MEB Design Ltd is an architectural practice with offices in London, Oxford and Kent



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    Blog: Architecture and AI

    Posted on 18th July 2023

    MEB Design Associate Architect Sadiqa Jabbar delves into the world of Architecture and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in this insightful blog.

    AI is here. In its various forms. As architects and designers, we need to get a grasp of the technology if we are to remain relevant in the future.

    Throughout our education and practice, we are trained to adapt and evolve our designs to suit contexts, people, and functions. The same logic can be applied to technology.

    AI is a tool. If used effectively, it can enhance our workflows and improve efficiency. The key is in understanding the purpose of the delivery which will influence the technique and type of AI used.

    My feeling is that we are experiencing a similar period as when the industry first transitioned from freehand drawings to digital software to produce design schematics twenty to thirty years ago. We have developed design drawings from expressive 2D visuals, digital walkthroughs to fully immersive experiences to demonstrate the viability of schemes.

    The challenge we are facing is the transition from using AI tech as a design simulator and workflow efficiency tool to a thinking tool. Therefore, people are rightly fearful of losing their jobs; the innovation of machine-based manufacturing techniques for example although improving manufacturing techniques and efficiencies, led to mass unemployment within the manufacturing industry in the twentieth century.

    Having said that, intrigued by the idea of AI tech, I explored a new app called Nova created by a company who created the ChatGPT tech, and attended a couple of events to gain a better understanding and impact of AI for a practitioner in ‘mainstream’ architecture.

    ChatGPT is an AI tech created by Nova that uses algorithms to research and respond to the question asked, like an internet search engine. I had to Google it in the first instance to find out what it was all about! I downloaded the app to see how it functions. You can ask Nova anything, from finding the best restaurants in a city, tips for better sleep, to generating name ideas for products, or drafting an essay or poem.

    The app is free with limited use with three days’ trial before having to subscribe. You can ask it three questions to answer per day or upgrade to a monthly subscription for extended benefits and additional features.

    See the images below where I asked it to draft a poem on architecture and a short piece on why AI is the future in architecture. The results were interesting.

    ChatGPT-generated poem

    ChaptGPT-generated short piece

    Poems are subjective so you may or may not like the result. Going to be honest, I was surprised at what Nova produced. Had a wry smile as I read the poem. Wonder if I asked the AI app the same question the next day if it would produce the exact same text.

    Another question I posed was for the app to write a short piece on why AI is the future in architecture. The tech produced a comprehensive short piece, which was not bad. It seemed generic, factual, and succinct like an encyclopaedia.

    On the one hand it is a useful tool for research and for obtaining quick answers to questions. However, as an associate lecturer, I can see where this may be problematic. If users misuse the tech to draft an essay or article, does it not take away individual agency? Does it not compromise one’s own ability to research, organise and compose text to convey one’s own critical thinking or evaluation of data? How does it facilitate personal development and learning? How does it navigate plagiarism without disclosing its sources? Could this not be a considered cheating?

    My opinion, for anyone using it in place of one’s own critical thinking and work submissions rather than sourcing it as a research tool (whether in academia or practice), is that it is a lazy person’s way of avoiding doing the hard graft. However, it is useful for finding information like a search engine.

    One of the most effective ways designers can use AI is to display our designs in virtual and augmented reality. It is the most effective way to demonstrate our proposals to those who need a visual prompt to understand a proposal – not everyone is adept at reading 2D drawings. The software and tech industry are advancing to enable everyone access to creating 3D or even fully immersive design experiences. Taking Photoshop editing to the next level by using rendering and coding software to create atmospheric and immersive experiences.

    The first of the two events I attended was ‘Diffusion: The Age of AI in Architecture’ hosted at the Roca Art Gallery on 10th May 2023, and the second was an online seminar, ‘Digital Transformation in Practice: Benefits and Challenges’ hosted by Architecture Today and Schüco on 16th May 2023.

    Both were interesting in the sense that they demonstrated the need for AI technology to be attainable for all members of the industry rather than the elite few. Regardless of company size and project sector.

    The Diffusion event posed the question of how much of our creativity we want to delegate to AI using coding in parametric design. If we use codes to create designs, how much is accredited to human creativity and how much to AI? Do we as architects and designers really want to relinquish our design and creative expertise to AI? Fundamentally the more enjoyable part of our work?

    What happens to those who have no interest in coding to create design? Most designs highlighted at the Diffusion event albeit stunning were a little repetitive and I could only see it being for the luxury or niche market. How would these parametric designs appeal to the wider client base and mainstream architecture? How can you evaluate design variations effectively within a tight programme? For clients looking for a cost-effective and functional building and space? Where is the value for the client? I would be interested to know how parametric designers navigate the planning policies and building regulations requirements within a modest budget.

    What this event did not have time to credibly debate while the online seminar ‘Digital Transformations’ did was investigate and demonstrate how mainstream architectural practitioners, have already adopted AI in our daily practices without giving it a second thought. And how it could facilitate net zero carbon design and the push for more sustainable solutions.

    From basic software as the Office Suite, project management tools, internet, and BIM tools such as Revit, AutoCAD and the NBS suite, our smart phones, social media apps, and online video meetings, to modular and modern methods of construction, we have embraced AI without formally giving it a label. All these tools assist with practice, project management, and facilitate collaboration with colleagues, clients, consultants, and the wider community.

    If you are not using for example the BIM tools, it is a process that appears daunting and costly at the start. However, once you understand the benefits it can bring to your workflow efficiency you will see that eventually it will become a cost-effective solution to collaborative working. And as one of the presenters mentioned in the Digital Transformations seminar, not everyone in a practice needs to be able to operate the AI tools at once. As long as one person has the capacity and expertise in the beginning, it can transfer out gradually to the rest of the practice over time before becoming fully BIM operational. You just need to take the leap, and if you already have, then it is about stepping up and taking it to the next level.

    Therefore, I would say to all practitioners, do not fret nor overwhelm yourself thinking you are not ‘in with the programme’ because without realising it chances are you already are. We need to give ourselves credit in the architecture industry – as a profession we are highly adaptable and are in the best place to demonstrate the value AI can bring and highlight how we can use it to our advantage.

    There is no running away from it and burying our heads in the sands will be of no use. It is time to embrace the inevitability and as others may agree, use the time we have now to master the tool it is rather than be enslaved to forever playing catch up. As the those trending TikTok videos have demonstrated, change is just a finger-click away.

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