Six years ago I wrote a business story for Architectural Record and, during the course of my reporting, interviewed Frank Stasiowski, the founder and president of PSMJ Resources, a management consulting firm that specializes in architecture, engineering, and construction firms. In addition to advising firms on strategic and growth planning, leadership and succession plans, mergers and acquisitions, and a host of other issues, Stasiowski spends a lot of his time analyzing where the industry is likely to evolve in the future, especially as technology takes an increasingly important role. I find him to be one of the keenest observers of the industry, and I wanted to get his take on AI and the future of the profession.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
FS: Frank Stasiowski
You spend a lot of time trying to figure out where the profession will be in 10 and 20 years. So let’s talk about artificial intelligence. What kind of impact do you think it’s going to have on the architecture?
Oh, I think AI will have a huge impact. In a book I wrote, Impact 2030, I predicted that by 2030 fully half the profession would be utilizing AI for 50% of its work, and that was before Covid hit. And now with Covid, it’s accelerating that pace even faster. We’re seeing more investment, interest, research, by all architecture firms across the board. And what’s driving it right now—and what will continue to drive it over the next two to five years—will be a shortage of talent in the marketplace. One of the impacts of Covid was a lot of people lost their jobs. The layoffs were made both out of fear and reality. Fear that the profession would be hit negatively by Covid, and reality that a lot of firms were hit negatively, especially firms that were designing medical facilities, where they ran out of money and had to lay people off.
What we’re seeing right now is the steepest uptick in proposal activity in 20 years. PSMJ does a quarterly market survey where we ask the profession, region by region, state by state, what their activity looks like over the next 30 days, and right now it is up by something like 600% for the first quarter of this year.
In which building sectors?
Across the board.
Really? Including office?
Including office. What’s happening is, offices are now coming back to a certain degree. And even if it’s just 10% occupancy, they will still need to renovate their spaces, because air handling has to all be dealt with, new filters have to be installed. Companies are buying new furniture to space people further apart. So interior workspace planning is booming right now.
We’re also showing dramatic increases in proposal activity in all areas. Now, what that will mean is, there’s going to be a fierce demand for people over the next 12 months. Because, during Covid, we didn’t birth a whole bunch of new 35-year-old architects. And with the layoffs that occurred, some of them are not coming back. So we’ll have a real shortage of talent in the marketplace for the next decade. As a result, technology is going to fill some of that void.
As AI gets stronger and more robust, what’s the role of the architect and designer?
It will be more in the strategy of design and in the ultimate creation of facilities and spaces, using tools to speed up alternative layouts. If you’re dealing with a client who wants to know what the optimum use of a space is, you can give them multiple alternatives in the same time that you might’ve done one in the past. It’s really going to speed up the design conversation and give architects a much greater ability to discuss concepts with clients earlier in the process. And when it comes to doing working drawings, we’ve had 10 years or 15 years now of input through BIM and other tools, so that the cloud-based amount of data has grown exponentially. Tapping into that data by marrying AI to BIM will allow architects and engineers to do drawings significantly faster. It’s push-of-the-button stuff.
Does that mean fewer architects down the road?
It will mean a new role for architects. As an architect myself, what I get excited about is, we’ll have the ability to push a button and get alternatives instantly. So your opportunity to spend more time researching alternative designs and adding real value is significant. It’s going to change the entire profession.
It’s likely to upend the current ways of doing business, isn’t it?
My whole life I’ve focused on the business aspects of our profession. I’ve pushed value pricing because, from the ’70s all the way through to today, firms have used timecards to record hours. The more time you spent on something, the more you were able to bill. That will change, because you’re not going to have to spend any significant time doing drawings. You’re not going to have to spend any time creating multiple alternative designs. You’ll get it all through the cloud, through AI, and the development of powerful, computerized thinking systems that do virtually all of that stuff for you.
Firms will then have to refocus, asking, “Where’s our value?” Your value becomes how you use the tools to create better spaces, more real estate value in the private sector, more aesthetic and functional value in the public sector. How do you build in sustainability and energy saving concepts? Your value will come by offering clients more choices. Now that means we will have to change the way we invoice clients, the way we contract for architecture, because if I’m adding value to real estate, but it takes me less time to do it, then I better figure out a different way to bill it. Because if I’m still dealing with timecards, the inevitable outcome will be one of diminishing returns.
That appears to be a race to the bottom.
It really is. When I talk about it with firms, my first message is: You need to rethink the way you contract, and start contracting by schedule delivery or by some other deliverable, as opposed to the time you spend on things. Because the time you spend will be reduced by AI, but the value of what you do should go up. So it’s time to rethink contracts. Unfortunately, the profession deals with contracts through lawyers, at the back end of things. Everybody’s afraid to change things, because it’s all tied into liability insurance. But the real benefits of AI and BIM will be down the line. Whether it’s 5 years or 10 years or 20 years, there won’t be any liability claims, because AI will not allow you to design stuff that doesn’t work.
It’s like autonomous driving. There will be fewer accidents.
That’s right. When no one is driving a car anymore and everything’s controlled, there will be far, far fewer accidents. So auto insurance should go away. In the building industry, we’re probably still a decade or two away from eliminating the liability insurance part of this. But as more young people in the technology business experiment with AI as an architecture design tool, you’re going to see explosions of new companies that take things over and totally transform the old ways of doing things. I wish I was born today. It’s going to be an exciting 20 years.
When I hear people wringing their hands about this coming world of AI, I certainly understand their trepidation. But we’re in a climate emergency, and we’re going to need AI to help solve some pretty complicated problems. We’ll need technology, to basically save the world.
Absolutely. If you go back and study all of the pandemics that have hit the world, and look at what came out of them in the next decade, or the next century, you start to see periods like the Renaissance, right after the Black Plague. Creativity and innovation exploded.
And certainly on the building side, we’ll need that in the next 10 years. If you get the carbon footprint of the built environment way down, you’ve got the problem at least half solved.
I agree. And I think we’re going to see it. We’re already seeing it in the use of new technology for housing, in the use of new technology for air handling. And now let’s marry that to the use of technology through renewable energy sources, things that must happen in the next decade. We’ll see an explosion of new companies that marry AI to all the things that we’re talking about to save the planet. Architects are positioned to either embrace this and take advantage of it, by changing the way we do business and being the leaders of value design, or by resisting it and becoming the servants of those who lead it.
I think this is too big to resist. They will be shunted aside.
Well, unfortunately, the history of our profession over the last 30 years has been to avoid liability by not taking on new ventures. By saying, “It’s not what an architect does.” In things like design-build, architects have been behind the curve, not ahead of it.
And that was a huge, missed opportunity. I don’t know why more architects don’t do it.
It’s risk avoidance. If I had to pick a profession that avoids risk the most, it would probably be architects. When you look at business people—who see the risk vs. value balance, create value, and set pricing accordingly—they do very well. I think the developers who have done design/build and embraced good design have really prospered in ways that have hurt the architecture profession. Architects should have led that movement, instead of being undercut by it.
Once everybody is using some form of AI, what’s the difference between an 8-person firm, an 80-person firm or an 800-person firm?
Well, again, I’ll go back to my book. I predicted that what you would see 10 years out is millions of smaller firms that come together to do big projects, in networks, using the best talent for a project. My biggest excitement and what I spend my time doing now is visioning sessions with architects and engineers, where we can explore some out-of-the-box stuff. AI is definitely one of those things. Where will it go beyond what we know today? Where will it take us? It could take us anyplace. I tell them: “Don’t wait to invest in AI. Every day they wait is a day lost to a competitor.”
Featured image via Future Architecture.