 2022, https://www.dezeen.com/2022/11/16/ai-design-architecture-product/, (accessed 15 February 2023).

5. B. Dreith, ‘How AI Software will change architecture and design’, Dezeen, [website], 16 November 2022, https://www.dezeen.com/2022/11/16/ai-design-architecture-product/, (accessed 15 February 2023).

6. T. Sheppard, 'Ireland's Generic Repeat Design Schools Programme', 1 September 2011, CELE Exchange, Centre for Effective Learning Environments, no. 2011/05, OECD Publishing, Paris.

7. M. Fairs, ‘Artificial Intelligence "will empower designers" says Clippings co-founders’, Dezeen, [website], 19 August 2021,  https://www.dezeen.com/2021/08/19/artificial-intelligence-empower-designers-clippings-co-founders/, (accessed 15 February 2023).

8. ‘Product’, Architechtures, [website], 2020,  https://architechtures.com/en/  (accessed 15 February 2023).

9. ‘Product’, Architechtures, [website], 2020,  https://architechtures.com/en/  (accessed 15 February 2023).

10. J. Stuhlinger, ‘AI in the desert by Zaha Hadid Architects’, UBM Magazine, [website] https://www.ubm-development.com/magazin/en/intelligent-dunes-by-zaha-hadid-architects/, (accessed 15 February 2023).

Contributors

André Goyvaerts

André Goyvaerts is a graduate architect working at Lawrence + Long Architects in Dublin. Graduating with a master’s degree in architecture from UCD in 2021, André has worked with a number of practices in Dublin including McCullough Mulvin Architects and DUA. Currently, he is researching the ad-hoc adaptation of urban space amongst minority groups in Dublin city.

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The last decade had seen technology companies grow at a rate at which commercial property developers cannot keep up [1]. The majority of office space had been designed on a speculative basis. Build a ‘Grade A’ office, and they will come – but this is changing. Demand no longer exceeds supply, and the way we work has changed, while the way we occupy our offices is changing too. With lower occupancy and flexible working, the role of the ‘HQ’ has arguably become more important in its physical presence for larger companies. An office location, design, and provision of amenities are the bricks-and-mortar branding an organisation often requires. The machismo associated with office buildings of the past is no longer the best means to externalise one's values. Hugh Pearman once described Wilford & Sterling’s No. 1 Poultry as “exuding an astonishing sense of power and purpose” [2]. Kevin Roche, decades earlier, used similar power and purpose to make the workers of the Ford Foundation feel important. In an Irish context, Arthur Gibney strove to make the user feel important in Merrion Hall (1973), introducing his client to the Burolandschaft concept of office interiors, and an "exercise in the geometry of the module" [3] in both building and landscape terms, accentuating the structure of the pre-cast concrete frame. The theory goes that these important workers tended to be happier, more productive, and stay with the company longer. However, the design of these workplaces is changing again, and the changing culture of work is the first reason why.

The second reason is the elephant in the room. According to the UKGBC, 80% of buildings that will be occupied in 2050 have already been built [4]. 85% of Irish office buildings are below a B rating [5] and c. 15% of commercial buildings in Ireland are vacant [6]. We have an increasing amount of low-grade office space, bound for obsolescence – the dreaded stranded asset again. A change of use to residential makes perfect sense for some buildings, but not all. Site values, and potential return on office developments still hold more value than an occupied block of apartments in central locations. The structural design of more recent office buildings also limits the potential change in to residential. The office building of twenty-first-century Dublin, with small atria, deep floor plates, and bulging plot ratios are not well suited to change of use. If we believe in a future for the office, then we need architecture to ensure existing buildings can become offices of the future.

Nos. 4-5 Grand Canal Square, by Daniel Liebskind & MDO. Image credit: MDO Architects

What does this mean in design terms? Simply put, this is about design either side of the facade, while the facade remains. Feature facades have become ubiquitous with high-end new build offices – leading to monikers such as the ‘Cheesegrater’, ‘Gherkin’, etc., which all add to the value a potential tenant puts on their choice of building. These building exude a company’s core perception of itself, and its place in its community. Fit-out design, and place making give tenants a real ability to make staff feel important, and, of course, to be good neighbours. The opportunity for a cloud-based company to drop anchor and show their staff, and indeed their community, that they care is most often done through building. The best building to do this in, is one that already exists.

We need to embrace the large-scale refurbishment of existing office buildings to provide the next wave of ‘new offices’ as and when they come. The way we have designed speculative offices in the recent past, with an unknown future user, has been wasteful. We have provided fit-outs to entice a tenant, which will subsequently be ripped out and replaced. We have designed structures, vertical circulation, and sanitary spaces to allow for maximum occupancy, when this is often not required. The constraints that come with an existing building should, and can, be embraced. Floor-to-ceiling minimums of 2.8m are an arbitrary, agent-led, recommendation without taking in to account the depth of the floor plate. The over-design for floor loadings, mechanical ventilation, WC provision, lifts, etc. all encourage us to build new. As architects, we can strive to prove the workability of retention, and more so prove that future workplaces can change, grow, and adapt as required.

No.4-5 Grand Canal Square, office strip-out. Image credit: Séamus Guidera

The main reason to retain what we have, is not accreditation led – it is common sense. We have an abundance of flexible buildings in Dublin, and few have been designed to be flexible. The houses of Merrion Square were not designed to cater for tenements, nor offices, but they have operated as both throughout theire lifetime. 1970s speculatively built offices were not designed to be converted into apartments, but they are well suited to it. We don’t know what flexibility we are designing into the office buildings of the last decade, but it is our job as architects to make it work, and to lead the conversation in designing the headquarters of the future.

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Throughout Europe, contemporary best practice approaches to urban development strive to balance complex and urgent social demands with heightened requirements for climate mitigation and ecological repair. Initiatives such as the European Urban Initiative exist to lead in the definition, funding, and guidance of such practices [1]. Although evidenced in emerging policies and strategies at both EU and national levels, processes of urban development largely preclude the meaningful participation of urban inhabitants and lead to arduous disputes during regeneration projects. While socially engaged architectural practice is evident in Ireland [2], formal structures for community participation in built environment regeneration projects remain inadequate [3].

TEST SITE is a socially engaged architecture project responding to a derelict site earmarked for urban regeneration on Kyrl’s Quay, Cork city centre [4]. Located on the central island of Cork city centre, the Kyrl’s Quay site is home to a wealth of natural and industrial heritage, neither of which are protected under current development standards. Combining art, architecture, and ecology, the TEST SITE project acts as a temporary agora to encourage public collaboration with the city, in particular this vacant site. Co-created with artist Aoife Desmond, the project encompasses a practice that is person-centred and co-designed. The project is dedicated to the examination, and promotion, of diverse and sustained social engagement within the built environment. It functions as a curated public meeting space facilitating discussions, workshops, and social activities that bring people together centred around themes such as heritage, identity, and the concept of belonging to a specific space. TEST SITE recognises the value of situated knowledge in the delivery of equitable urban development; the value of both expert-by-experience and expert-by-specialism knowledge.

Emergent Ecology Herbal Tincture Making Workshop with Jo Goodyear. Image credit: TEST SITE

Expert-by-specialism knowledge is primarily leveraged in making decisions concerning long-term urban development strategies in the built environment. Decisions are predominantly informed by quantitative data sets such as that gathered by sensors and monitors. Expert-by-experience knowledge, also referred to as lay or community knowledge [5], can exhibit heterogeneity when acquired through collective explorations such as living labs. Within urban neighbourhoods, living labs are projects that occur amid communities, incorporating collaborative and participatory processes. These processes involve a spectrum of diverse and underrepresented spatial experiences, providing essential insights for achieving urban development that is both equitable and resilient.

In her novel Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Potawatomi botanist, describes the shifting responses and actions of students to scientific instruments during academic botanical field trips – how they recurrently shy away from their own senses and become heavily reliant on the readings of scientific instruments [6]. Through a series of grounding and landing activities, Kimmerer guides students to return focus to understanding and trusting their lived sense of place and not just the measurements and readings of the scientific equipment employed.

The intention behind activities undertaken at TEST SITE could be considered as an urban equivalent to Kimmerer’s field trip grounding activities, moving from a reliance on policy and quantitative data alone towards knowledge building that includes engagement with complex and varied hands-on comprehension of the urban built environment. The project works from the position that the human experience of urban inhabitants is a valid and crucial source of data in need of robust and formal consideration in relation to the long-term strategies for sustainable and equitable urban development.

Ecology Mapping Participatory Knowledge Mapping Workshop with Niamh Ní Dhuill. Image credit: TEST SITE

Lived experiences are fleeting and ephemeral. In order to be drawn upon in a formal capacity, it is crucial to capture and translate the lived experience of the protagonist of the built environment into spatial knowledge [7]. TEST SITE is undertaken from the informed position that a socially engaged practice of architecture can capture ephemeral and complex socio-spatial qualities of the built environment, as experienced by urban dwellers. With this comes the need to develop processes that capture the situated learnings that emerge through hands-on experience of a place.

One such means is to co-produce socio-spatial representations [8]. Tangible and lasting lessons emerge from temporary spatial activations once a structured process of reflection and representation is instigated to complement ongoing activations.

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Returning to and concluding with the writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer, she describes the importance that the Potawatomi elders place on ceremonies as a means of “remembering to remember” [9]. Perhaps temporary activations of vacant, derelict, and public land can act as a form of ceremony and learning in the built environment; a means of remembering to remember and value the lived experiences of a city's residents when formulating plans and strategies for its future.

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Fragmented territories: the spatial infrastructures of occupation

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Prior to entering the West Bank, one cannot ignore the large red warning signs indicating that entrance by Israelis is dangerous and forbidden. Passing through the checkpoints, barrels of machine guns are pointed directly at passing buses, ready to fire at any unexpected occurrence. Multiple soldiers in their 20s hover around the gated barriers and concrete pods, scrutinising the documentation of the people passing through.  

Growing up singing Christmas carols, I became familiar with Bethlehem, only to realise that it is not just a mystical place existing solely in religious stories but a real city. The people living here are subject to a dystopian reality, living under brutal occupation. They are observed by snipers, hindered by military checkpoints restricting their movement, and surrounded by the constant sounds of gunshots, keeping them in a perpetual state of fear. Facial recognition cameras subject them to discrimination, while AI-controlled machine guns ensure pinpoint accuracy if fired upon [1].

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Even in the Palestinians' places of refuge, the Israeli military dictates harsh living conditions. Aida is often used for military training exercises, and under the cover of darkness, they forcibly enter Palestinian homes, arresting and abducting blindfolded youths for interrogation [2]. From a distance, tear gas canisters are fired into the camp, and remnants litter the streets, playgrounds, and soccer pitches of Aida. The lingering toxic fumes persist for days, ruining clothes and exacerbating respiratory illnesses. Artists repurpose discarded metal into jewellery for tourists, who can narrate stories of visiting the most tear-gassed place in the world. Here, Palestinians are subject to the overpowering presence of the Israeli military occupation which oversees every aspect of their daily life.

What remains of the West Bank is further gobbled up and reshaped by illegal Israeli settlements, continuously expanding and threatening existing Palestinian communities in contravention of the Oslo Accords. These settlements are connected by segregationist roads inaccessible to Palestinians, further isolating them and marking them as ‘other’ in the mindset of occupation. Thousand-year-old olive trees are uprooted and placed near Israeli settlements to create an appearance of historical continuity. Contrary to the spacious Israeli settlements, with hundreds of flags fluttering, Palestinian housing is densely packed, with water towers on roofs – another signifier of a population controlled by others. Water infrastructure is regulated by Israeli forces, unpredictable, and necessitating storage for a consistent supply.  

West Bank Checkpoint (Image credit: Shelly Rourke)

Hundreds of checkpoints permeate the West Bank, and sudden roadblocks imposed by the Israeli military paralyze movement at will. This military occupation distorts distances, compelling people to wait at road gates, borders, and checkpoints for permissions to be granted. Soldiers interrogate Palestinians about their origins while they themselves stand on confiscated, occupied land. Complex routes circumnavigate Jewish settlements and Jerusalem’s suburbs, elongating journeys unnecessarily and confusing the region's geography. Palestinians cannot guarantee arrival times, as these are subject to the soldiers' mood at checkpoints, and disturbances in northern cities such as Jenin can affect movement in the south. Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third most-holy site, is a mere 7km from Aida Refugee Camp, yet accessing it without an unattainable permit brands one a criminal. Along routes between various West Bank cities, Israeli settlers operate diggers and bulldozers, disfiguring the landscape Palestinians once carefully tended to.

Restrictive planning laws deny Palestinians the right to construct on their own land, gradually forcing them out of their communities. This became evident in Beit Eskaria, a village between Bethlehem and Hebron, where settlements strategically perch on hilltops, ominously overseeing Beit Eskaria below. In Israel, Arabic is no longer the official language [3] and navigating the legal system without Hebrew exacerbates the complexities of the exclusionary planning laws. In Beit Eskaria, Israel demolished thirty-five new homes and a mosque with no warning, making it difficult for the community to sustain itself for future generations. All that remains are the remnants of the former building projects, serving as a gentle reminder that unlawful construction is a futile endeavour.

Cities like Jenin and Nablus defy military rule, and this results in every wall being adorned with countless images of male martyrs. In Jenin, roads have been purposefully destroyed by the Israeli Military, disrupting infrastructure, extending the time taken to undertake everyday activities whilst strategically impeding ambulances from reaching injured victims. A new cemetery, established on a recently flattened vast wasteland, has soil that is speckled with coloured rubbish and glass. Family members and friends sit beside fresh mounds, grieving for the young lives lost. Parents spoke of receiving the exam results of their murdered teenagers on the day of their funeral.

Jenin Graveyard (Image credit: Shelly Rourke)

Returning to Israel (referred to by Palestinians as ’48), from Bethlehem, necessitates passing through ‘Checkpoint 300’. Depending on the time of day, the line may be dense with Palestinians holding permits to work in Israel. Once again, the Israeli military subjects them to waiting in spaces resembling farmyard milking stalls, tightly packed, scrutinizing their identity cards at a sluggish pace, and degrading them at every possible opportunity. Before the turnstiles, signs in Arabic are mounted on the walls, emphasising that the checkpoint was built for them, and it was their responsibility to maintain its cleanliness. Emerging on the other side, an advertisement announces that the metropolitan city of Tel Aviv is just a short one-hour distance away. Passing through, I mounted the bus to Jerusalem only to be hit with a wave of emotion. I felt as though what I stepped out of is a life under brutal occupation and it so far removed from the free reality we live in. For the people of Aida, it is the only reality that perhaps they will only ever know. I had the choice to leave.

At the airports departure gates, the questioning fluctuated between the serious and the absurd, asking had you visited Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus, and Hebron in the West Bank, knowing that a slip of the tongue would deny a chance of ever returning. The Israelis are the masters of the house and for now they determine everything.

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