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Why generative AI is a game changer for designers

The future may be virtual, but what what does that mean for the world of architecture and interiors, asks Roar’s Pallavi Dean.

18/09/2023

4 min read

Pallavi Dean is founder and creative director of Roar, a Dubai-based interior design and architecture firm. She holds a B Arch from the American University of Sharjah, an MA in Interior Design Theory from Savanah College of Architecture and Design, and an MBA from INSEAD.


Everyone is talking about generative AI: is it the real deal or a passing fad?

Goldman Sachs says 300 million jobs will be affected. Like most people, I only care about one of those jobs: my own. I’m an architect, interior designer and business owner. Here are three ways AI is a game changer – and one way the game remains the same.

Architects and visualisers are more vulnerable than most

Why? Because of tools like DALLE-2 and Midjourney, that create 3D renders in a matter of minutes using prompts and descriptive text. My worry is this could become Pinterest 2.0 – where clients will resort to taking these 3Ds directly to contractors to build.

Goldman analysed a range of jobs, to assess how much of a threat AI poses. The good news is that we’re better off than lawyers, but the bad news is that we’re worse off than most. To be precise, they evaluated what they call ‘current work tasks that could be automated by AI’. For lawyers it’s 44%; for architects it’s 37%. The average across all jobs is 25%.

One possible solution: we could switch from designing buildings to getting our hands dirty and actually building the things. Just 1% of construction and maintenance jobs could be automated, says Goldman. Time to retrain as a carpenter, perhaps?

Game changer two: floor plans

To find out which bits of our jobs fall into that 37% category, we asked ChatGPT, the poster child of generative AI. “Artificial intelligence can significantly improve design efficiency by automating repetitive tasks such as creating floor plans, 3D models and rendering images,” it told us.

Take software like Maket. For $30 a month, it promises to generate multiple floor plans and export them in a .dxf format. They talk a good game about ‘revolutionising AEC’ (Architecture, Engineering and Construction). Of course, some of it is just hype; I doubt it would have done as good a job as Frank Gehry on the Guggenheim in Bilbao, or Sean Killa’s Museum of the Future in Dubai. But there’s something in it. Autodesk has an AI lab and is working with universities including Stanford and MIT. It’d take a brave designer to bet against these powerhouses.

This is machine learning and large-scale data analysis in practice, though AGI (artificial general intelligence) builds on past data and doesn’t really account for real time changes in regulation, current market trends or possible supply chain issues.

Game changer three: sales

As a business owner, sales is a massive part of my job. But not in the way you’d think. Sure, I have to constantly focus on business development to generate the cash to pay the rent, taxes and salaries.

More important, even after we’ve won the contract, we’re constantly selling our ideas and our designs to existing clients. I always remember a great quote from the graphic designer Paula Scher, on the Netflix documentary Abstract. She explained that she spends 10% of her time designing, but 90% of her time convincing clients that the designs are good. That’s probably a slight exaggeration, but the point is well made.

AI can and does help here. Like most interior design and architecture firms, we have a big team that does nothing but create 3D visuals, either static or fly- throughs. They are time-consuming and expensive. Yet, we need them at every stage of the design process – at the pitch; at pre-concept; at concept design; at detail design; and for the client’s marketing campaign.

Open AI – the ChatGPT guys – have launched a 3D generator called Point-E. It’s still in beta mode, but the potential is there. There’s little doubt that AI will be hugely powerful in generating virtual reality content.

And yet the game remains fundamentally the same

I was born in 1981, the year John Walker and 12 programmers in San Francisco created AutoCAD. Computed Aided Design was touted at the time as
the death of architecture. Turns out it wasn’t. Around the same time, calculators and spreadsheets were prompting doom and gloom headlines about the death of accountancy as a profession. Nope.

Even the guys at Maket recognise that you still need humans: “We empower architects, designers, builders, contractors and developers.” The key word being empower, not replace.

Bottom line: as a business owner, if I could fire my 30-strong workforce tomorrow and replace them with an algorithm that doesn’t take days off or vacation, my profit margin would go through the roof. But I cannot. Nor can I send a computer to a client pitch, or a site meeting with project managers and engineers over a tricky construction challenge. Generative AI will help us be more efficient, and maybe even be more creative, but it will not replace us.

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