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Generating New Possibilities

David Benson
| October 4th, 2017 Twitter LinkedIn

From CAD to BIM to VR, technology in architecture is now commonplace. Everywhere it has been adopted, increased precision and quality of the built product have resulted. Less evident, though, is technology’s effect on creativity and the quality of the design itself. Designers chafe at the constraints of software, and the time-savings are rarely re-invested into the design. However, technology may finally be bringing its unparalleled efficiency to the design process.

In an initiative highlighted in the latest issue of Business Week (9/25/2017), Autodesk Research design studio experimented with bringing artificial intelligence into the world of architecture in a process known as “generative design.” It allows a user to input a set of parameters and receive thousands of massing options as an output.

First and most obviously, generative design has the potential to increase efficiency of the early, iterative stages of the design process and eliminates a tedious and repetitive process currently performed – sometimes literally – by hand. Where this technology treads new ground is that it may facilitate genuinely better design thinking. It is during these formative stages where big ideas emerge, are tested, and then discarded or chosen. Generative design may allow architects to perform this process at light-speed. It may also help remove designer bias. Designers unintentionally approach every problem with an inbuilt set of prejudices that result in notions about what the final product should be. Generative design opens up solutions that designers may overlook.

Generative design will prove especially useful in applications with many repeated elements, such as hospitals and multi-family developments, especially when contending with a complex site conditions. Its limits appear in applications with less tangible parameters, or those having only a narrow range of acceptable solutions. And as with any machine, its value will be defined by the quality of its inputs and interpretation of its outputs. Because of this, its creators suggest, it will never constitute a ‘replacement’ for designers.’

In fact, it should increase the importance of the designer as a translator. As the industry has specialized, designers often find themselves as translators between client and contractor, trades and engineers, and now, between man and machine. Generative design creates thousands of kernels, but leaves the responsibility for recognizing, selecting, and developing them in the hands of its users.

Generative design may be replacing foam board – and hours of work – in generating architectural ideas. This has the potential to elevate the quality of design thinking in the industry.

The true power of artificial intelligence is its ability to adapt and improve over time. Generative design will likely see adoption not only in architecture, but also in other creative fields. Architects will do well to seek opportunities to incorporate generative design early and often. Owners will be best served by engaging teams they trust to wield this powerful technology, and remain wary of those that see technology as a replacement for creative thought.

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