September 18, 2018
Thomas Edison is credited with the phrase “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” and I believe there is no field where this applies more than architecture and design. So often people assume that interior design is such a fun, creative job – that it’s all about drawing, colours and furniture, something like being paid to colour in and shop – when today being a designer is just as much about people management, psychology, project management, documentation, checking codes and standards and managing contracts. It’s also often about a culture that expects long hours and being always available to the job. “It’s not work when you are passionate about it?” is common. But what if instead we could all work less hours and job share with our computers?
These competing requirements and attitudes are one of the key things that has interested me in exploring technology over the course of my career. What if technology could free up designers from routine mundane tasks – the ninety-nine percent – and leave us to focus on what’s important? You might not actually have realised…but this has already been happening for some time. You are probably already job sharing with your computer!
For anyone who started working in architecture or design before the late nineties, you will remember drafting by hand. While we frequently hear people bemoaning the lack of free hand drawing skills from today’s graduates, would you really want to have to go back to tracing out the outline of 10 floors for every new floor plan, scraping away mistakes, letrasetting your text or redrawing sections of repeating plans over and over again? Of course not. The introduction of CAD systems to practice removed the need for this mundane work – and if you think about it, your current project fees or time allowances probably wouldn’t allow for this kind of labour intensive, relatively low value work ever again.
The impact of BIM
The introduction of BIM which has become more commonplace over the last 10 years, has further reduced the amount of manual work and checking, increasing automation of title blocks, cross referencing, repetitive notation or schedule take offs. It has not been uncommon for practices to find project team sizes to reduce, but to require a more senior and knowledgeable team – the sheer quantity of tasks that were once the job of juniors has significantly reduced.
Whilst BIM and other associated technologies are in use in many practices, they are not being used to their fullest potential and many senior staff see them purely as drafting tools, technologies that assist production but hamper creativity. New technologies often struggle to gain acceptance, and in fact, one software company, Flux, has gone so far as to suggest the industry just isn’t ready.
It’s not the software that is hampering creativity or limiting the design process. It’s the mismatch between skillsets and the expectations of both time and money that are hampering learning and collaboration. If a director or senior designer has no understanding of the software and what is capable of, they have no hope of understanding how to harness the creative process of using it. If the more junior designers have no understanding of design thinking or process or why things are done a certain way, they are just told model this or model that, draw this draw that, then they will never learn how to best utilise the computer as a tool for creativity either. The computer or the software itself are not (yet) creative – they are your tools, your way of creating a means of communicating your design.
Before computers and 3D models, a designer had to be able to draw. If you couldn’t draw, it was very difficult to express you design. Drawing isn’t design though. Computers have opened up a new way of communicating our design for those of us not so blessed with an ability to turn out beautiful quick hand drawn perspectives. I have spent the last 10 years working in 3D. It was only when I spent a few months working in a practice last year that worked in autoCAD that I realised how much access to 3D models (and therefore technology) was a necessary part of my design process (for me – this is alongside hand sketches). Software has opened up my ability to explore and visualize my design work in a way that I couldn’t before. As we move into an era of virtual reality, this opens up new tools and processes that will help us to communicate and resolve our designs, .
All of these are just simple tools though – tools that allow us to visualize, document or automate basic manual tasks. Just like paper and pen are tools.
An automated response
In recent years, automation has started to develop in altogether more complex and interesting ways, to create completely new tools – which as yet, very few practices are yet benefiting from. Computer algorithms can design, model and check the layouts of fire stairs or disabled toilets. Granted that the off the shelf availability of these kinds of solutions is still limited – but there are enough people out there doing it. Flux originally tested a beta software that designs whole buildings that are code compliant and suit site specific parameters. Programs that prepare massing and yield feasibility studies for apartments are readily available for purchase or subscription. Right now, most architecture and design practices are not yet investing in either the tools or the people who know how to create them.
Nor are they investing in other software of AI tools from chatbots to set up your meeting schedules to software or sensors for gathering data for occupancy use studies. Many practices still lag behind with basic information management and data entry. In many ways we still work just the same as we always have. It’s clear we don’t value our own creative time enough to actually invest in it. Architecture, engineering and construction has one of the lowest rates of investment in technology of all sectors.
This is not setting us up well for the future. We have to recognise the world is not going to allow us to continue us to think this way. Artificial intelligence, data analytics and programming will soon become essential tools for competing and delivering high quality projects in both architecture and interior design. You will either become a boutique craftsperson delivering only high end solutions or you need to adapt. Your co-workers will be artificial intelligences. These new ways of designing are no less creative than handsketching. On their own, they will not create buildings or places that are any less creative to look at or to work in – in fact chances are they will create spaces that enhance our creativity.
It’s my belief that the current and next generation of technologies are opening up new paths as well as time and space for creativity. Is it creative to fill out and analyse spreadsheets of data to try to decide what is the best mix of meeting room types and sizes? Most interior designers (and likely clients too) would think not. So let’s get a machine to do it for us (WeWork already have). The time we don’t have to spend on spreadsheets might mean we can spend more time workshopping, exploring and thinking. Undertaking the empathetic creative tasks that humans are better at than machines.
What if a computer could generate space planning options for us? Autodesk are starting to test software that can, their new Toronto office utilised this process. (if you want the highly technical details also read Autodesk’s white paper on the process) And it’s certainly not the boxy planning you might have expected from a machine. The software generates thousands of options based upon criteria set by the design team after surveying the staff. In this case, the criteria included adjacencies, access to daylight, views to outside, noise levels, traffic and distractions via proximity to other desks and high traffic zones.
All of these things are measurable, as opposed to say, aesthetics. The software doesn’t choose a design option, that’s still up to a human. Just like a senior designer might review preliminary studies prepared by more junior team members, the human design team reviewed the options, considering the priorities and possibilities of each. Imagine being able to generate 10,000 options in less than a day, and knowing that all of them meet the basic functional requirements – and even more!
Studies have proven that certain building features can improve creativity (p15, Linda van de Sande) . We already also have so much information about what will enhance our wellbeing or productivity. As our ability to gather and analyse data increase exponentially, the value of tools that can utilise this data as part of the design process will only grow. Its highly possible that one day we will understand algorithmically what makes a beautiful building.
If software can help us to create buildings and places that better respond to human needs, wellbeing and happiness, is that not likely to be the essence of creating spaces that foster creativity both in ourselves and others? If computers can reduce the amount of time we spend on mundane repetitive and boring tasks maybe they can free us up to spend time travelling, meditating, visiting beautiful buildings or spending time in nature – the things that make us feel good and inspire us to be creative. My chatbots can deal with the routine enquiries, while my AI processes the occupancy data and generates design options, while I take some time off just to think.
We can view technology as something that impedes creativity, or we can embrace it as a tool and an assistant to help us unleash more opportunities for creative thinking and new ways of working within our own practice as well as supporting our clients and partners creativity.
An interior architect with experience in workplace strategy, design and implementation. Ceilidh’s speciality is work – both the places we work and the way we work. Ceilidh is the Interior Design Leader and a Senior Associate at Custance Associates Australia and works across workplace strategy and design, delivering workplace projects from as small as 5 people through to upwards of 1000 people. Ceilidh is also active within both the green building and the BIM communities. In 2017 she joined the BILT ANZ organizing committee after many years as regular speaker both in Australia and internationally. Ceilidh’s work and writing brings together her experience in project management and business grounded in an understanding of human well being, green buildings and technology with a flair for design. She has recently focused on the future of work -combining her knowledge of work as a place with speculating on the impacts of technology on processes of working within the AEC industry. You can find her blog at https://themidnightlunch.com/.