AI in Design: Insights from AEC Innovate 2023

As the sun set over Boston last week, the city played host to the inaugural AEC Innovate conference, a gathering of 230 executives from architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) firms from across the nation. Organized by PSMJ, the event was a melting pot of ideas, innovations, and, notably, a measure of caution. The central theme was the exploration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in design and construction—a topic that has emerged as both a beacon of hope and a source of trepidation for many in the industry.

HKS, a global architecture and design firm, has been at the vanguard of this technological exploration. Over the past few years, HKS has delved deeply into how AI can enhance its design capabilities. In 2023, the firm created a Design Research Lead position specifically for AI, and this year, it has been developing comprehensive AI guidance policies. The firm now employs image-generating AI to inform its design sketches and has upgraded its data warehouse—holding 20 years of financial information and project data from the past five years—to integrate information from various sources.

“AI provides us with a new way to discover information,” remarked Cory Brugger, HKS’s Chief Technology Officer. However, Brugger was quick to temper expectations. “We knew we had to embrace the chaos, but we aren’t convinced yet about the ‘if’ and ‘where’ of AI.”

This sentiment resonated throughout the conference, where optimism was balanced with caution. Predictions about AI fundamentally altering how AEC firms design, build, and operate were tempered by warnings about its current limitations and risks. “The tech we use reasons by memorizing the world, not with semantic logic,” said Phillip Bernstein, an Associate Dean and Professor at Yale University’s School of Architecture. “Until tech reaches a point when it understands semantic detail, it will be hard to use for architecture.”

Autodesk, a company that has been investigating AI for over a decade, acknowledged these challenges. In May, Autodesk introduced a generative model called Bernini to its suite of AI-powered products. Bernini is capable of producing 3D shapes from 2D images, texts, and point clouds. However, Racel Amour, Autodesk’s Head of Generative AI, admitted, “We have a lot of work [to do] before we could go into production using this technology.”

The overriding message at the conference was clear: AI is evolving rapidly into a useful tool, but it is not a panacea. AEC firms need to be selective in choosing what tools they develop and for what specific tasks. While its capabilities are advancing at a rapid pace, AI is not quite ready for prime time in the AEC world.

Brad Tushas, Vice President of Product Management for Deltek, emphasized the importance of starting small and identifying use cases. “This journey is more accessible and satisfying when firms start with a goal in mind and harness diverse talent,” he said. Tushas noted that the recent emergence of AI agents, which perform actions autonomously in an intelligent manner, are elevating Generative AI tech to new heights, particularly in content creation and analysis, and automating workflows.

The conference also underscored the importance of collaboration. Last year, the AIA Large Firm Roundtable launched an Innovation Design Consortium (IDC), to which 40 of the Roundtable’s 80 firms have committed $2 million. The IDC aims to identify common problems among AEC firms and jointly devise solutions. One of the visions for IDC is to establish a data-sharing platform that would serve as a data source for AI engines. However, challenges remain, including creating “high fidelity” data that avoids “hallucinations” of erroneous or fabricated information.

Thornton Tomasetti, an engineering firm, has been proactive in the AI arena. Its research and development division, CORE Studio, has created AI-powered applications like T2D2, a tool for inspecting a building’s structural integrity. T2D2 was recently used to inspect the Empire State Building. Other products include CORTEX, an AI/ML cloud structure, and Asterisk, which leverages ML for rapid assessment and delivery of structural solutions. Alexandra Pollock, AIA, CORE Studio’s Senior Director, and Seyedomid Sajedi, an AI/Machine Learning engineer, demonstrated how AI can expedite design processes. For instance, a truss design completed with Asterisk was 50 times faster and 5% lighter than a manual design from 1995.

The conference was a testament to the AEC industry’s curiosity and willingness to experiment with AI. However, it also served as a reminder that while AI holds immense potential, it comes with its own set of challenges and risks. As the industry continues its digital journey, the balance between caution and inevitability will be crucial in shaping the future of AI in design and construction. KD Reddy, founder of Shadow Ventures, advised attendees to focus their exploration of AI on improving their companies’ revenue per employee. “The next phase of venture capital is bundling [companies] in ways that are an existential threat to AEC firms,” warned Peter Devereaux, chairman of IDC and founding Principal of HED.

The AEC Innovate conference illuminated the industry’s current state—brimming with curiosity and cautious optimism. AI’s potential to revolutionize design and construction is undeniable, but so are its challenges. As the industry navigates this digital journey, the balance between caution and inevitability will be key to unlocking AI’s full potential.

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