What is the impact of AI on architectural firms?

What is the impact of AI on architectural firms?

March 18, 2024

Earlier this month we published a detailed report into the architectural sector in the UK. Now we are concentrating on the most significant new development in decades, the effect that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is having on the architectural profession and its work.

AI is sweeping the world and revolutionising more and more aspects of business operations. Architects are no exception to this whirlwind of procedural and cultural change.

How prevalent is the use of AI in UK practices?

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) published a report at the end of February 2024, setting out the results of a survey of more than 500 of its members into how architects are responding to AI in their work. The key findings include:

  • 41% of practices have adopted AI in one way or another.
  • One in three firms is actively developing their practice offering through AI.
  • 11% consider themselves to be leading digital innovators.
  • 36% of architects see AI as a threat, 34% have no concerns, 30% are undecided.
  • 69% say their firm has not yet invested in any AI research and development.
  • Only 41% expect their firm to invest in AI.
  • 58% of architects think AI increases the risk of their work being imitated.

In what ways are architects using AI?

Des Fagan, Head of Architecture at Lancaster University, has recently summarised the main uses of AI currently by architectural practices.

Design ideation

Probably the most common use of AI is for visualising design ideations. If architects want to place an image section of a building in a speculative landscape, adding objects like people, vehicles and landscaping, this can now be done with a few text prompts using the Generative Fill system offered by Photoshop, for example.

Concept designs

Image diffusion apps can now produce stunning concept design images from text prompts alone, allowing architects to take early-stage models and apply stylistic iterations in real time, such as cycling through different materials types and different iterations of design ideation.

Text generation

ChatGPT is the AI chatbot that launched the AI avalanche just over a year ago. It is trained on generalised online data, with defined cut-off dates of scraped internet knowledge. It can be used as a research tool, text generator, and editor, and it only reacts to a series of refinable text prompts.

Practices are using ChatGPT for writing and rewording reports, summarising ideas for client presentations, fee proposals, planning applications and a wide range of administrative tasks such as HR processes.

Practice archiving

Larger practices are starting to apply machine learning to their own data sets to train AI engines purely on their own back catalogue of designs, design approaches and stylistic methods, and libraries of information.

This should not only streamline their own operations and create a valuable resource but also help deal with any potential issues with copyright or authorship that some fear could arise from taking information off the internet, which could be from competitors.

Is AI a threat to the architectural profession?

The major imponderable is whether AI could bring about the end of the architectural profession and practices as we know them now. The profession itself is split, with the RIBA survey showing that one-third of architects see it as a threat, but the same percentage is unconcerned by it.

Current AI systems have no understanding of priority systems or feature importance and can only prompt and advise. Significant further development will be needed before they can be given any real responsibility and before AI might morph from being a useful set of additional tools into the kind of existential threat feared by some of the profession.

Des Fagan says: “What AI is good at is making connections and inferences that we aren’t necessarily able to, but it’s still a machine at the end of the day. It’s not a storyteller yet in the way that architects can create an iterative design development that will respond to a site or a historic setting. AI currently has no understanding or appreciation of the feature importance of a new building because it simply hasn’t been programmed for each individual brief and site.”

While it is clearly possible to generate fantastical images using AI, there is still a huge difference between generating a conceptual image and realising it as a sensible material structure with compliant specifications, warranties and guarantees. The recent Building Regulations, with their emphasis on competence, only reinforce this critical difference.

Ultimately, AI cannot be ignored and it can and should be used to improve the efficiency of the whole practice of architecture and the quality of the experience of working in the sector. Just how far and how fast it will eventually trespass into higher functions remains to be seen.


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