Will Automation Destroy Architecture? What You Need To Know

Today I saw for the first time a driverless Uber being tested near where I live in San Francisco. Even though Uber is having a few issues with the cars (one ran a red light recently) it is clear this is the future. As I saw it zip by with its spinning 360-degree laser based detection system, it raised an interesting question.

If the extremely complex task of driving can be replaced, what does that mean for other professions including architecture?

What about my job?

Will an architect be as irrelevant in the future as countless other jobs erased by advancing technology?

Assuming the robots don't take over tomorrow, to help with your architecture career and job search I've created a mega-pack of free resources that includes architecture resumes, cover letters, and an extensive collection of application documents. Click for a free download:

What does the future of work look like?

Living in Silicon Valley, I am perhaps a bit more exposed to the pressure technology is putting on all industries.

We often see improvements in tech as a good thing. Who doesn't want a smarter smart phone or an app that saves time? However, it is important to consider the potential downsides of these advancements may have on your future.

A recent report from McKinsey details what some believe the future work environment will look like given all of the rapid advances in technology.

"Recent developments in robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning have put us on the cusp of a new automation age. Robots and computers can not only perform a range of routine physical work activities better and more cheaply than humans, but they are also increasingly capable of accomplishing activities that include cognitive capabilities once considered too difficult to automate successfully, such as making tacit judgments, sensing emotion, or even driving. Automation will change the daily work activities of everyone, from miners and landscapers to commercial bankers, fashion designers, welders, and CEOs."

What does this have to do with architecture? 

As an architect I am seeing rapid changes within the industry on both the design and construction side. For example, over the past several years BIM software has had a dramatic influence on the day-to-day operation of the typical architecture firm. 

But what about the next step?

It is one thing to be more productive and efficient by using the latest and greatest software, it is another issue entirely once artificial intelligence becomes truly mainstream. I am not predicting a war with machines (although that would be pretty cool) but rather a progressive erosion of what it means to be an architect as defined today.

According to the McKinsey report, "Given currently demonstrated technologies, very few occupations—less than 5 percent—are candidates for full automation. However, almost every occupation has partial automation potential, as a proportion of its activities could be automated."

It is important to note that the study does not say that of all jobs can be automated with existing technology, but rather certain job tasks. So while the architecture profession is unlikely to be made completely obsolete, it will likely look much different than it does now. 

Robots will never be able to replace architects

While I would like to agree with the statement above, I think it is naive to believe you are irreplaceable. 

The McKinsey report goes on to say, “About 60% of all occupations have at least 30% of constituent activities that could be automated". “More occupations will change than will be automated away.”

As with all future predictions (we were supposed to have hoverboards in 2015) the outcome is a guess at best. However, the good news is that jobs like architecture will not simply be eliminated but rather augmented and enhanced by advancing technology. 

So what does an architect do?

Since I am an architect I should probably know this but just for fun lets see what Wikipedia has to stay:

"An architect is someone who plans, designs, and reviews the construction of buildings. To practice architecture means to provide services in connection with the design of buildings and the space within the site surrounding the buildings, that have as their principal purpose human occupancy or use. 

Etymologically, architect derives from the Latin architectus, which derives from the Greek (arkhi-, chief + tekton, builder), i.e., chief builder."

I actually didn't know that last part... 

Let's break down the general roles and responsibilities of the typical architect so we can see what skills might be easily automated. Here are the three main tasks as we defined above: 

1. Plans

This is obviously a vague term, but planning a project typically involves a large amount of site analysis, code research and other administrative tasks. I could see a large portion of this type of work becoming automated.

The information is largely already there so it could easily be compiled by a non-human. 

2. Designs

I think design is likely the most difficult task to automate. The ability to take a concept developed from many outside influences would be hard to replicate. That being said artificial intelligence will likely play a bigger role in design. Potentially generating multiple options based on specific parameters or used as a powerful research tool.

For example it would be extremely useful to have something like Google on steroids for architecture. This could be a database of every detail and building ever created with costs, analysis and data for all the individual components. 

3. Reviews

The task of reviewing the construction of a building is something that could certainly be enhanced through the use of technology.

For instance, we already have cameras setup on large building sites recording construction progress. I could see this data being cross referenced to the building design model to check for inconsistencies. 

Logically, as architects we should spend less of our time on the particular skill sets that are easily replaceable. 

Timeline

McKinsey speculates that all of this advanced automation could all happen by 2055, but depending on numerous variables it could potentially happen decades sooner. So while this sounds like it is in the distant future, it is something that young architects and students need to consider if they want a career in architecture that lasts a lifetime. 

I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you are looking to find an architecture job before your robot replacement does, check out my mega-pack of free resources that includes architecture resumes, cover letters, and an extensive collection of application documents. Click for a free download:

Thanks for reading, see also my posts on:

The Two Page Architecture Portfolio

Where To Apply For Architecture Jobs Online

25 Things To Consider When Choosing An Architecture Job Offer

Good luck!

Brandon Hubbard, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C

Have a suggestion for a future blog post? Please let me know in the comments below.