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Knowledge pool can widen architects’ horizons

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Huge, anonymised Cloud-based datasets could transform not just architecture but the role of architects: Jan-Carlos Kucharek reports from the the Autodesk University annual conference

In association with
No nightclub but AU’s opening to start its three day event with 12,000 delegates, 200 exhibitor expo and 600 seminar sessions.
No nightclub but AU’s opening to start its three day event with 12,000 delegates, 200 exhibitor expo and 600 seminar sessions. Credit: Autodesk

The big takeaway from the annual conference of Autodesk University (AU), producer of software products and services for architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) and other sectors, is not that AI is the future, it’s that it’s already here and changing the world. It announced this in style at the event at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas last November, where 12,000 people filled two giant halls, as live DJs blasted pumping out house music over lasers and strobe lights. Waiting for Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost to open the event, there might have been a nightclub vibe but there’s no doubting the serious business – and money – at play. Coming together to discover the latest innovations by AEC firms showcasing Autodesk’s digital tools to work better and more efficiently, the firm itself, with a revenue of $5bn in 2023, is a bellwether of the global worth of this sector.

Anagnost spent little time talking about the BIM products that architects most associate the firm with, Revit and AutoCAD, because these platforms are absorbed into something potentially far more powerful now everything is in Autodesk’s Construction Cloud (ACC). The latest iteration of this, announced Anagnost, is the addition of Autodesk Forma cloud-based software which – with the power of collective datasets in the ACC, its own parametric tools and predictive analytics – allows teams to interrogate building requirements and site conditions quickly. Generating multiple options, it means that the optimum design solution can be arrived at during early stages. 

‘Twenty years ago, no-one really cared what went into a building or how it was built – but now it’s being scrutinised across its whole lifecycle,’ Anagnost explained. ‘External factors, regulatory and economic, are changing the way things are designed. We’re seeing new technologies coming in to serve that; we’ve been predicting the convergence of manufacture and construction for a long time.’ To prove his point, Ryan McNulty of US firm MBH Architects took to the stage to go through Project Phoenix in West Oakland, California, a 300-unit development that uses modular techniques to build efficiently and sustainably. McNulty emphasised the ability of Forma’s generative tools to help MBH optimise the design; not only form-finding to make best use of its sunlight, sound and wind constraints but helping develop a mycelium cladding panel that made the project carbon neutral.

Modular unit from MBH Architects’ Project Phoenix in West Oakland, CA. Stage I of the low-cost housing uses specially formed mycelium/ hemp ‘Myocomposite’ cladding by US firm Ecovative.
Modular unit from MBH Architects’ Project Phoenix in West Oakland, CA. Stage I of the low-cost housing uses specially formed mycelium/ hemp ‘Myocomposite’ cladding by US firm Ecovative. Credit: Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Deep thought

With all this potential for design teams, there’s an obvious trade-off. As everything goes into the ACC, it is amassing enormous amounts of project data, albeit anonymised, from which it generates and refines its algorithms. Your scheme’s info is, in effect, serving the greater purpose of feeding a ‘deep thought’ AI project dataset, one which constantly learns and evolves, ideally creating a virtuous feedback loop that will optimise, for instance, density, structure, daylight factor, sustainability or cost for all users. Anagnost answered concerns about this ‘data sharing’ aspect at the event. ‘Our intent isn’t to train models taking a firm’s intellectual property and exposing it to the world, it’s to train models allowing people to build 3D representations of their ideas faster – which helps everyone. We’re training up on datasets that represent a broad set of criteria of how a model is assembled, not how any particular system has been resolved,’ he emphasised at the media call.

Revolutionising working

The huge seminar programme, with presentations for all types and sizes of firms, seemed to bear that argument out. We heard how Revit’s BIM capabilities and digital collaborative tools were helping with programme and logistics to complete Notre Dame cathedral in Paris by its set-in-stone deadline this April. And from Jens Majdal Kaarsholm, director of design technology at BIG which has been customising its Revit Ribbon to homogenise drawing standards across the office. Nordic Office of Architecture partner Knut Ramstad gave a fascinating whistlestop tour of Revit-compatible apps and plug-ins like Evolve Labs Veras, OpenSpace RealityCapture, Chaos Enscape and Corona, that help Nordic generate schemes and renders quickly for internal and client review. Cloud-based working is ‘revolutionary’ for architects, said Ramstad, by letting them choose who partner with. The firm operated in a virtual workspace on Noida International Airport project in India, designed over the Covid pandemic, not only with Haptic Architects and Grimshaw in London but with PMs and contractors on site. Developments in this realm were born out by the launch of Autodesk Workshop XR, a virtual collaborative workspace connected to Autodesk Construction Cloud (ACC), that allows users to conduct design reviews and monitor issues within their 3D models represented in VR by participants' avatars. Since Forma’s release last year, Nordic has been testing its capabilities to optimise the form designs according to weather data, structural and embodied carbon minimisation. ‘It’s important to use tools that can test these parameters [so we can] quickly look at options and make informed choices, as at our Keflavik Airport project in Iceland,’ says Ramstad.

Unlocking this problem inspired Autodesk’s Carl Christensen to co-found Norwegian startup Spacemaker AI in 2016, which sold to Autodesk in 2020 for $240 million, as the basis of Forma. ‘We empower architects to tell stronger, more credible design stories in a way that’s understandable to stakeholders or clients,’ he says. ‘Forma makes it easier to analyse buildability, sustainability, carbon use and costs to quickly create options, interrogate and visualise them.'

Autodesk’s Workshop XR, launched at the event is the latest in a set of increasingly powerful collaborative tools.
Autodesk’s Workshop XR, launched at the event is the latest in a set of increasingly powerful collaborative tools. Credit: Autodesk

Creative liberation

Doesn’t the feedback loop of user data in the Cloud’s huge dataset create algorithms favouring generic outcomes and stifling innovation? Christensen says no, it’s the opposite; he wants architects to be ‘liberated from banal but necessary processes and concentrate on improving the design by looking at myriad options’. Cloud-based datasets are applied in unique situations: ‘We’re not converging on one way of doing things. There are different sites, stakeholders and needs which we optimise so it’s easier for architects to handle the predictable aspects and they can discuss compromises intelligently. With Forma I’d like to think you spend more time on the ‘soft’ qualities of design, knowing the ‘hard’ ones have been addressed.’

As with the introduction of AI in any sector, there are fears it will have a negative impact on jobs, but Christensen thinks that ‘the idea that there’s no need for expertise is a fallacy – people’s time is spent more creatively and in a more value-driven way.’ This understandably aligns with his boss Anagnost’s view that the AEC sector is moving from its traditional role into a new one. Creating detailed data-rich digital twins of buildings means architects become ‘gatekeepers’ – ongoing consultees in operations and maintenance for clients after the building is finished.

Essential change

Making architects reappraise their role might even change client perceptions of them. In a lecture at the end of the AU event, Marcos Aguado Sánchez, project leader at Spain’s largest retailer El Corte Inglés, discussed the accelerated, expensive and challenging journey by the €16bn revenue, family-owned firm to create an up-to-date digital twin of its 11 million m2, predominantly city-centre real estate. Modelical, a built environment strategy, technology and design consultant is helping it realise this. The eventual model will not just deal with physical assets but be granular enough to help decision-making in retail logistics, operations, even carbon saving – the retail giant is a significant electricity user. ‘The cost of the model is about €2/m2 – peanuts when you look at the uplift in value of the real estate as a result of it,’ says Modelical MD and architect Roberto Molinos. ‘Until now the firm has relied on gut instinct but is learning that it needs to be more qualitative and data driven, to work in new ways, be more attractive to talent and so be seen as more valuable.’ So it’s about more than the model: ‘It’s about changing the company’s DNA.’ 

RIBAJ was a guest at Autodesk’s AU conference in Las Vegas from 12-15 November 2023



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