Practice Management

 View Only


Quick Links

Who we are

The Practice Management Knowledge Community (PMKC) identifies and develops information on the business of architecture for use by the profession to maintain and improve the quality of the professional and business environment.  The PMKC initiates programs, provides content and serves as a resource to other knowledge communities, and acts as experts on AIA Institute programs and policies that pertain to a wide variety of business practices and trends.

PM Discussion Board ->

Automation in practice: An abridged view of the future

By Rebecca W. Edmunds AIA posted 09-06-2023 04:03 PM


By Nathan King, DDes (Autodesk Research, Virginia Tech CDR, Harvard, and UPenn)
and Matthew Spremulli (Autodesk Research and University of Toronto) 

Portraits of Nathan King and Matthew Spremulli

By many accounts, the population is estimated to exceed 10 billion by the year 2050, requiring, if the estimates are correct, an immediate doubling of productivity in the AEC industry, which includes architecture (in all forms), engineering, and construction. Simultaneously, global resource scarcity is projected to limit access to basic resources for over half that population in areas where water is scarce. In other industries, automation technologies related to design, making, and operating have demonstrated the potential to resolve many of the same challenges we see in AEC.

These tools have typically resulted in decreased production time, greater material efficiencies, enhanced labor productivity, better worker health and safety, compensation for labor shortages, reduced environmental impact, and enhanced design opportunity. Put simply, automation has the potential to enable the AEC industry to safely meet the global building and infrastructural needs of an increasing population while affording designers the ability to realize new building forms and performance. Many exciting technological developments and industry trends signal that the time is ripe for automation to take hold, as we in AEC proceed into the future.  

Given the breadth of emerging technologies that will influence architectural practice, it is often difficult to determine which should be a higher priority when considering the impact they may have on practice and which might be a passing novelty. In this short article, we hope to cut through some of that noise and provide a curated list of three technology areas already having an impact on practice that are likely to continue to influence the way we move from design through construction, while providing a better, more inclusive built environment.


Generative Design (GD): Automating design iteration and balancing goals

Designing a building or other critical infrastructure comes with many performance-based expectations (and goals) from numerous stakeholders. Keeping track of how these expectations are accounted for during an architect's iterative process presents challenges. And these challenges will only increase in the future, with more goals being added to project briefs such as carbon emission targets and socio-cultural dynamics (to name but a few). And while the practice is getting more accustomed to a performance-based design framework (think LEED, WELL, Passive House, the AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence, etc.) no holistic method to solve these often-competing goals from a diverse range of stakeholders exists. How will designers address these challenges? 

Enter Generative Design (GD for short). GD is a design technology that leverages artificial intelligence (AI, by way of genetic algorithms) to automatically generate, evaluate, rank, and curate a shortlist of thousands of possible design solutions quickly. Generative Design is a particularly powerful technology for the AEC industry because of its ability to help designers consider numerous goals that would be extremely difficult to balance manually—this is why GD is sometimes referred to as “Multi-Objective Optimization”.

While the underlying technology behind GD has been in development for over a decade, only in the past five years have AEC professionals started to embrace it to help manage and balance the complexity of competing goals. Early examples of GD applied to real-world scenarios were tested by Autodesk Research, such as in the layout of the Autodesk office in Toronto, Canada. 

With time and maturation, industry professionals (outside of research) now comprise most contemporary examples in practice. One such example is by Parsons Corporation (a consulting and engineering company) which leveraged GD to help manage the layout of a complex urban master plan for Reem Island in Dubai. This project required a delicate balance of maximizing residential units while leaving room for provisions of shade from the sun and views to increase value. Another example is from BONE Structures and Bravo Engineering from Brazil. This collaboration experimented with mixing topology optimization and GD to help balance competing interests of lightness and stiffness in large custom-designed reinforced precast concrete trusses. 

Both examples also represent projects by companies who received support for their early interests as ‘residents’ of the Autodesk Technology Centers. While current GD tools focus on what is being designed, soon architects will have access to tools that incorporate how the designed object or building will be manufactured and constructed, providing a long sought after integrated feedback loop. 

Thus, GD technology presents architectural practices the potential for balancing often-competing, high-performance client and project objectives while streamlining the generation of options based on complex criteria including energy efficiency, structural integrity, cost, construction requirements, and other critical performance attributes.  


Extended Reality (XR): Moving information to immersive environments

Getting the right information to the right stakeholder in a complex building project is yet another AEC industry challenge, whether sharing conceptual models with clients for review or coordinating construction crews with new fabrication details. And while modes of representation already exist (think renderings or construction documents), Extended Reality (XR) is closing the miscommunication gaps between stakeholders by making project information immersive. While the basis of this technology is not new, recent advances such as image resolution and lighter hardware form-factors have increased applications in the AEC industry. 

XR is an umbrella term that spans a range of ‘realities’ from completely enclosed immersive environments, as with Virtual Reality, to more mixed/layered reality scenarios, such as Augmented or Mixed Reality. This spectrum of visualizations has different uses in the design-make process of creating a building. For example, Virtual Reality (VR) is particularly useful when sharing early designs with clients to let them walk around and experience a design before it is built or when sharing designs with subcontractors to flag issues (such as mechanical collisions). For example, Cannon Design has been leveraging VR for years for numerous projects that require early input from stakeholders. During the pandemic, the firm leaned into their experience and experimented with emerging tools such as ArkioÒ to conduct client meetings and design charrettes. 

Meanwhile, in construction, companies such as Fologram are providing Augmented/Mixed Reality solutions for trades to coordinate teams on complex (or unfamiliar) details. A completed applied example comes from Windover Construction, which leveraged Fologram technology deployed on a Microsoft HoloLens mixed reality technology to guide assembly crews installing a custom-made steel-stud detail on an exterior building edge. Additionally, companies use XR to train the next generation of skilled construction labor. For example, the machine tool manufacturer Howick Ltd used VR and other telepresence tools to train remote customers in machine operation during pandemic travel bans and other organizations, like Interplay Learning, are using these tools to combat skilled labor shortages through democratized training.


Robots, robots, robots: Automating the act of constructing

With new design tools allowing the development of increasingly complex building forms that emerge from both functional and aesthetic performance demands, the way buildings are constructed has and will evolve. 

In today’s AEC environment, the word “robot” is often synonymous with a playful yellow zoomorphic machine that has emerged in recent years with seemingly limitless potential. Beyond Spot® provides site-based robots intended for in situ, 1:1 layouts for walls, fixtures, and partitions. Well established with their plotters and printers, you may already have used a Hewlett Packard (HP) robot in practice over the last forty years. However, as drawings are increasingly digital, companies like HP and Dusty Robotics have commercialized automated layout robots. 

Other companies have introduced off- and on-site robotic technology that is working to make construction more efficient and safer. Advanced Construction Robotics produces site-based automated rebar placement and tying equipment; Canvas Robotics has deployed an automated, construction robotics drywall finishing system where a Semi-Automated Mason (SAM) works side-by-side with skilled masons to amplify their work. Many off-site construction strategies utilize various robotics to produce parts, and some companies like Shimizu Corporation and Obayashi Construction have incorporated concepts for fully automated construction sites using a mix of robotic typologies for assembly. 

With many pragmatic approaches to construction automation finding their way into the field, perhaps the most speculative and potentially exciting for expanding design potential is the work being conducted in academic settings–specifically in design education. Over the last fifteen years, architecture schools have reluctantly embraced robots and specifically the ‘Industrial Robotic Manipulator’ (the arm) to explore this potential. Worldwide, universities like ETH-Zurich, RWTH Aachen, TU-Innsbruck, Graz and TUEindhoven, htfStuttgart, UPenn, and many others have introduced the ‘robot arm’ into the design curriculum and combined with advanced structural and material research. Others have also adopted the industrial robot as a pedagogical tool with exploration as early as the foundational design studios. For example, RISD, Virginia Tech, Harvard GSD, and others have at times incorporated the industrial robot as a design tool early in their curriculum. This pedological evolution increases the ability for emerging designers to consider the material, the tool, and the way the tool manipulates that material. In other words, technology is advancing and accelerating practical design exploration and is beginning to build a new type of designer.

Many firms are also embracing the opportunity. Perkins&Will has demonstrated significant investment in exploring the way robotics will impact the future of design practice, going so far as to hire a dedicated roboticist to pursue applied research using the industrial robot arm in the Autodesk Technology Center-Boston.

While your next building will likely not be built by a robot, robots are one element of the much broader field of construction automation. Practitioners must begin to recognize these tools as one part of the design-to-make continuum that will contribute to and potentially reshape the present and future of practice.



Matthew Spremulli is Research/Program Manager with Autodesk Research coordinating a team of researchers to explore future capabilities focused on decarbonizing our built environment. Matthew brings his expertise as a trained Architect, research-manager, and researcher to this new role focused on sustainability. Matthew is passionate about democratizing technology as well as public engagement/exhibition projects. He was a co-director of the “Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15” project representing Canada at the 2014 Venice Architectural Biennale. He was the lead research-designer on the “Future of Suburbia” with MITs Center for Advanced Urbanism for their 2016 Research Biennale. And most recently he was Research Coordinator for the Living Architecture Systems Group 2018. Matthew has also taught for 10 years; currently, he covers advanced computational design topics at the University of Toronto: Daniels Faculty of Architecture.

Dr. Nathan King is Co-Director of the Center for Design Research (CDR) and teaches courses in Architecture, Industrial Design, Construction, and Engineering-related disciplines. Prior to Virginia Tech, Nathan taught at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, the Rhode Island school of Design, and the University of Innsbruck’s Institute for Experimental Architecture. In Industry, Nathan is the Senior Industry Engagement Manager for the Autodesk Technology Centers focusing on Architecture, Engineering and Construction, where he develops applied research collaborations relating to industrialized construction and automation technologies. In service to the University Beyond Boundaries Initiatives, Nathan maintains an active presence in industry and design practice enabling a symbiotic relationship between academia, industry, and design practice by creating new student opportunities for experiential learning both within the university and beyond.


(Return to the cover of the August 2023 PM Digest)