Revolutions in digital tools and technology are rapidly changing the landscape of many different industries across the globe. One of the latest innovations in digital technology is the widespread use of Artificial Intelligence, or AI. Two Ankrom Moisan architects, Michael Great and Ramin Rezvani – Director of Design Strategy and Senior Project Designer, respectively – have recently begun to incorporate AI software into their design process, receiving encouraging results.
Before the advent of Artificial Intelligence software, precedent images sourced from Pinterest or similar could be used to establish the initial aesthetic direction of a project. Because not every feature of an image would be relevant for a certain project, these images were often cropped and/or collaged together, leading to unnecessary confusion if clients became attached to specific features in precedent images that were never intended to be a part of the final design. AI-generated images have the potential to circumvent that issue, providing inspiration imagery that is specific to a particular place, project, client and design.
Example of an AI-generated precedent image.
Recently, Michael and Ramin have been using AI to create precedent imagery for their projects. In their experience, renderings created by AI software such as Midjourney assist in streamlining the design process and ensuring that clients are on the same page as designers when it comes to project design and direction.
For many, Artificial Intelligence still represents an enigmatic, complicated technology of the future, reserved for the plots of science fiction movies. However, recent developments in technology have made AI and its uses more widespread and accessible than ever. To explain how AI can be utilized to generate unique outcomes and facilitate a cohesive design language for a project, Michael and Ramin sat down to answer some questions about how Midjourney is integrated into the projects they work on and to dispel common misconceptions about the technology.
Michael and Ramin together in the Portland office.
Q: When did you begin incorporating AI into your approach to project design? Why was this something you decided to do?
Our adoption of AI software has aligned with the technology’s continual improvement. Initially when we started experimenting with architectural imagery, it was giving us broad stroke building concept imagery. These were by no means a “design” but it got Ramin and I thinking, ‘Oh, this technology might be evolving to a place where we could utilize it more in the design process, let’s trial this a bit and see what we can get out of it.’
Part of my interest there is that historically architects have used precedent imagery to describe things that don’t exist yet, or to get clients aligned to what the design intent might be? Language doesn’t often get us to a full understanding. So, I think architects have always used imagery, whether that’s precedent imagery or rough sketches to just get alignment about the direction of a project aesthetically. Both Ramin and I have always thought it was strange that in this process you are often using existing buildings to convey new ideas. I think the advantage of using Midjourney and AI is that we can accomplish the same general task of conceptual alignment but show clients unique imagery that is specific to their project, place and aesthetic.
We just started playing around with Midjourney when it came out. It was really exciting and interesting, and we had no idea what it was, or what it could do, or how powerful it was the first couple of times we were testing it out. Then we tried to make it do something specific, and that’s where it started getting fascinating, because it’s potentially a huge shortcut for certain things- especially with generating concept imagery.
We kind of hit a wall with a project where we wanted to be able to quickly visually convey something that didn’t exist. We had some loose ideas influenced by some projects that only exist at a completely different scale than what we were looking at. We thought ‘let’s see if we can figure out how to combine all of these ideas and generate imagery to illustrate to the client where we are going with this.’ Through that process, getting imagery close to what we were trying to do was mind-blowing.
Final project design renders created by Michael and Ramin that were influenced by AI imagery.
Q: Ramin, you’ve said that AI is “like a paintbrush or any creative tool, you just need to figure out how to use it,” and Michael, that “it’s a language. You have to learn it, just like any software.” How did you both go about learning to use these tools, and how long did it take you to learn the language, so-to-speak?
I don’t know how far we actually are on that journey, and I think we have a long way to go. There are a ton of resources out there, though, in terms of helping you learn the language through prompt editing. But this is moving so fast that there is now software that will do your prompts for you. You can just add in a few descriptive words, and it’ll fill in the rest, writing it in the way that the AI software wants to see it. Every time you use it, the more you use it, you learn something about what the output is. The more trial and error you go through, the faster you get at getting to an image you can use.
You have to think differently about the words you are using to get the imagery desired. It’s a shift in how you think since you have to use fewer words to get your idea across. You must be specific and pointed while still giving the software enough information. From that standpoint, I feel like the faster you can get your mind into that mode of thinking, the better off you will be as AI continues to develop, because the premise of utilizing language to direct output will only accelerate from here.
What we all have to adapt to and learn is how to use language to describe what we want machines to do. But even that is probably a couple years from being obsolete. There seems to be an updated version of Midjourney every month that’s substantially better than the last. Even since we last talked, they’ve come out with reverse-prompt capability. So instead of putting a text prompt and getting an image, you can do the opposite, dropping in an image and getting a prompt. By doing so you can start to understand the language in reverse because you’re dropping in an image and the AI is telling you what it sees in text.
I’ve been using it a lot, trying to figure out how to create very specific imagery. Like Michael said, it’s a lot of trial and error. To be able to get usable images, it has definitely required a shift in the way that I think due to the way that the prompts work. I’ve been approaching it almost like a science experiment, changing the prompts slightly with each iteration to see what I get back visually with each update. But also, it’s not like you can master it because it’s changing so rapidly. The next versions will likely have a completely different interface, so the way that you write prompts will likely change too.
Q: Can you walk me through the typical steps of using Midjourney to create precedent imagery?
The process right now that we’ve been utilizing is that we’re trying to plug it in to an existing process. On a lot of our projects, we start by charette-ing and brainstorming, trying to develop a cohesive concept. AI software like Midjourney increases the speed at which we can reach solutions, because we’re not all going in different design directions.
What we’ve tried to do initially is take the guiding design principles for a project and feed those words into the AI to see what kind of visual representation it would create with our initial thoughts. So again, trying to accelerate the process a bit and get to visuals through words that we’ve already talked about or discussed to create alignment on design direction. As the technology evolves, there will be other ways for us to utilize it, maybe in final renderings, for instance. But right now, I think coming up with precedent imagery is the best use of it.
Visual breakdown of how guiding design principles and text prompts are used to generate new precedent imagery renderings with AI software.
Q: [You’ve] said that clients often don’t know what to make of design renderings when they learn that they were created by AI. What are some common misconceptions or misunderstandings about Artificial Intelligence that you’ve encountered since you began using it?
The most common misconception that Ramin and I have run into is that the AI-created images are just precedent imagery pulled from the internet. You have to explain that it’s not a search engine, it’s not finding an existing image on the web. Often, I have to describe what it does in shorthand for people to understand it.
One of the things I noticed right away was people asking ‘doesn’t this take the creative process out of architecture now that you have this image designed by AI?’ At least for the time being, I don’t feel that way. As a design team, you still have to generate the foundational ideas and coax the AI to output something that aligns with your goals and vision. It’s a quick way to get the team on the same page and discover interesting emergent qualities from concept intersections that you may not have discovered on your own. In our current workflow AI produced visuals are intended to draw from and quickly study a whole bunch of different ideas to curate the most interesting aspects of each, based on what we asked the software to do.
Q: Do you have any fears surrounding the use of AI or the rate at which it is evolving, a la Terminator’s Skynet?
Like any new technology, it absolutely has the ability to be used in various ways. I mean, there’s no way around that. I think there’s many applications of AI that could be negative, primarily in terms of its ability to manipulate people. But in terms of what we do, there’s not much risk if you understand it’s just one tool out of many that we can use. It’s not like Midjourney will actually produce architecture. It produces ideas that a designer still has to understand, edit, and synthesize into a project’s end design.
It’s hard to tell right now what is going to change and how much it will change. I’m definitely concerned about it, not just for the field of architecture, but for humans. In general, I feel like no technology has advanced this quickly before and it will continue to accelerate. There are just so many unknowns but I’m sure we will quickly see AI implementation in daily life. I think that we’ll know a lot more in the next five years or so.
AI process design results, highlighting the Midjourney-generated concept renderings that Michael and Ramin synthesized and incorporated into the initial massing render for a project.
Q: With the rapid speed at which AI changes and evolves, how do you envision the future of AI as it relates to architecture? What about the future of architecture as it relates to AI?
I think that AI continues a theme that has remained consistent throughout the last 100 years in terms of how architecture utilizes technology. Usually, it’s used to speed up the design process. One thing about architecture that’s so different from a lot of other professions is that it still relies on artistry, but there’s always a ‘hurry-up’ type of attitude, we are often pushed to develop designs and drawings faster and faster because of project economics. So, we’re always looking for tools to speed up the process. In addition, architecture is a broad profession. There are people doing wildly different things in the profession their whole career, and I think that could get streamlined.
Outside of Midjourney, there’s a whole slew of AI implementations using other design and construction software that’s meant to speed up how fast we can produce a construction set with fewer people. I think inevitably, that’s where architecture has always gone. 100 years ago, it took 40 people in a room, drawing a set for a high-rise tower by hand. I think in the future, a 40-story tower can probably be designed and drawn by two people. Eventually, the industry will get to a point where one or two people can accomplish that same task in half the time it takes now.
I would say that right now, as designers, we are not spending enough time understanding the place, the people using the building, and the environment surrounding a project. We’re rushing through a lot of those elements to get projects built, so I think where you end up by incorporating AI into that process is more thoughtful buildings, because we don’t have to spend as much time crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s. We can actually think about the project and the building rather than drawing it, and to me, that’s pretty exciting. Architecture can’t do anything but get better through this process. I don’t think anything gets worse. It just gets better.
In my mind, there’s no doubt that any areas of inefficiency in the architectural process right now, some of which will be resolved using AI. It’s going to accelerate and amplify the amount that an individual can do by themselves, so I think it’ll take fewer people to do the same amount of work.
I think it will allow us to study way more aspects of a project quickly and, like Michael said, make projects significantly better by understanding more of the site’s parameters. It feels like an amplification to me now, but who knows what will happen in six months?
AI-rendered precedent imagery from other projects.
Compared to other Pacific Northwest architecture firms, Ankrom Moisan is a pacesetter in terms of integrating Artificial Intelligence and other digital tools. Few competitors use AI, if at all. International firms, though, tend to use AI software for design-based research. However you cut it, the digital tools of imagined sci-fi futures are closer than it seems, and may, in fact, already be here. It’s a massive paradigm shift that will take some time to get used to, but the good news is that when the AI overlords take over, we will already know how to deal with them.
By Jack Cochran, Marketing Coordinator
Dignified Healing Spaces
Does design have the power to enhance dignity?
Many of us have the privilege to go about our daily lives unaware of the powerful role the built environment plays in supporting our feeling of being celebrated and respected. As architects and designers, we must place inhabitants’ dignity at the forefront of our design priorities. Our work has the power to create spaces that have far reaching and lasting impacts. Few places need this perspective more than spaces that serve predominantly underserved, underrepresented, or socially stigmatized communities.
To start, what is dignity?
Dignity is the right of a person to be treated ethically as well as being valued and respected for who they are. For healthcare professionals dignified care means recognizing and honoring patients’ capacities and ambitions. While patient dignity is a core tenant of healthcare staff training, it is also critically important to consider the role of the built environment to support dignity for both patients and staff.
Dignity can be defined by four main factors:
Respect – Respect includes self-respect, respect for others, respect for peoples’ privacy, and conﬁdentiality.
Autonomy – Autonomy includes having choices, being able to make decisions, rights, needs, and independence.
Empowerment – Empowerment includes feelings of being important and valuable, self-esteem or self-worth, and pride.
Communication – Communication includes clear information, language, intuitive wayfinding and directional cues, and privacy.
Here are five considerations for designing dignified environments:
1. Design as a Beacon – Too often, mental health and treatment program facilities exist in hidden spaces kept out of sight from the public. We aim to create spaces which bring a sense of pride to those who enter. By considering each step of the end-user experience, from the street approach to the quality of finishes, we aim to thoughtfully apply design aesthetics to create a welcoming facility from the very earliest interactions. Welcoming patients, clinicians, and the community into a space that is beautifully designed to support the specific needs and identity of the users is a meaningful way to communicate the intrinsic value of the patients and clients within those spaces.
In initial design discussions, Compass Health requested a sense of grandeur within their new facility located in Everett, Washington. After years of making do with an aging building, the goal for their Phase II building, housing both inpatient and outpatient behavioral healthcare, was to create a space that anyone would feel proud to enter. The stigma of mental health treatment was stripped away by prioritizing a grand, double-height entry and foyer that highlights exterior garden space. The exterior finishes were selected to be warm and welcoming.
Compass Health’s Phase II: The entry design uses scale, richly colored materials, and nature to evoke a warm welcome to all who enter.
2. The Power of Choice – In design, when we do not acknowledge the vast spectrum of human needs, we strip away the ability to exercise autonomy and control over our surroundings. Design that is mindful of autonomy, considers a variety of mental states, capabilities, traumas, and preferences to create dynamic spaces which allow people to choose the experience that fits their needs best in that moment. Avoiding the stress of being in an uncomfortable space allows patients and clients to receive care while in the best possible mindset. It also reduces negative associations that may become barriers for seeking care in the future. In many cases, mental health, housing, or medical facilities unintentionally strip away the opportunities for personal choice due to logistics and procedures, but thoughtful communication with providers allows designers to construct opportunities for choice and autonomy within even the highest acuity patient types.
The design team on the Alameda Senior Respite and Primary Care Facility acknowledged the importance of choice and autonomy in the design of the new 30,000 sq. ft. facility serving Alameda County in California. The design, which creates permanent supportive housing for an aging subset of the local homeless population, thoughtfully addresses the need for individual choice by completely rethinking the approach to lighting design throughout the building. Acknowledging the impact of harsh or bright lighting, uncomfortable lighting when resting, or a lack of lighting when trying to read and relax, the design team prioritized indirect lighting throughout all patient spaces, designed hallways outside of bedrooms to dim to the lowest levels allowed by code during quiet hours, and coordinated a wall sconce with controls at each bedside for residents. These simple, yet impactful, solutions allow residents to have autonomy over their surroundings in a way many of us would take for granted.
3. Safety over Security – We deserve to feel safe in our environments, and increasingly, facilities are moving towards providing a friendly face at entry points to help visitors feel welcome in lieu of uniformed security, which can be particularly traumatizing for many populations. Through collaboration with staff and clinicians, we can facilitate safety by designing clear pathways of visibility for observation and engagement that does not feel intrusive. Doing so allows visitors and residents to maintain their sense of independence and autonomy while remaining safe. Intentionally designed spaces which focus on relationship building increase the safety of patients while also increasing the likelihood of positive experiences and returns for subsequent care in the future.
The inpatient floors for Compass Health were laid out around a central nurse station allowing care teams to maintain a direct line of sight to all patient spaces, including the outdoor patient areas. Whereas other facilities require patients to be accompanied by a staff member to outdoor or group spaces, the clear paths of visibility allow patients to move from space to space unaccompanied, fostering independence while ensuring staff are aware of any interactions which may require their attention. Similarly, opportunities for passive observation in outpatient areas allow for easy circulation and a friendly face at various reception desks to assist first-time visitors and clients, as well as to foster connection with staff in various areas throughout the lobbies.
Compass Health Phase II: The building massing prioritized sightlines for the on-unit nursing and care team from the earliest diagrams (left). Interior design focused on maintaining the connection between staff and patients (right).
4. Whole Person Healing – If we consider the physical, mental, emotional, and social determinates of health in the design and programming process, we can create transformational facilities that help bolster the entire community. By creating space for additional programs and prominently locating basic needs near entries, each visitor can easily access support. Furthermore, designing medical care with counseling and housing opportunities provides a holistic approach to wellness that caters to a vast spectrum of needs, removing the barriers of care that occur when visiting many different facilities for the same services. Integrating community spaces into our designs allows additional social needs to be met that may not be related to specific medical needs, while inviting the community into spaces shared by diverse populations humanizes the experience of those seeking treatment in those spaces.
The core tenant of Central City Concern’s Blackburn Center is to “help people’s health through comfort, community, and safety.” The center, which serves people experiencing homelessness, poverty, and addiction in the Portland, Oregon area also aims to create a supportive housing project which incorporates mental and physical health resources under the same roof. The design carefully integrates a complex series of support systems that begin on the ground floor with commons area, teaching kitchen, pharmacy, and community services. Moving up a floor, the medical clinic supports the housing residents onsite. Housing includes palliative care, two floors of single room occupancy housing, and a floor of apartments for permanent housing, which supports people nearly ready to live on their own. The design aesthetics and function aim to create a fulfilling and enriching home-like experience that bolsters residents in all aspects of health and wellness, truly treating the whole person.
5. Nature as Medicine – Biophilia states that we, as humans, are part of nature and are inherently attracted to, and supported by, natural environments. Using nature as a tool to promote healing and wellness is a key part of providing users with the respect and dignity they deserve. Many at-risk populations receive care and housing in aging spaces that do not receive quality daylight, and access to outdoors is deemed too unsafe and difficult to monitor. By incorporating nature connections such as views, natural materials, fresh air, and plants into the requirements for healing spaces, we ultimately acknowledge the humanity of the occupants within a space. Whether they are patients, residents, visitors, or staff, everybody benefits from contact with nature through positive distractions, lowered blood pressure, increased resilience to environmental stressors, and the benefit of aligning our sense of time and place with the observable natural rhythms of the world around us.
Early on in Compass Health’s design process, the importance of fresh air and contact with nature was identified by the client and design team. As a result, the earliest building massing schemes explored how to bring nature as far into the building as possible. The resulting form for the inpatient floors is two separate wings positioned beside deeply cut rooftop gardens with a central connection space that serves as the primary gathering and dining area for the inpatient population. Each of the two floors of inpatient treatment have access to dedicated outdoor garden spaces that are designed to allow residents to move freely between interior living spaces and outdoor areas. Beyond the patient outdoor spaces are extensive green roofs which are visible from interior spaces in the public, staff, and patient spaces. This impactful design decision will support the healing and restorative vision of Compass Health’s mission to treat the whole person.
Compass Health Phase II: Both inpatient floors provide residents, staff, and visitors views of nature by utilizing the space between buildings for extensive green roofs.
Why design for dignity?
By implementing these five strategies, designers can create spaces that honor the core aspects of dignity by respecting each visitor and their unique place in the world, supporting their autonomy through choice, empower occupants as they move through the space, and ultimately communicate equitably inhabitants. The resulting designs are spaces which can be as meaningful as they are beautiful while actively participating in the health and growth of our communities.
By Ashlee Washington, Senior Associate
Employee Spotlight: Michael Bonn
When designing affordable housing projects, Principal Michael Bonn puts a piece of himself into his work. Sometimes multiple pieces. He goes above and beyond in his endeavors, connecting with clients through the one-of-a-kind furniture and art he designs, which are often surprises, only revealed at the end of construction.
Michael in his home woodshop
Art pieces attached to the walls of a project are usually discussed early on or along the way to ensure clients know what they’re getting. For furniture, Michael works alongside the interiors team during the procurement process, choosing items to design and bring onto the project himself.
Often, Michael makes use of regional features and project characteristics to inform the design of his custom artworks and furnishings. For example, to honor the fact Wy’East Plaza was constructed on Multnomah tribal land and named after the Multnomah people’s title for Mt. Hood, a stylized art wall was installed in the building’s lobby depicting the silhouette of the iconic stratovolcano.
Chairs and art wall designed by Michael and built by Walsh Constuction for Wy’East Plaza
Though it started as a way to preserve and honor trees removed from project sites in a sustainable and creative way, Michael’s furniture pieces have become a tradition in the affordable housing projects he completes. It’s a fun way for him to engage with the projects on a deeper level. It’s also a thoughtful gift for his clients, since the salvaged lumber Michael designs around comes from older, heritage trees found on the property, which are cut down, milled into dimensional lumber, and dried over the course of construction. Giving them a new life as art and home furnishings means they can continue to be enjoyed by those who live there, like at the Orchards at Orenco, where a large cottonwood tree was transformed into wood tile art and a pair of lounge chairs for the project’s foyer, and a sizable beech tree was crafted into a farm-style dining table.
Wood tiles and Cottonwood lobby chairs designed by Michael for Orchards at Orenco
Tactile handwork is a huge part of who Michael is-it’s how he likes to express himself. That’s why he was drawn to architecture in the first place; Michael loves the craft of designing and building things, especially when they have an impact on people’s lives. This is also why he finds affordable housing projects so fulfilling. He believes that elevating people’s lives through quality housing can be foundational to elevating other aspects of their lives. As for the handmade furniture, he sees it as a unique way to provide residents with something tangible that they can interact with.
Table designed by Michael for Orchards at Orenco
Furniture isn’t the only surprise Michael gives his clients. He has a tradition of making holiday gifts for those he has worked with. This year, he crafted twelve small tea boxes from white oak and leather sourced from the Oregon Leather Company, just down the street from the Portland office. The boxes snap closed with a button, and are laser engraved with Ankrom Moisan’s logo. Filled with festive holiday tea, there’s no doubt that Michael’s thoughtfulness is a refreshing perk to working with him.
Custom tea boxes created by Michael for his clients as a holiday gift
Off the clock, Michael’s hands hardly idle, but that doesn’t mean he’s overworked. His woodshop is the sanctuary where he recharges his battery, which makes sense; he’s been working with wood since he was big enough to hold a hammer. He has his dad, who was very generous about letting Michael make a mess in his shop when he was a kid, to thank for that. His longtime passion is evident at home-every room has a piece or two that Michael made himself.
Cedar chandelier designed and built by Michael for his home
Michael’s inclination for building and making a difference led him to Ankrom Moisan back in 1997, right out of school. Because he was so green, he credits AM with teaching him almost everything he’s learned as a professional.
The thing he loves most about Ankrom Moisan, though, is the people. Some of his closest friendships have been forged here over the last 20+ years. He says that these friends are people that support him in all kinds of ways, both professionally and personally. It’s a good thing Michael has such supportive friends at AM; once his house fills up, they may just have to take some of that furniture off his hands.
By Jack Cochran, Marketing Coordinator
High-Rise Living for a Diverse and Evolving Neighborhood
The SoMa district, home to the Ankrom Moisan San Francisco office, is a neighborhood perhaps best defined by transformation. Once an industrial district full of warehouses, a large influx of Filipino immigrants in the early to mid-century brought vibrant Filipino character to the area. This cultural heritage is visible throughout the neighborhood—street names such as Bonifacio, Rizal and Mabini honor Filipino national heroes. Filipino street art adorns the streets, from colorful murals to utility boxes decorated with the letters of the Filipino alphabet.
During the late-90s dot com boom, the ubiquitous warehouses of SoMa became desirable office spaces and it wasn’t long before the neighborhood was also filled with tech companies. Now, the vibrant Filipino cultural district shares space with the likes of Google, Facebook, and Salesforce. At the same time, a vast arts district featuring an array of museums and theatres has begun seeping into the neighborhood from the adjacent Theatre District. The result is a highly diverse neighborhood dense with offices, homes, businesses, and community.
Within this eclectic slice of the city, on 5th and Mission—just a block from our office—one of San Francisco’s largest new developments has just opened. Designed to become a cultural destination, the 5M development intends to serve as a sort of living room for the neighborhood. Covering 4-acres, the complex includes an office tower, a residential building, a cultural center and three small public parks.
The 5M development, and each building within it, posed a formidable design challenge. Serving as architect for The George, 5M’s residential tower, our team was tasked with designing a high-rise that would blend into a hard-to-define, ever-fluctuating neighborhood. As residents of the neighborhood ourselves, our design was guided by our familiarity with and appreciation for the surrounding community.
The George’s design responds to the evolving, eclectic nature of the neighborhood by embracing imperfection and celebrating the cycles of time and growth. The tower’s shifting façade, inspired by the colors of aging copper, acknowledges the beauty in the marks left by time, weather, and use. At the street level, heavily textured metal accentuates strategic areas of the base, transitioning from a warm orange to a muted green—reminiscent of ocean water and rust. At the upper floors, variegated colored panels add interest to the simple massing and draw visitors’ eyes slowly upward along the height of the 20-story building.
The design evolution of the George, from sketch to rendering to final product
Our design evokes authenticity and a sense of place, using site-specific materials like brick and weathered metal panels that also raise the neighborhood’s design bar. “We are deeply honored to contribute to the vitality and culture of the neighborhood we call home” says Travis Throckmorton, AM Managing Principal and Principal-in-Charge of the project.
by Mackenzie Gilstrap, Sr. Marketing Coordinator