Workflow 2010: Designing Industry


Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Scott Marble, instructor, with Julie Jira

Theme 6: Automation and the Commodification of Design and Construction

Do the efficiencies of automation of both design and construction change their cultural value? Is this issue different for design and construction? What are the criteria in determining when to automate and when to intuit design ideas? If it can be automated, should it be automated?

Huges, Will_The Future for the Construction Professions in Australia_ in TAKE 5_ Ed. by Paolo Tombesi

Marble, Scott Imagining Risk_ in Building in the Future


Filed under: Fabrication

19 Responses

  1. padams20 says:

    I followed along with Huges’ essay as it delineated the duality of “value” into two camps: Managerial / Professional. These were basically equivalent to Quantitative / Qualitative. However, I have little use for the fatalism of his arguments as he predicts the demise of all that was conservative and good about the ancient ‘ol profession and how the new AEC industry is headed straight down the tube.

    "Whole universities are placing their knowledge base on-line, free for anyone to access, proving the point that their capital is not knowledge but people with their individual expertise."

    but then:

    "In fact, riding on this wave of reform, and resonant with what is elsewhere in the world , we see the emergence of collaborative working practices, partnering, and a widespread call for mutual trust that fly in the face of transparency and accountability. These developments fit well with the interests of local big business, and governments can perhaps develop close relationships with it. Certainly, there are mutual benefits in creating agendas for industrial reform that ensure the market base of only specific and large businesses and, consequently, the death of the middle-sized and smaller ones."

    I agree with his first quote, that greater transparency and consolidation of information would only add rote knowledge where it could be useful, but highlight the importance of smart analytical thinking and the personal touch. How will this kill the small firm?

    I am also skeptical of Huges’ mass production phobia. If innovation can only occur in large firms, then OK, lets all join large firms. If this is not the case, then the small one’s will survive… Ugh.

    BTW, right on Scott! Our value is our judgment – computers are a FAR way away from doing things on their own, and I think the public acknowledges the danger of no human oversight. We’ve only had about 100 of those “The AI’s are taking over humanity” sci-fi movies.

    • padams20 says:

      I am reminded of Victor Hugo’s pronouncement “This will kill that.” Hugo saw that the rise of the novel would divert the best intelligence of the generations away from architecture. I wonder if automation will do it again. I want to know now, who are the architects who will write the AI? The will be the architects to look for.

  2. Kassandra Scheve says:

    In the Hughes article, they talked about how in the APCC report from before, “an assertion was made the 70% of the new products and services required in the next ten years had yet to be invented”. I understand that the reports usually share that they want change, however what change can you plan with tools that have yet to exist? What was the purpose of publishing this theory, and where did it come from?

    If professional construction companies are struggling so much, how can the APCC expect the field to thrive? If money flow has depleted to where some companies are folding and those that are still running are struggling, how can anyone hope to make improvements? They say things need to change, however are the people in control of the policy the ones working with the companies to help them stay afloat?

    Many of the problems that the Hughes article mentions seem to me as political complaints most people have everyday. The politics have risen above the importance of the public’s well being and therefore has become the most important issue. Instead of worrying about what is best for the people, managers want to appeal to the bureaucrats. However it also seems that everyone is aware that this is a problems and are watching it get worse. Is it possible for this to change? Or has this been such a large problem for so long in so many fields that it is now considered normal and simply needs to be worked around instead of fixed?

    • Kassandra Scheve says:

      Automation was an issue that I thought was very interesting. While yes it cuts down on the number of architects needed, it is so valuable that it will be hard to stop. While people are afraid of the idea of something being done without a person completing the process, it is also alluring to them. People like making things easier and faster, despite their fears that science fiction movies are true and AI will take over. However no one wants to believe that a computer can do their job better than them. Therefore, will automation happen? I think it will with time, and when it does happen, people are going to see that a computer will still not be able to make a decision that was not programmed in, thus making workers invaluable. Therefore automation could become regular, however it will always have someone watching over it.

      Another issue we discussed was the fact that policy is a large problem, and how society works thinks now is not helping. While this isn’t necessarily an architecture problem, it is a problem in general. People want to live comfortably, therefore they want a top job and want to succeed at it, however this doesn’t always mean completing a job well. It also means making the bureaucrats and higher ups happy, which often times means profits over quality and wellbeing. What is good for the public is not the main priority to those in charge, despite the fact that the public will be the most impacted by how a project turns out. Architecture does not only affect the people who pay for the building, if done right it could have an impact on many generations. This is too big a problem to hope to fix with one future practice, however it is something we could think about when building careers of our own.

  3. Julie Jira says:

    Design intent will drive what becomes intuitive and what becomes automated. Automated optimization through hypothesized goals can use the best of both worlds. I think if we optimistically look at the positive ways to apply both, a type of craft in itself will arise. The interface between materialization and technology and social experience will attest to objects which are cheaply made/cheaply processed. The economies of things which lack a quality are quite transient. They are sometimes replaced by other things of greater short term value, but lesser in quality, but I think as with everything, the cycle returns back to what humans require as basic needs for living and basic needs for creating.

    Our value as architects lies in how to establish what values our clients focus on. If we set a lens of efficiency as a priority to our clients, we need to delineate what we mean by efficiency and at what cost it comes to the bigger picture. I don’t think any sustainable solution could thrive on automation alone. Automated protocols become dated as new issues/contexts arise everyday, and although parameters can be shifted and added to an infinite amount, an intuitive relationship to that ever shifting model will eventually manifest itself.

    • Julie Jira says:

      I thought the discussion about persuasion was an interesting one. Architects should have the ability to maintain control and influence instead of being absolutely driven by the client’s desires. By evaluating existing conditions and weighing them against our intents, we will be able to decide when automation is appropriate or when it is redundant. There are so many paramaters to consider in design, and if we learn how to weigh the financial optimizations with our other intents, it is then that we will be able to innovative building designs.

      I also thought the discussion about the market was important to consider. Should architects consider the market when designing for the future? Should architects try to manipulate the system in order to make architecture something everyone needs? Or could a hybrid relationship to the market exist? Where part of the job of the architect is to go with the flow of the market and the other is to test it, and try to push against it in order to move it forward into more innovative territory. I think all practices should have their feet in both in order to be able to financially sustain themselves and yet to push their ideas forward.

  4. Kelly Danz says:

    This continues from some of the ending comments from last week, that with automation, projects are no longer designed but calculated. Does this complete digitization of the building process from conception to realization, although efficient, advanced, and opening up new opportunities, create a loss of uniqueness and advocate the use of the technology just for the technology’s sake?

    Efficiencies of the automation of design and construction certainly change their cultural value, as the idea of automation leads to mass production and the loss of uniqueness. This changes the value of the product and the process. This should be possible for some aspects of our industry and should not be made possible for others. A line between quantitative and qualitative must be made, and each defined, and the this the criteria to use when determining when to automate or not, maybe the quantitative is what is automated and the qualitative is what is not. This issue is different for design and for construction, as more aspects of construction are quantitative and more aspects of design are qualitative. The technological efficiencies need to find their appropriate niche in terms of use.

    In the Hughes article, the idea of completely virtual workflows seems to have a negative tone, as it seems to be equated with complete automation and loss of “specialness.” The virtual or paperless/BIM model of working should not be fully automated, it should be a collaboration between the artisan and the technician, and thereby also not undermine the or negate the job of the architect. How can the role of the architect be defined as this artisan and/or technician?

    In the Imagining Risk article, the idea of craft is intriguing, especially in terms of the digital age where its connotation expands to also include process. The craft is in the actual creation and the steps that created it. In addition, the idea of the craftsmanship as risk, and as the part that is at risk during the process of making but holds a higher payoff of broader cultural purpose, diversity, and variation is something that can be ameliorated in this digital age with automation. Can the quantifiable and technical aspects be what is automated and thereby uniform and not as risky, while the risky craftsmanship or artisan aspects are not automated, and through this split the overall risk of the whole design package be less?

    • kmd2148 says:

      The idea of value is an interesting topic in this discussion. Architects must find a good way to demonstrate their purpose and the value in that purpose as not to be negated by automation. Optimization and automation certainly should be utilized, but appropriately as to not endanger uniqueness and other artistic qualities of design. A line between quantitative and qualitative must be made, and each defined by project. This can be the criteria to use when determining when to automate or not, maybe the quantitative is what is automated and the qualitative is what is not. The technological efficiencies need to find their appropriate niche in terms of use. The optimization and automated process still would need the role of judgment and interpretation, and differentiation between the quantitative properties of performance measure and prescriptive measures as well as the qualitative artistic properties. This is where the value in the architect lies. The way that this automation process is utilized is crucial in the future of the architecture industry. Therefore it is crucial for architects to take care and find a balance in the automation and optimization process between quantitative and qualitative in order to take a lead role in this new development in the industry.

  5. Muchan Park says:

    We can design when we use digital technology or not. We don’t have to follow the exact result from computation because I believe that we are looking at holistic complex operation in order to find a trend not a solution. That’s because prediction is based on the projection of present assumption that will continuously change. Once we totally believe that a result, time will prove that will fail or at least not work as we would expect. However, I think that the computation such as iteration, optimization and automation is still inspiring visualization system of information that is integrated context not static separate contexts. In this case, we can design the whole process where we can specify computation process.

    In Pye’s comments on “workmanship of risk” that the result of work is “not predetermined, but depends on the judgement, dexterity and care of the maker”, It reminds me that Ruskin’s architectural process in Gothic culture that each craft men worked on their own job in harmonious way not in controlled and measured way, where they could feel free to express their own aesthetic. So all process is tuned by master builder in order to make harmonious integrated work but each process is filled with freedom. That seems different from what new technology seems to guarantee for optimized project of perfection. BIM or any computation flatform to collaboration on should not a tool to control or answer, rather be a flexible system that allows participants to maximize their ability of judgement. How can we use BIM as construction culture model of Ruskin rather than the controller of project, master builder?

  6. Solar says:

    One theme that stood out to me most in both papers was the correlation between risk and innovation. But it lead me to think about the idea of risk related to distance; distance from responsibility and distance from the physical world.

    “[R]easonable competence leads to immense pressure to conform to routines and, by extension, to the minimum standards laid down by the institutions or the market. Like all minimum standards, these become the accepted standard, progressively reducing expectations and inhibiting innovation.” -Hughes

    “Have digital technologies taken certainty to an extreme, leading to a new, high-resolution technical determinism that has eliminated risk? . . .Most significantly, the industrialized machine that displaced the physical labor of the human body is now being developed as an intelligent machine that displaces the labor of the human mind. Risk is still associated with human input but shifts from the hand (with industrialization) to the mind (with computation). – Marble

    I think enough people here will be responding to the pros and cons of automation so I’d like to specifically address the shift from hand to mind and relate it more universally. The body holds innate wisdom in its DNA, in its cellular memory, in its evolution. Mass information and technological advancement has taken us further and further from this wisdom, further from our bodies. We can see this not only in design but also in culture, overwhelmed with media telling us what to choose, what to feel, what to eat, ultimately telling us who we should be. This disconnect has gradually become the norm in urban environments where we are immersed in such a dense field of information, even when we want to, it becomes almost impossible to hear our deeper voices.

    This reliance on our minds and our logic keeps us safe from vulnerability in the same way that systematizing our ideas keeps us safe from failure. I understand that mass production is driven by financial demands and time efficiency, but at what point are we so far from craft that we ourselves have become automated? It is in our failure and our vulnerability that we often gain the most clarity. Walter Benjamin refers to this distance-authenticity relationship in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. If we are really to define our value as architects we need to reconnect to ourselves. We should use automation and mass production in order to create more time and space. Within this time and space, we can return to the intimacy of craft.

    • Solar says:

      I would have like to expand on my above comments in class, but our tangents lead us to talk mostly about how our value is perceived. I think this is one of the most consistent themes I’ve taken away from this class: finding a way to quantify our value and communicate it universally. I still think there is something culturally oppressive going on that forces us to respond to dollars and numbers instead of vision. I would love to take a cost-awareness class, as I feel my idealism can only be effective if I understand the context in which I’m speaking. If I am challenging numbers as interfering with real value, then I need to be able to justify a shift in thinking.

  7. Questions for this week:

    1. In his article, Will Hughes points out that, due to rising commercial pressures, professionals are often pitted against one another for projects or bids in order to drive down costs and increase efficiencies. At the same time, this process is forcing these professionals to explain their value and their services to the public and to these potential clients in order to stay competitive. While Hughes paints this in a negative light, I actually see it as an opportunity to inject education into the equation. If we use these instances of strife to create better educated clients – clients that can understand our positions and our decisions based on a framework which we erect early on in the design process – won’t this not only help us in attempting to win jobs but also later on down the line as the job progresses?

    2. I’m still hesitant about the idea of mass customization. Maybe it is because I’ve never seen an example that has completely blown me away, but I feel as though any prefab project has to take a rather objective stance on important aspects of building design – such as site, cultural and social impacts, and others – in order to stay economically feasible. In that regard, I feel as though it’s dangerous to compare architectural design and the construction industry to something like the automotive or computer industry, industries that produce objects that could exist anywhere, not spaces that are specifically designed for specific purposes at a specific time in history. With these dangers in mind, however, I can still see COMPONENTS or ASSEMBLIES of the building industry benefiting from mass customization (structurally insulated panels, for instance). How can we push these processes forward so that we don’t lose the implicit elements of architectural design, but economize (through innovation) the way in which we do it?

    3. I think Scott is right on with the concluding sentence to his article:

    “So while current digital technology delivers increasing amounts of certainty, it is the risk associated with interpreting and imaging alternative outcomes that needs to be maintained to give craft a new role in mediating between humans and technology.”

    However, as an addition to this statement, I would also warn of these new technologies being misused only for misuse’s sake while being passed off as craft. In Grasshopper, for instance, it’s very easy to create a very complex (looking) drawing with minimal effort based on a relatively simple script. While the tools are there to promote control, we, as designers, must become even more tuned in when it comes to editing down the division between innovation and excess. Too often, I think the two are confused. We must not make the mistake in thinking that machines will allow us to be any less rigorous. With rigor and risk, comes reward. How can we balance riskiness with profitability in the earlier stages?

    • jer2161 says:

      I would be interested in taking the “cost” studio that was brought up during our discussions this week. Looking at “cost” as a design problem rather than just a fixed variable in the equation would be an interesting and applicable strategy when approaching a studio project. Instead of value engineering out complexity or more expensive materials, how can we justify or otherwise realize our design intentions while keeping cost in check? I think that there would be a lot to gain by future architects understanding this process rather than keeping it completely abstract up until the point that the design needs to be executed. It’s only then that they realize – too little and too late – that the project is over budget and cuts need to be made. I think that all of the systems of parametric design, building information modeling, and overall collaboration that we have talked about over the semester could be introduced to address this in ways the architect hasn’t yet truly explored.

  8. Luc Wilson says:

    Automation in design and construction has always been present in the industry, however it is only recently that determining when to automate and when to intuit design ideas has become an issue. For architects, automation is no longer solely an additive process, as it was modernists and mass production, but it has also become an exponential processes, which manifests in the combination of mass production with mass customization. This is threatening to architects because we are afraid that introducing automation in design will make design decisions for us and further mitigate our profession. This is true, however, it is possible to introduce automation into design so that it exponentially increases the potential of the architect to intuit design ideas. This happens when automation is used to set up flexible rules and relationship that allow for qualitative iteration and quantitative evaluation. (As opposed to inputting data into an automated design system and outputting a quantitatively determined design.) This type of design automation will succeed, where the modernist mass production failed, for two reasons. First, automation and production no longer have purely economic imperatives, but are also being driven by the economic crises. Second, an automated design systems that intensifies intuitive design and that can manifest through mass production and mass customization, has the payoff described by Pye while reducing the risk related to traditional methods of craft. Architects can now produce designs where “the payoff is a singular object that serves the broader cultural purpose of sustaining diversity and variation,” in a world driven by economic and environmental imperatives.

    • lucbwilson says:

      For architects, automation is best when it facilitates the evaluation of design decisions and optimization of specific aspects of the design process. This intensifies the potential for architectural judgment on a project. Automation is dangerous for architects when it results in design designs and the optimization of an entire design process. This removes the architect as author and reduces the potential for architectural judgment on a project. The first type of automation suggests a problem that has multiple solutions. The second type of automation suggest a problem that has a single solution. To foster the development of automation that intensifies architectural judgment, we need goals, rules, and regulations that define intent rather than prescribe a process.

  9. Adam Hanau says:

    1) An interesting point was brought up in “Imagining Risk”, and that is the fact that human intuition and experiences cannot be translated into code very well. Additionally, contextualizing relevant information and prioritizing the actual importance of various strands of data isn’t something a computer is capable of doing. This begs the question, are computers actually simplifying matters, or are they just diverting our attention from the things that matter most?

    2) The undervalued role of an architect was brought up in “The Future for the Construction Profession in Australia”, as the article states, “too few in society appreciate this [the skill of the architect]”. In the article, Will Hughes suggests that the way to solve this problem is to show the public that architects posses knowledge that others do not, and that this knowledge was attained through a lot of training and education. The question has to be raised, however: Although a field may require much education, training, and a specific expertise, how does that prove the fields worth?

    3) Another interesting point in Will Hughes’ article, which is raised at the very end of the article, is that mass customization will remove customization and the need for “imaginative solutions”. With all sorts of new customization techniques, in which creativity is directly encouraged, we must analyze how true his assessment really is.

    • Adam Hanau says:

      Today’s discussion was important, in that it questioned the value of implementing automated processes. Automated processes have clear benefits, as they increase efficiency, decrease the risk of human error, and can be used to produce optimized results that humans aren’t capable of. For these reasons, automated processes appear to be the obvious choice, and most professionals never come to question their worth. Nevertheless, the questions must be raised: are these processes completely beneficial to the architectural industry, or should architects approach them with certain reservations?

      These concerns can be broken up into a few components. The first concern is that blindly turning all aspects of design over to computers, without a complete understanding of their capabilities, can eventually lead to much confusion. Additionally, architect should be reserved in their acceptance of the automated process, as computers remove the role of human initiative that is crucial to design innovation. Finally, if the more efficient processes aren’t realized properly, many architectural jobs can be threatened. It is the second point, namely that the automotive process removes the elements of context and creativity from design, that is most important in preventing the complete takeover of automated processes. One of the primary reasons that people turn to such processes is that the value of architects is overlooked, and therefore any cheaper and more efficient option becomes the clear choice (or as it was put in class “optimization is viewed as the integrated version of knowledge”).

      Therefore the best way for architects to guard against the rapid transformation towards automation (if the progression is slowed down, people can slowly adapt and work out the kinks of the system) is to protect their goals and ambitions by educating people on the value of the architect, and the value of having human intuition, context and creativity is such processes. Additionally, in the cases in which the automated processes is utilized, the processed must be conducted in a way that increases the complexity of a process. By doing so, innovation is encouraged, and the importance and unique niche of the architect is highlighted . Finally, the most important fact to glean from the discussion, is that it is apparent that the way in which the automated process is utilized will be crucial in the development of the architectural industry. Therefore, it may be prudent for architects to go slow in their transformation into the automated world, as this shift (if done properly) is a tremendous opportunity for architects to take a dominant role in the newly fashioned industry.

  10. awgerber says:

    “The report clearly reflected a purely technological view of design. While the industry was seen as the creator of the built environment, the role of architects was simply not perceived to be significant in the process.”
    I think that the value of “non-computational” architecture services has been on the decline for a while. Preserving that aspect of our services seems to be the crux of this class and the ostensible goal of our generation of practicing architects. The ways and degree to which non-computational architectural design gets expressed varies a lot in our different business models. In my design, it’s either a very discreet aesthetic intervention or a expressed in the way that an architect is able to bend the technological solutions to their will. I don’t think anybody recommends that it disappears at all, but it certainly gets treated with a different amount of respect in each model.
    “Architects have little role in this vision of the future, which involves only transactions between businesses for the purposes of increasing the profitability and effectiveness of those businesses.“
    To me this quotation gets at the question David Benjamin raised in our review: can we define an alternate model for efficiency that doesn’t involve money. I think I want to ultimately rephrase that question. Instead of looking at efficiency differently, maybe we can look at inputs and outputs. For any corporation or developer, the inputs and outputs of the business are money. For architects, the inputs are money and problems, and outputs are buildings. Perhaps looking at our business in that light will tell us how to preserve good buildings?
    “Among the most challenging aspects of the development of intelligent machines has been the transfer of knowledge from humans to computers. This putsuit has forced human intelligence to be defined to a degree of quantitative precision such that it can be written and therefore transferred through computer code.”
    Is this a reductive way to look at human intelligence from a bio-philosophical point of view? Is there anything in the brain that suggests that we are capable of brain-computations or thought that cannot be reduced to quantitative operations? Or are our brain-algorithms just like “sufficiently complex” enough to produce some results that we have trouble quantifying right now? I think this speaks to my hammer argument: if you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. Right now, we have a really powerful hammer in the form of computation. Does this mean it’s a good idea to turn everything into a nail? What do we lose by turning everything into a nail? Based on the reading for this topic, the practice of good architecture might be inherently un-nail-like, even though so much of it seems to be perfectly nail-able given a big enough hammer. That metaphor always gets ridiculous way to fast…

    • awgerber says:

      I wrote a brief email about the brain as computation to a philosopher I know at CUNY… here is our brief exchange:

      Hey Adam,

      Thanks for the neat email. It’s cool to see that problems I’m
      interested in are being thought about in different disciplines too.

      I’m gonna intersperse some responses in between things you wrote:

      > Is there anything in the brain that suggests that we are capable of
      > brain-computations or thought that cannot be reduced to quantitative
      > operations?

      As you note, this is an old question and a really hard one for which
      there’s no clear answer. How serious are you about this? Are you
      just asking for fun? Or do you need real resources on this? If the
      former, then perhaps we should just chat sometime. If the latter, I
      can send you some things to read.

      In short, my feeling is that the brain is a hunk of matter that does
      some really amazing things, but whether those things (i.e., thought)
      can be modeled computationally is a really difficult question. Many
      think we can, and the dominant paradigm in cognitive science is the
      so-called “Computational Theory of Mind” (CTM) according to which
      thoughts are computations operations over syntactically structured
      mental items (see, e.g., If that
      story’s right, then there’s no in principle reason why we can’t model
      thought in computers. And, indeed, there seems to be good evidence
      we’re succeeding at that (e.g., artificial intelligence research).

      There are competing models, though, such as the connectionist paradigm
      (see, e.g.,, which
      is more complex and less easily implemented in computers than CTM.
      This debate is far from settled.

      For my part, I think both models are saddled with difficulties. But
      I’m convinced the brain is just a physical system, and that the mind
      is functionally defined, and so there’s no in principle reason why we
      could construct artificial systems that do what brains do. Whether
      those artificial systems will be computational or or not is hard to

      > Or are our brain-algorithms just like “sufficiently complex”
      > enough to produce some results that we have trouble quantifying right now?

      All that is to say that I don’t know whether the brain uses
      algorithms. The notion that they do presumes CTM. By the way, I
      grant that thinking the brain is like a computer is a seductive
      metaphor–people always like to liken complex things to whatever the
      most complex technology around is. Schizophrenics used to think that
      radios were implanted in their brains, now they say it’s computers.

      > Or put another way, is there a clear section of human intelligence that
      > cannon be defined to a high degree of quantitative precision?

      Again, that’s hard to say–depends on the model we think is right. If
      connectionism is true, perhaps not. Also, dividing up what
      constitutes human intelligence is really tough. You can break our
      capacities down into subcapacities (I can do math, brush my teeth,
      build robots, etc.), but one of the amazing things about us is that
      our capacities always seem to interrelate.

      > Or put yet another way, is cataloging human intelligence to well defined
      > discrete operations reductive?

      I don’t know what ‘reductive’ means here. If you mean that trying to
      capture human intelligence with discrete operations will fail, that
      could be right.

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