Technology is smart – but not smart (or cheap) enough to replace people yet, says Eleanor Young
I dislike the way Microsoft has co-opted friendly group working as Teams. Now ‘chat’ is going the same way with chat bots and ChatGPT cloaking artificial intelligence in a cosy, human, informality.
In these developments we see the collision of the two major investments in architectural practices: people and technology – and the delicate balance between them. People outside architecture often think that architects work with steel, concrete, timber and fine surface material. But it is clear that the basic ingredients for architecture are the people who design it, their skills and knowledge.
Tools might include Rotring pens and cardboard models, but now they are more likely to involve software – whether researching products on Chrome, project management on Union Square or drawing and communicating through CAD or BIM with all the necessary plug ins.
The RIBA Benchmarking Survey of chartered practices shows quite how significant people costs are – making up 61% of mean practice expenditure in 2022 (IT doesn’t reach even 10%).
When Zaha Hadid Architects announced its results to April 2022, it flagged a dramatic increase in staff costs, with £11 million on wages and salaries going not just on its expanded workforce (from 440 to 520) but also cost of living increases and bonuses. It was enough to affect its profits, despite increased turnover. This in a company led by Patrik Schumacher, who has long promoted software-based parametric design.
AI could make design more robust, say on the design of a staircase – estimated at around 150 decisions at its most basic
Many practices are reporting difficulty recruiting. And so salaries rise, not from fair employers trying to maintain the staff’s standard of living, but in order to secure and to retain talent. Public sector salary negotiations show how contentious this is, with nurses at food banks on one hand and estimates of the many millions from the government for tiny wage rises on the other.
I was looking out of my grubby car windscreen as I sat in line for the carwash and thinking about the economics of automatic versus manual carwashes. This example does the rounds on sites explaining productivity and the lack of it in the UK: the huge investment in efficient machines on the one hand that have been overtaken by cheap labour supplying a hand polish and shine on the other. But as the costs of labour increase, so the pendulum swings back in favour of the machine.
The question of whether AI will take our jobs has been around as long as AI. Dale Sinclair, now head of digital innovation as WSP, has written about how AI could make design more robust, say on the design of a staircase – which he estimates is around 150 decisions at its most basic. AI could ensure it is referencing the most up to date regulations and sustainability best practice, perhaps even checking in on material prices too so that could be factored in.
How much AI will replace roles or push architects up the value chain to ask the big questions of unique sites will depend on the economy of labour and software investment. But it’s clear that a watercooler chat with an AI bot will never rival one with a colleague.