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Can AI put the art in smart Scottish architecture?

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AI has been around for a long time, however, at least since the famous Turing Test of 1950, while 200 years ago Lady Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, wrote prescient notes on codes and “looping” about a calculating machine.

Its explosion into the public consciousness, particularly with the advent of the Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT) and innovations such as OpenAI’s AI ChatGPT and GPT-4 (which can apparently breeze through demanding complex legal and medical exams) raised concerns, which this year led to the publication of an open letter signed by Elon Musk and other IT leaders calling for a temporary halt to advanced AI research.

There are two camps: those who believe it’s a coruscating, unprecedented opportunity to accelerate work processes and increase profitability and those who fear it’s an existential threat to us all. Business appears to be betting on the first option: in a recent report Savills pointed out its multiple uses in the property sector – from efficiencies for building managers and lease information analysis to breathtakingly swift applications for designers and architects.

Real estate and investment management services firm JLL agrees in a global research paper that says AI is among the top three technologies expected to have the biggest immediate impact on real estate and that the industry had invested $4 billion into AI-powered property technology – or prop-tech – in 2022. 

The Herald: The best AI-generated designs – such as in the style of Le Corbusier, above, display immense creativity

Murray Strang, managing partner Scotland at Cushman and Wakefield, says prop-tech began some years ago with an increased focus on data analytics.

“It’s quite tricky to establish the boundary as to where AI as we’re now discussing it started,” he says.

“But clearly the technology and its implications have advanced in leaps and bounds in the past two or three years. In the same way that we’ve witnessed in the medical and health sectors, we are now seeing that increasingly apply to the real estate sector.”

Particularly he adds in facilities management, with the requirement to monitor the performance in existing buildings. 

“It’s vital to stay at the forefront and remain competitive in terms of AI capabilities, particularly with big investment management and asset management clients around the world.

“The demands of their client base have become much more intensive in terms of the accessibility of data and speed of turnaround and AI allows for a more advanced means of processing that intelligence.”

Peter Kerr, a director at Atelier Ten, with clients in environmental engineering and consultancy from

Glasgow to Sydney, sits on the British Council of Offices’ (BCO) Scottish committee. He concurs that there are major implications for gathering and analysing big data and points out the use of AI in “real applications”, such as digital touch points that include sensors and keyboard access controls. 

“We can extract information from all those systems and use it to ascertain how much energy is consumed in a building or a specific part of a building. These systems are now becoming integrated to help build a picture of a building’s sustainability profile.” 

That, says Kerr, allows engineers to create AI ‘features’ that reveal useful information about an office. “It might be, for example, exact data regarding how often an area is used – perhaps identifying what the dwell time in the reception area is. 

“Using AI, you can identify how often a space is used and determine if it’s only being utilised 10 or 20 per cent of the time – or if it’s too large and the client could repurpose the space when they’ve gauged how useful it is.

“We can technically track people through buildings. People increasingly want to know what their personal impact is on the environment and that data can be collected to register how many steps that person has taken, what method of transport they have used and calculate carbon emissions – then add the building data and the carbon that has been used based upon the spaces they experience.” 

With the evolution of mobile and wearable technologies, such as smartwatches and more sophisticated sensor technology, he believes industries such as real estate will be transformed using predictive data. 

Martin Devine, a property partner at multinational law firm Pinsent Masons, leads its Advanced Delivery team for real estate business, which helps to combine the capabilities of its people, process and technology, designing and delivering technology-led products and solutions.

“This includes optimising the expertise of various people, including lawyers, in the refinement of processes,” he explains. 

“There’s absolutely no doubt this means a digital transformation in the way we deliver to clients and we’re beginning to see the beginning of certain tools and solutions which are loosely based on AI. The involvement of AI will grow and allow us to deliver transactions and deliver advice more quickly and efficiently.” 

The Herald: Solasta Riverside on the south bank of the River Clyde

Devine, while also leading the technology team within Pinsent Mason’s real estate group, is also a practising real estate lawyer, so his approach is far from being just theoretical. 

“I would say that, most notably, in the past 12 months, in almost every bid or tender we are questioned about how we are embracing technology. Helpfully for us as a firm we have a great story to tell.”

As legal advisers he says Pinsent Masons is in the same situation as its clients in the sector, facing both the enormous possibilities and accompanying risks that this fast-growing technology presents. 

“I think as a business, and especially as a professional services business that is regulated, and heavily invested in our clients, we need to be very cautious in our adoption of AI,” 
he says. 

And a significant challenge is that of resource, finding enough people to understand the possibilities quickly enough.

“We’re spending a lot of time exploring and understanding that so that we can respond quickly – because, if we can work through the risks, there are major advantages in employing this new level 
of technology.” 

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‘PRETTY PICTURES NOT ABLE TO REPLACE THE HUMAN ELEMENT’

If you believe AI will immediately send architects rushing excitedly to a chatbot to dictate the bespoke specifications of a new building, you’ll probably have to revise these expectations. 

Simon Walsh is a director at Cooper Cromar, the architects involved in developments that include Glasgow’s Grid, JP Morgan’s technology hub in the city’s International Financial Services and the twin-tower residential complex. 

“We’re not using AI currently; it’s a technology still very much in its infancy,” he says. “When it starts to be utilised – as it will in all practices – it will represent the third phase of computer assisted design allowing you to a take a model and extract sophisticated data – but the model has no intelligence other than interpreting and quantifying human input.” 

The Herald: Simon Walsh

 

Firms in Asia and the US are already experimenting with the next phase, with computer intelligence beginning to create the inputs as well as the outputs but very few average-sized commercial practices here are seriously using AI yet. 

“AI can come up with a million different reinventions – but it can’t push architects past what they know now. However, technology always has the capacity to surprise and who knows what we will see in 10, 20 or 50 years?” says Walsh. 

He concludes that, while AI can produce “pretty pictures”, there are no consequences for pictures when it comes to structural integrity and inherent safety. 
That will require human input for some time to come. 

“While I see it being an augmentation tool, it can’t yet be a replacement tool,” he adds. 

“If someone was to say they had developed an AI tool to build a motorway bridge, would you be the first to drive over it?”

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