AI might kill the ‘starchitect’ - but make real estate more sustainable

A view shows the Signal building, a seaside block of flats which had to be evacuated in 2014 due to erosion on the Atlantic Ocean coast, during its demolition in Soulac-sur-Mer, France, February 8, 2023. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

A view shows the Signal building, a seaside block of flats which had to be evacuated in 2014 due to erosion on the Atlantic Ocean coast, during its demolition in Soulac-sur-Mer, France, February 8, 2023. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

New forms of AI can help us solve one of the biggest challenges the real estate sector faces - climate change

Alessandro Melis is the inaugural IDC Foundation Endowed Chair and a professor in the School of Architecture and Design at New York Institute of Technology

In the next 30 years, sea levels will rise as much as they have in the last century, threatening urban areas all over the world.

Unfortunately, most of our existing cities aren't built to withstand encroaching salt water or other climate-change impacts like floods and extreme storms. And while we need new infrastructure in order to adapt, construction is a major polluter. Today's built environment is responsible for close to 40% of energy-related carbon emissions.

Architects can help us get out of this double bind -- but only if they embrace generative artificial intelligence, which many have so far resisted. To fight climate change, architects need to reimagine their role and abandon their long-held obsession with individual authorship.

While some see AI as an existential threat, it could be our best tool yet for mitigating and adapting to climate change. "Traditional" AI tends to rely on narrow metrics to accomplish specific tasks, but newer generative AI tools can create original content by combining information from billions of sources.

To date, architects have mainly used AI to visualize their designs. But in short order, generative AI could uncover new concepts and solutions for sustainable building that no single human mind could have imagined.

For example, generative AI can help architects pinpoint the best building locations and develop the most sustainable materials. It can use satellite images to create detailed land-use maps, making it possible to test future climate scenarios, such as extreme heat or flooding, for specific places. Architects have already used AI to develop a ceramic surface that defends against viruses and pollution. And they could soon use it to significantly reduce the amount of time and energy needed to design and construct a building.

In all likelihood, the collective creativity of generative AI heralds the end of sole authorship and the celebrity architect. For my colleagues, this may be a tough pill to swallow, but this is not the moment for ego. It's time for architects to abandon individual perspectives and work together to overcome the very real existential threat of climate change. Generative AI isn't a danger, but a means of expanding our capacity in response to an urgent global crisis.

In many ways, the aversion to AI among architects is a symptom of the very problem we're attempting to solve, that is, the habit of putting individual advantage ahead of the collective good. But architects' obsession with seeking personal credit is making our world less habitable.

The end of the celebrity architect is actually a return to older understandings of authorship. Sole credit for a single designer has never been as central to great architecture as some would like to think. Long before Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater, unknown designers created what is now the world's longest-standing temple, 11,000-year-old Göbekli Tepe in modern-day Turkey.

Similarly, we mostly don't know who designed and built medieval cathedrals, yet they remain some of the world's most enduring architectural achievements. So do many of the towns and cities of the same era. Designed and built by an abundance of now-anonymous minds, they were also highly sustainable.

In designing sustainable places for tomorrow, the layout of medieval cities could serve as key source material for generative AI tools tasked with creating climate-conscious municipalities. Back then, cities were typically mixed-use, dense, and connected to the surrounding environment -- the same principles informing sustainable urban development today. The flexibility and adaptability of medieval towns has helped them survive far longer than many cities built in later periods.

Architects, and those of us who teach future architects, have a major role to play in saving our environment. With the help of AI, we can design, construct, and maintain structures that emit little or no carbon and also protect us from what's ahead. Sacrificing claims to authorship to fulfill our duties to the planet is a small price to pay.

Sensors are seen mounted on the windshield of a self-driving car during a self-racing cars event in Willows, California, U.S., April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
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Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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