Questions & Answers: AI and AEC

Can artificial intelligence infuse more profit in the architecture, engineering, and construction process? And when will that happen?

By Jonathan Banks

In an interview with xyHt writer Jonathan Barnes, Smartbuild founder Zulq Malik talks about the things artificial intelligence can bring to the industry; and what it cannot, at least not yet.

Is artificial intelligence a job-killer and the imminent bane of the construction industry, or possibly its salvation? It would seem likely a lot more of the latter than the former, since AI works on predictive analytics and such methods provide cost-saving benefits, especially over time.

But the technology isn’t fully mature yet; even so, some pros in architecture, engineering, and construction are already embracing AI. Many say its capabilities are far more promising for the future than for the present, but others are banking on it now.

Zulq Malik, founder and owner of construction project management software platform Smartbuild, believes that AI, combined with other tech tools and greater interdisciplinary cooperation, are essential for construction to succeed as an industry into the future. Educated as a civil engineer, Malik grew up around construction as the son of a contractor and also owned his own general contracting company. It all led to his idea for Smartbuild, which led him to become interested in AI, and partner with Microsoft Office (and adding its AI capabilities).

There are many misconceptions about AI. Some people like sci-fi, others like science, but AI will not become some monstrous machine that will turn on humanity like a bulldozer with a berserk mind of its own in a 1970s movie. It will serve workers. Malik and other adherents are pointing out the benefits of this emerging technology.

We asked Malik a few questions about how AI will affect construction and what it might affect tomorrow and beyond.


If AI isn’t fully matured as a technology right now, why is it important for AEC companies to care about this tech? Aren’t they just wasting time learning a tool that’s not going to be immediately beneficial to them?

Why should they care? Because it’s high time, and they are missing a great opportunity and ways to save and make money, too.

We are at a pivotal point where, if the construction industry understands what AI can and can’t do, it will have grabbed a golden opportunity…If not, we will have missed an opportunity to catch up, technologically speaking.”


Many believe using AI will be a drag on a project’s progress and predictive analysis will just get you bogged down. Is that right?

Not so. AI-powered prompts will increasingly keep workers on-task for greater productivity and fewer mistakes.

Using AI will increase our ability to capture information, style, and technique. Communication between shareholders will be greater and more accurate. It will reduce the verbal diarrhea…AI already can tell you, based on the content of an email the moves you might need to make next.


Is AI a job-killer for people working in AEC? Will this technology lead to more automation that will destroy livelihoods, and if so, should it be avoided?

AI is not going to be able to solve all the problems, or take away peoples’ jobs. AI simply takes habits that are happening and predicts future habits based on observed variables.


Companies working alongside each other on the same project, but not sharing project information with each other for proprietary reasons, are undermining the potential of AI, some say, because AI can only “learn” what it’s allowed to learn. Is a specialist needed, in the long run, to make the most of this technology?

AI requires data and, to be fully effective, needs a data analyst to understand that information. AI cannot be onsite reporting all the factors. It is not a person. But it can help to eliminate mistakes.”


Many AEC companies don’t embrace new technology until they have to—either by having to use it for a project or because they realize the tool is undeniably useful to their business. But will AI “correct” things on a project? Can it immediately reduce changes needed on a project?

Give AI time. At present, it’s not capable of [correcting design plans, mistakes, and the like]. In the future, yes. But we have to break down these silos of information separating architects, engineers, and contractors to do so. Construction sector companies guard their project information, but without such a collaborative mindset, the potential benefits of AI cannot be realized.

Simply embracing AI and fully deploying it with the right professionals like a data analyst can’t reduce the cost of a project, some think. It’s like research and development dollars spent to some. True?

False. AI can help users recognize clash detection and also predict beforehand the possibility of safety issues, such as when a worker forgets some piece of his work gear. It is predictive information. AI also will be able to predict factors such as a worker forgetting his hardhat and remind the worker to have his hard hat for work.”

The predictive abilities of AI can help keep workers and managers on time with their tasks and reduce mistakes by employees and stay on schedule.


Sharing information with other architecture, engineering, and contracting companies working on a project, in part to harness the benefits of AI, is viewed as risky by those who feel it will put their company at a competitive disadvantage. Why must this mindset change?

Project managers are all doing reactive work now. They are putting out fires. AI will ease such burdens by making them rarer and give workers and managers the time and energy to think ahead. AI will give us the opportunity to become progressive in our work practices, fast.

Why do contractors and others in AEC need to include tech pros in their work to get the most from AI? And will any tech pro do, or does industry experience matter?

Techies need to be versed in construction processes, to fully understand the AEC world and offer the most from analysis derived from AI. If data scientists can be guided by those with deep industry experience, they can circumvent the need for construction industry experience. Somebody needs to translate that information from the data scientist to the programmer.


So, will the AEC industry need to hire tech pros, and enable them to get industry experience in order to get the most from AI in construction? And how will this help?

AEC in the future will need to hire more data scientists with industry experience, because they will help determine best practices, including when the best season will be for workers to complete various tasks, since weather conditions vary greatly from region to region. Until you have data scientists with industry experience, they cannot create the new work model that will best improve the industry.


“Digital engagement,”as you call it, in construction is in part a question of streamlining processes and improving practices. But will such engagement move the needle immediately, if implemented?

It’s a bit like the difference between communicating with coworkers by email or by text or both, when simply using email is better. Even with AI, you’re still going to need paper drawings on the jobsite. We are still relying on paper processes, static pieces of paper. Most people are still relying on Excel, and inputting changes by hand. It’s about using technology to report data to you to improve your processes and best practices. And also, to work toward a seamless digital engagement that is not redundant and which doesn’t waste time. 

Jonathan Barnes is a Pittsburgh-based freelance journalist and tech writer.

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