Can AI Save Architecture?
In a wide-ranging conversation with Jeff Echols from Context & Clarity on the impact AI in architectural design is set to have on architects in the future, Eitan Tsarfarti dispels the Eitan Tsarfati - Can AI save architecture? (Context & Clarity LIVE) doom and gloom scenario some are anticipating, saying that it’s going to be architecture’s saving grace. Here’s why.
The conversation has been edited to fit this format. You can listen to the unedited conversation here:
Context & Clarity: If AI-generated architecture comes in and takes over like the Terminator, is all the creativity going to go away?
Eitan Tsafarti: The fear of AI is pretty understandable because what you see on the news and read about AI scares people. AI is not here to replace humans because it doesn’t think like one — that’s not what AI is about. Using AI in architecture is about automating repeatable and mundane tasks.
But, the complexity of architecture planning, the creativity, the cultural aspects —there are many aspects, factors, and criteria in architecture that cannot and shouldn’t be automated, and people are executing those elements efficiently.
I don’t see a risk for the profession per se, but I do see a major change in the profession. I see architects who spend most of their time drafting and drawing letting the machine draft the results much faster (instead of having to hire a technical person to generate it all) and utilizing that (newly free) time for planning and thinking.
I see that as good news. I see AI as a way to save architects and not replace them. And yes, architects need to be saved!
Context & Clarity: Why do architects need to be saved?
Eitan Tsafarti: As an architect, technology person, and former AutoDesk executive (who designed software for architects), I allow myself to say architects need to be saved. I’ve been exposed to the industry and how architects charge for their work. At SWAPP, my exposure is even greater, because I’m doing business with architects.
More than half of our business (around 60%) is partnering with architecture firms. So I hear what’s bothering them. The answers are very similar across the US, Europe, and Israel, and it’s a cause for concern.
Architects spend a lot of time working hard, and they’re not paid enough.
Context & Clarity: And, in an hour-based model, if you’ve gained years of experience and expertise, you’ll work faster, but you’ll be charging less. They’re not compensated for their effort. There’s no correlation between the value provided and the fee paid.
Eitan Tsafarti: That’s right. Today, there’s an element of conflict of interest in the way most companies charge their fees in terms of what they're expected to provide to their customers. If the customer wants something extremely fast and you’re charging an hourly rate, it leads to a conflict of interest. But that conflict can be resolved and we’ll address it further on in the conversation.
Context & Clarity: Architectural technology hasn’t kept pace with innovation.
Eitan Tsafarti: There’s a contradiction between the architect, who’s an extremely smart person with strong technical skills, and the architecture firms they often work in. Innovation is the architects' nature, as they are inventing things all the time. You also spend a lot of time researching, almost acting like an R&D center when you’re tackling a new project. However, the practice itself, the way architecture firms handle their work, where they spend most of their time, haven’t progressed. The profession faces a lot of challenges.
You only have to look around you. So much has evolved in the past twenty years. But the practice of architecture, the traditional firm model, hasn't evolved much in the last 100 years. The process doesn’t resemble a high-tech company that uses all the technology they can use to make their processes more efficient.
Context & Clarity: How is AI being used for radical efficiency in architectural design?
Eitan Tsafarti: Our focus is on automating whatever we can in the planning and design process. We do that not to harm architects, but to give them time to do what they do best.
Feasibility studies are just the first step for us. We take care of mapping, modeling, sustainability, energy analysis, energy modeling, and connecting to GIS and other data sources in order to generate a building that is more accurate and according to code – from massing options all the way to construction documents.
As architects, you already know what you want to build, you’ve taken all the design decisions. Then you need to generate the whole thing. SWAPP generates all the necessary drawings and documents in a productive way. We’re focused on solving the pains, such as dealing with numerous design changes.
Every architect experiences this. There are always changes – either by the customer or the local authority. The question is: How do you make these changes without making the architect want to rethink his/her occupation, every time there’s a change? How do you react quickly and change your drawings without having to manually redraw all the time or rework the planning side? That’s what SWAPP solves.
Context & Clarity: What type of building is AI best suited for?
Eitan Tsafarti: I don’t think AI fits every building. If you have a tailor-made bespoke villa, I don’t think AI should solve that. But if you have multi-family projects, schools, logistic centers, or interiors for offices, AI is great for that. Go to any WeWork in any center in the world and they look the same. There’s a reason for that. There is leasable square footage, rentable square footage, and amenity space – that’s perfect for AI. No architect should do that. Just put it in the hands of AI and go do other things.
Today, SWAPP focuses on clear design rules for problematic requirements. If you take schools for example, even if there are no units and the program is very clear, you can work in different modules and you can feed the algorithm the requirements and restrictions and generate different configurations for the schools for different sites. If you do that, you can actually save a lot of time rethinking and reinventing the wheel on each site that you work on.
Context & Clarity: Can sole practitioners implement AI in their work?
Eitan Tsafarti: We partner a lot with small offices – with sole practitioners or what we call 2 to 12 offices. They benefit from not needing to hire people. When you’re a sole practitioner you’re always thinking how many projects do I have – should I hire one architect? But I can’t hire five architects.
What if I have a big project coming in? Should I avoid it? This is the sort of thing that shouldn’t stop you. You shouldn’t say no if you really want to do the project. We’re there to solve this need – and you don’t have to expose us to your customer.
One of our partners told me, “ I’m the head and you are the hands.” I really like this comparison, because the hands need to work in a certain way. With AI, the hands are very capable and do things smartly. The head is in charge of creativity and talking to customers.
Context & Clarity: What business model does SWAPP operate on?
Eitan Tsafarti: SWAPP is very different. We used to buy Revit or AutoCAD for an infinite number of years. When I was at AutoDesk, we moved to a subscription model, so you could only lease it.
AI… a new thing. We provide you with the tools, the platform is ours… the designs are yours. AI can learn your style without sharing it with others. It can learn your typologies, the verticals or the type of buildings you work in, and what you prefer. From project to project, you’ll see better results. That’s how AI works. The more data you feed the “beast”, the better results you’ll have.
The best way to use AI is not for one project, but for 10 projects or 20 projects over time. But, yes it (the platform) belongs to us. It’s proprietary technology. We’re a technology company at the end of the day.
Context & Clarity: What will a typical day with AI look like?
Eitan Tsafarti: Without sounding too futuristic, even in the near future (3 to 5 years from now) your day as an architect will look very different than it does today. I want to emphasize that I’m talking about specific building types, not all buildings.
You’ll probably spend some time on schematic design and limit yourself (by choice) to what modules, blocks, rules, or design books you’ll use throughout the schematic design. Because you’ll understand from that point, once you’ve made the main decisions of the project, you’re actually done… because the MEP, structural engineering, and formulas will already have been taken care of.
You’ll get a coordinated building pretty quickly in your hands. It won’t change dramatically when the consultant comes in because the rules have already been defined. You’ll probably finish the work 10X faster than you did today. You’ll spend less time drafting and more time thinking and creating, thinking about the surroundings, and choosing between options.
You’ll probably think about your project in terms of sustainability – what option is more sustainable. You’ll look at the energy modeling and understand the result pretty quickly. Then you’ll hit the button and you’ll say, “OK, this is what I like.” Or, “This is what I showed my customer and we decided to go for that option.”
Context & Clarity: How will AI affect the value of architects and architecture?
Eitan Tsafarti: In the architecture world, you’re focused on shapes and materials, and whether this elevation suits the surroundings. It’s all-important, but your customer is on a different wavelength, which means you’re missing something in the communication.
We need to understand what value means to our clients. That means understanding their business and how we’re affecting the results. As architects in architecture school, we’re not taught this. I don’t remember anyone telling me to take financial studies or that I should be able to understand a financial statement. Nobody teaches you construction costs compared to revenue generation from a real estate project – and this is the world of your customers!
Our customers are very focused on finances. They need to understand if the project works if it’s profitable. The conversation needs to be about how you and your customer share the same interests. They want to break ground faster because they’re paying interest to the bank today and overhead to the team every month that the project is not out there and (the building is) not occupied.
What if you get the project done three months ahead of time? If all the designs are radically faster, it makes no sense that you won’t be fairly compensated for your creativity and what you’ve designed. You’ve actually provided customers with better value. You deserve to be paid more.
If you bring yourself closer to your customer, the conversation will be easier – about the value you provide, the time spent, how you charge and why you charge like that. You can speak their language.
Context & Clarity: Does that mean you are not charging by the hour?
Eitan Tsafarti: For SWAPP, it’s all about value-based pricing. We are charging by the value; we’re not charging by the hour. It’s not in our customers’ interest for us to extend the project. We have connections with customers across the country because they understand the (SWAPP’s) value. In many instances, we bring projects to the architect. We do this because we don’t want to open an office in every state. We do it because we prefer to partner with good local architects and then we go together to customers.
Context & Clarity: Ultimately, it’s a business. You have to have a profitable and sustainable business in order to create your art.
Eitan thank you for joining us today and sharing your thoughts on AI and the future of architecture.
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