Generative Design: The Future of Digital Architecture?

Digital technologies such as BIM have transformed architects’ capabilities in the design space, but now generative design is emerging as the next advance. How will it reshape architecture? Luke Christou speaks to experts to find out more

Images courtesy of Perkins+Will

Architectural projects typically have to be designed around a specific set of needs and demands.

An office interior may need to include a certain number of bathrooms, easy access to conference rooms and ensure that there is adequate natural light and ventilation, all while considering other factors such as budget and energy loads. Developing a design that meets all of these necessary requirements may take days or weeks.

Generative design tools, increasingly touted as the next step in architecture’s digital transformation journey, promise to take charge of repetitive planning processes, and help designers to find the best possible outcome in “the time that it normally takes you to manually arrive at one or two best-guess approximations,” according to Autodesk.

“Generative design uses a combination of artificial intelligence and cloud computing to create design possibilities which take into account performance criteria and real-world manufacturability requirements, allowing designers to explore thousands of designs in less time than they could deliver a single concept using traditional processes,” Dieter Vermeulen, technical specialist in AEC, generative design & engineering for Autodesk, explains.

Autodesk’s generative design tools were recently used, for instance, by Dutch architecture firm the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in the development design phase of the New Feyenoord Stadium in Rotterdam.

The technology was used to place seating and test the design of an undulating, triangulated façade in the lower level of the stadium, helping to save time and keep material and construction costs down. According to OMA’s head of BIM Alex Mortiboys, arriving at the final outcome would have been impossible without the use of generative design.

With the introduction of tools such as Generative Design in Autodesk Revit, “architecture industry professionals can utilise the algorithmic problem-solving technology to explore design alternatives, identify improved outcomes and make data-informed decisions faster than ever before”, Vermeulen says.

 Arthur Mamou-Mani

Finch will automate repetitive tasks and support architects throughout the design process. Courtesy of Finch.

Assisting good architecture

According to global professional services firm Accenture, AI is already helping businesses across a vast range of industries to boost productivity by up to 40% and produce time savings of as much as 70%. Generative design promises to have a similar impact on the design phase of the architectural process.

Finch, a generative design tool for architects, is set to launch later this year. The tool promises to change “the way architecture is created” by automating repetitive tasks and helping architects throughout the design process, using simulations and AI to make informed decisions in seconds.

“ We want to help architects spend more time designing and less time on repetitive tasks. 

While generative design tools have been around for some time, just 46% of design firms are aware of the technology, and only 37% of those that are aware of it are actually using it, according to Autodesk. Finch hopes to “democratise” its usage by creating a tool that is user-friendly for all architects.

“We want to help architects spend more time designing and less time on repetitive tasks such as calculating areas, making sure they have the right amount of parking stalls, and daylight percentage,” says Finch co-founder and CEO Pamela Nunez Wallgren.

“This information is generated automatically for the architects to compare design proposals and make more informed decisions.”

Generative design doesn’t only benefit the designer, but also the end user of the space. Tools such as Finch help to ensure that all information, from daylight analysis to carbon emissions, is taken into consideration during the design process.

“This will not only impact the quality of living for the end user, but also for more sustainable buildings,” Nunez Wallgren says.

Autodesk’s new Toronto office offers an example of how generative design can be used to create better environments for the people that will inhabit them.

The company used data collected from employees to set six primary considerations: employee workstyle preferences, adjacency preferences, low distraction, interconnectivity, daylight and views of the outside. From this, 10,000 design options were generated, evaluated and adapted to arrive at a final office design that met the needs and preferences of Autodesk employees.

Rifat Chadirji, 1926-2020. Image courtesy of Tamayouz Excellence Award

Image: Courtesy of Higharc

The next step in architecture’s digital transformation

Building Information Modelling (BIM) – now used or planned for use by 87% of architecture firms according to Microsoft and RIBA’s Digital Transformation in Architecture report – has transformed architects’ capabilities in the design space, providing various benefits to those in the profession.

One such benefit is an improved design-to-documentation process that can potentially save thousands of hours when compared to computer aided design (CAD) or hand drafting.

“BIM held the promise of producing documents directly from a model, such that any changes would update the downstream drawing sheets,” says digital design firm Higharc’s co-founder and director of architecture Michael Bergin.

“ Unfortunately with BIM, there is a tremendous amount of information that is not embedded in the model that must be added. 

“Unfortunately with BIM, there is a tremendous amount of information that is not embedded in the model that must be added, so changes do require large amounts of re-work, but less, for certain, than CAD.”

Design-to-documentation is one area of architecture that generative design is likely to improve by increasing consistency and reducing errors.

“With Higharc, 100% of the information required for any downstream documentation is authored as a rule set on the model, so changes truly are instantly updated everywhere without exception,” Bergin explains.

Image: Courtesy of Finch

Redirecting resources

While automation offers plenty of potential for businesses, it also tends to cause panic among the workforce. And understandably so – approximately 1.5 million workers in the UK alone are at risk of losing their jobs to automation according to the Office for National Statistics. So should automation tools be of any concern to architecture professionals?

“Generative design is not used to get the final look of the building. Instead it is applied at the concept stage,” Vermeulen explains.

“For example, with the help of generative design, we can calculate the optimal characteristics of a building in terms of ecology, comfort, cost, et cetera. It’s within this context that an architect can then refine the design and aesthetics.”

However, tools like Higharc are taking generative design techniques further. The startup’s software can instantly create plans with 3D models, various options, pricing estimates, and construction documents - without the need for an architect.

“ I do not see any software on the horizon that poses any legitimate threat to the architecture profession as a whole. 

Yet, as Bergin points out, Higharc serves the production homebuilding market, where architects are typically left out of the design and build process anyway.

“The architecture profession is ancient and widely varied. I do not see any software on the horizon that poses any legitimate threat to the architecture profession as a whole,” Bergin insists.

Instead, solutions like Higharc are “redirecting resources from tedious re-work” across the production chain, in turn allowing more time and budgets to be spent on improving the quality of design.

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Images courtesy of Mamou-Mani.