Vital AI: The Future of Architecture

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Meet the Expert: Daniel Koehler, PhD

Daniel Koehler

Dr. Daniel Koehler is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, where he champions forward-thinking architectural theory and design research. His work takes a deep dive into the fascinating crossroads of generative AI, architectural theory, and research by design, projecting optimistic futures through the synergy of architecture.

Specializing in generative systems and compositional histories, Dr. Koehler seeks to understand the impact of AI on urban architecture. He is a respected voice in the architecture community, with over 50 publications, including a monograph, edited volumes, and conference papers. He holds a bachelor’s of science in architecture from the University of Dortmund, a master’s in architecture from the University of Applied Arts - Studio Hadid Vienna, Austria, and a PhD in architecture and urban design from the University of Innsbruck, Austria.

AI Applications in Architecture

AI enhances design processes through generative design, a technique where an algorithm generates a broad set of design alternatives based on specified parameters. This allows architects to explore various design possibilities that conform to the desired criteria: “In the recent past, drawing a building was quite a complex endeavor. It became so time- and resource-consuming that, as an architect, you could not think beyond that. Especially when you add in considerations like life cycle assessment, sustainability, or space constraints,” says Dr. Koehler.

Now, much of that can be automated through tools like Autodesk, AutoCAD, and Solidworks. Architects also utilize image generator tools to ideate buildings and model blueprints and designs into what the finished product may look like.

There are some areas where AI excels. “AI is very good at doing things that someone has already done. It can scan a body of data and begin to combine it in new ways,” says Dr. Koehler. “It's very good at finding a specific code for a city that only applies there and applying that to a project. It automates a lot of work, which would otherwise be challenging, especially when you work internationally or outside your region. It frees up a lot of time, which was locked into looking up tiny and complicated details.”

Another area where AI excels is in factoring in the sustainability and efficiency of a design: “Efficiency was where AI optimization was initially placed. It helped with saving material and fundamental optimization algorithms,” says Dr. Koehler.

“I think it also helps address sustainability issues. We can develop a series of investigations on a complexity level, which we couldn't do before. For example, we have a thesis project where students develop new materials based on protein structures. Then, using an image generator, they find new forms of construction based on that material. The work is much less mathematical and can think beyond the technicality and develop innovative and sustainable ideas. It frees up so much intellectual thinking, and that's what’s exciting for me.”

However, in some areas, AI is not as useful or effective: “It doesn’t work when you need creativity, or you want to do something beyond just the average. It also has a hard time working in areas where we don't have a lot of data,” says Dr. Koehler. “That means communities, cities, or countries where people don't usually take images and upload them to social media or write text in the English language are underrepresented.”

The Role of The Architect in The Age of AI

In the age of AI, the architect's role is evolving dramatically. As technology becomes increasingly embedded in the design and construction process, architects are no longer simply designers of buildings; they are now problem solvers, data analysts, system designers, and innovators: “What architects can do now is think critically. Now, we look at models and can see what's missing and raise questions about certain kinds of data modeling. That means work as an architect becomes much more interdisciplinary,” Dr. Koehler explains. “I'm dependent on large-scale models which are completely beyond the scope of an architect or even architecture office. I need to be able to determine inherent bias and underrepresentation.”

Architects can focus on other parts of the design process with AI as an assistant: “When I work with students with those tools, the whole studio culture becomes very optimistic. It is very easy to generate images and texts, which makes it easier to think and make complex relations. That, in turn, helps enormously with your creativity because you're not thinking about the small details but can directly unfold ideas,” says Koehler.

Skills Students Need To Succeed In This Field

Architecture students need a different skill set than their peers 20 years ago. “They need the ability to learn and to develop a critical mindset for design. Flexibility, creativity, and long-term planning are also skills students should develop,” shares Dr. Koehler.

Previously, it was important for students to be able to use specific software programs. Now, according to Dr. Koehler, it is less important what programs you know how to use because they are becoming intuitive to use: “English is now the coding language,” he says. “Before, it was a real barrier to entry because, at some point, you would have to sit down and write code to make your designs. Now, I can instruct the AI assistant in English. That means students are much less dependent on learning software and can instead focus on long-term goals.”

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