Musings for a New Year

As a technology advocate I’ve watched with interest the many changes to our industry over the last 34 years.  The tools used today in the practice of architecture bear little resemblance to those in use when I was an intern.  Below are a few observations about the influences, trends, and how we as architects intersect with and use technology.  Apologies up front for wandering around a bit.

It’s all about technology

Well, maybe not – but it’s a good lead in and perhaps better turned into a question.  Is technology overshadowing the practice of architecture? 

A fellow PM commented to his young-ish team nearing completion of the construction documents that a lot of work remained to ensure the building was constructible.  The team took issue with this.  After further discussion it was determined that they had confused mastery of the Revit software with knowing how to put a building together.  These are two very different things.

As the profession remains in the midst of profound and ongoing technological change, the tools in use today allow new ways to view and communicate ideas.  The execution of those ideas however often seems to be of lesser importance.


From my first experiences with CAD, it was soon apparent that software was a tool that could provide advantages over drawing by hand.  The workflow was a strategy unto itself, and we observed that better results arose by putting in place reasonably easy-to-follow standards that limited the drafters choices.  The thinking was that CAD standards should be geared for interns and average users (those doing most of the work) – not for the power user.  That said, we did develop some very good LISP routines, one of which executed the opening and arranging of multiple viewports with xrefs to automate printing in AutoCAD (thanks to Drew).

Hands Off

Several years ago, Dell was experiencing a high failure rate with hard drives.  Their investigation revealed that hard drives were handled several times prior to being placed into a PC.  Each “touch” created the chance for an electrostatic discharge (ESD), a drop, or a bump that could damage these sensitive devices.  By reworking the drive packaging and how they handled the drives they were able to reduce it to a single “touch” – the actual removal from packaging and installation into the PC itself, which in this case corresponded with a significant reduction in failures.  It’s interesting to me that technology wasn’t the answer, but rather a change in workflow was.

Architects are information managers who handle significant amounts of data.  The greater number of times we touch or manipulate data by copying, transcribing, re-entering, or revising it across and between various documents, the greater the likelihood that errors will be made.

This has implications for how we document project meetings as well as the building itself; with a goal to ensure that decisions, markups, and the sometimes casual (but important) comments are recorded and integrated into the downstream documents.

It’s all about BIM

I heard recently of a client initiative to “draw it once”, seeking development of the BIM model while eliminating the varying redundant efforts in which both the AE team and contractors draw and model the same things at different times.  If I understand correctly, the effort involves the subcontractor doing much of the drawing / modeling in lieu of the AE.  The architect wasn’t sure if they would draw or model at all or if their firm would be asked to seal documents and assume liability for the work of subcontractors.

This approach makes sense in many ways although I am thinking more along the lines of AE’s developing “contractor friendly” BIM models that are developed to be useful to downstream users with little or no rework required.  So, perhaps it could instead become – “Draw it 1.4 times” or something like that.

It is important to remember that design is not a linear effort nor do we want to try to force it to be.  The very act of sketching, drawing, and modeling is integral to the design process and allows us to develop and think through ideas.  As design requires time to synthesize and take form, it likewise takes a while for water to boil.  While you are waiting, you can change your mind about the type of tea you would like and whether you’ll sweeten it with honey, sugar, by artificial means, or maybe not all.  There is some joy and even a little mystery in the wait, part of the ritual of preparing tea perhaps – especially on cold days.  We might even conclude that the preparation has value itself, not just the end game of consumption - although that remains the ultimate purpose.

The Value proposition

While taking a course in Lean 6Sigma, one of the presenters, George Eckes, Eckes & Associates, Inc., noted a 15% increase in the average organizations "inefficiency rating" over a 10-12 year period (I’m guessing this was from the mid 1990's to the mid 2000's).  He attributed it primarily to "more technology" and the time spent keeping up with it.  We’ve all experienced this with endless email and software upgrades adding new features and functionality.

I don’t know of any architects who want to return to pencil or pen on vellum and electric erasers.  We would like to have back the “gaps” in time between tasks where one can think more deliberately.  Prior to the fax machine, the first significant tech change in my time, local contractors would come by our office to drop off new RFI’s, submittals, and shop drawings and to pick up the reviewed ones.  There was time to think about what you were doing and reconsider if needed.  Unfortunately, this is something we have less of nowadays.

Ultimately, a discussion involving technology leads me to think about what we’re doing and if it really contributes value.  Adapting the Lean definition of “value” to our profession, we can define it as:

  • Anything our client is willing to pay for
  • Work and effort that is done right the first time
  • Something that advances or progresses the work

A fundamental question then is will we serve technology or will it serve us?  The answer to that has implications on how you identify and deploy technologies across your office and the efforts you will make at developing effective workflows.