I recently attended a seminar where the main topic was the future of the construction industry and how we are all going to be replaced by computers and robots. Admittedly, some really neat things are happening in that field such as drones building small structures in a Lego-like fashion called “flight assembly” and BIM is getting more elaborate (sort of). At this seminar they said that the design of buildings was governed by codes and the laws of physics and since physics and codes are bound by rules then a programming language could be created for it. They were quick to point out that your everyday DIY enthusiast can download a $40 program online and design their own house. (If I may drift off the subject for just a moment – please encourage everyone you know to design houses this way – it is making me a fortune in forensic engineering and expert witness fees.)
At the risk of sounding like my father, I have to scoff at the notion of a computer designing a building. The presenter was clearly a visionary but it was apparent that their exposure to the code and the building industry was limited. We as designers know that the code is not perfect nor is it all encompassing. It is truly more of a “guide” than anything else. The computers would only be as successful as the programming they received and of course building design is only partially tied to the laws of physics. Can I get an ‘amen’ out of the architects and interior designers who contend with the emotional whims of their clients which change by the minute? One of my best friends is a computer programmer and we actually built tree-houses together as children. He would be the first to say that programmers are clueless about even the most basic building information. Routinely he refers to a “column” as a “pole” but I think he does that just to watch my head spin around three times. Large gaming design companies actually hire architects to provide basic guidance on how buildings should look in their programs and games. This confused me for a while – can’t these programmers just drive around and copy off of other buildings around them? My answer to this came from an IT guy we had a while back who clearly had not seen the outside of his parent’s basement for weeks (nor had he seen the inside of a shower). I guess it is just not as intuitive as I had thought. So let’s pretend for a moment that we put the best and brightest architects and engineers into a room with the best and brightest programmers for the purpose of designing a program to allow a computer to design a constructible building.
Even now I am laughing out loud – (LOL to you millennials). I guess the first step would be to design a generic cube and work your way up to more complex structures from there. Let’s start with a simple restroom for a park. Here in the Ozarks, we refer to this as a “brick sh!t house”. The variables that we as designers consider are staggering from the get-go even for this simple structure. Where are we going to put it, what about the soil and ground water, will it be used year round, what is the climate, how should it look, bird control, ADA, erosion control, differing site conditions, what about ventilation, maintenance and cleanability? I honestly sat down and listed the variables that came to mind and, out of boredom, I stopped at 219 basic considerations. Each of those variables has at least 5 variables attached to them… color, style, recessed or not…and as you work your way through these variables you do eventually hit an endpoint and a “design” is finally formed. If you sit down and do the math, the programming language just to design a brick sh!t house would have to take months. Now let’s throw in the time to test and debug the program to get it to design its first successful sh!t house. We are talking about years to make this happen. By the time you had a fully functional program, the tampon dispensers and the fart fans that were used in the initial programming would have been discontinued and the design code would have changed. In our scenario the end product would be the design for an unconstructible building which may or may not even meet the minimum requirements for a building permit.
Fifteen years ago I was told that “BIM was here” and within 10 years we would all be using a model to design and build buildings. The model would completely replace paper construction documents and there would be massive steel fabrications shops that would operate without humans and chug out the structural steel members like squeezing toothpaste out of a container. One of the things that stuck with me from long ago was that these facilities would be so automated that the buildings themselves would not even have lighting because humans would not need to be there. I did some research online and I found companies who are selling this automated equipment but only a few companies claiming to be fully automated. I called one of the companies who really emphasized their automated qualities for structural steel on their website and after asking a few questions it was clear that the “lights were on” in their plant and the human element was still in play. He mentioned that one issue that gives them fits is the fact that a W12x22 rolled on January 10th is not the same size as a W12x22 rolled on January 20th. It turns out it is hard to tell a machine how to compute the best course of action when wide tolerances are in play. In so far as I can see – those types of facilities are still far in the distance.
The bottom line is that I, as a building designer, am not fearful of being replaced by a computer and I am even finding it difficult to see myself being replaced by humans given the current “Nintendo” gene pool. I welcome the opportunity to see this computer programming concept put into action just so I can relish in its complete failure. As a side note, I want you all to imagine the last new graduate you hired – you know the one that got embarrassed when you started talking about “flashing” things. (yes – they were imagining you naked – eww!) It will be these millennials who take on this challenge and, unlike my computer programming friend, they have not even held a hammer much less built a tree house. Millennials if this ruffles your feathers then by all means, please prove me wrong. You can start by sending me Revit models where the slab is touching the walls and the walls are touching the roof instead of magically hanging in space –the computer is going to need to know that skyhooks don’t exist.