Automating the design process won’t take creativity out of architecture, but free us up to embrace a more human-centred approach

Philip Watson

There’s a huge amount of noise at the moment about the impact that technology is going to have on our futures. We are entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the digital age. Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robotics, the Internet of Things, and the increasing use of automation in all parts of our work and life are going to challenge the way we do everything. So what will it mean for the future of designers?

In architecture there is no doubt that since the latter part of the 20th century, three-dimensional computer modelling has enabled a generation of designers to explore complex new forms. It’s doubtful whether the work of Hadid, Gehry, or even Foster could have been realised without this new technology.

BIM brings yet another dimension to design, by facilitating accurate co-ordination of disciplines and for models to contain data that makes accurate prediction and management of the life cycle of buildings possible. BIM has enabled the first steps towards automation of more mundane aspects of design too, with schedules of elements able to be created at the press of a few buttons. Designers welcome this – the laborious tasks suddenly made fast and effective.

We will be able to create places for people with greater confidence of the impact that those environments will have on us

So far so good. But we are about to enter a new phase of digital design: computerised generative design. Generative design mimics nature’s evolutionary approach to design where parameters are set by designers (with their clients). Software then explores all of the possible permutations of a solution to find the best option. It is able to sort these, learning from each iteration, to present design choices that can then be interrogated by the design team.

This is where automation of the design process enters the creative realm (just typing that sentence I can feel the hackles of swathes of Generation X artisans rising). But there’s no point resisting this next, inevitable step: it’s coming and we need to embrace its possibilities. Machines are much better than us at calculating the effects of non-linear influences and handling multiple inter-related factors. They can manipulate massive data-sets in the blink of an eye. So generative design will enable the creation of multiple solutions to highly complicated, cross-disciplinary design challenges.

By using mind-boggling computational power available on the cloud to simultaneously consider a huge number of design aspects and generate a range of optimal solutions, we will be better informed about the impact of design on the qualities of the external and internal environment. I see this as a huge advantage to design professions. We will be able to create places for people with greater confidence of the impact that those environments will have on us. Creativity will not be replaced by automation, it will be enhanced.

The key aspect for me is that automation could enable a more human-centred design approach. Designers will be able to use their skill, intuition, and experience to define the parameters by which designs are generated and then, most importantly, to select and evolve the most appropriate options for the site’s context and climate, as well as the specific needs of their clients, including socio-cultural ambitions. For example, the physical effects of wind, air pollution, sunlight, and traffic noise could be modelled alongside requirements for area of build, depth of floor plan, storey heights, orientation, where the best views are, limitations of access, circulation preferences, and even how the arrangement of space might support social interactions.

In fact almost any criteria could be explored to suit the type of project and the specific aspects of a place. These often conflicting factors could also be weighted through algorithms to reflect a client’s, or the building user’s, predilections.

The resultant options could then be assessed by designers and their clients and further developed against a range of more intuitive, but equally as important criteria, such as social and cultural aspects, including identity and image – what buildings say to us emotionally – and the psychological impact that buildings and the spaces in-between them have on us. In this way, generative design can support the creation of bespoke design solutions rather than homogenise architecture.

What’s really important is that, if we get it right, automation could make space for more design thinking time. If we have more time, we could use it to think more deeply about how we’re shaping the built environment, and to what end. It will provide a platform for more open collaboration, it demands it, and designers who embrace this will flourish. I believe that computerised generative design is a way to make the art and science of design more responsive and relevant to human needs. The creative opportunities that it presents are fascinating.

And so I wait, with my big felt tips and layout pad at the ready, relishing the next phase of the digital revolution.

Philip Watson is design director at Atkins