AEC Tech News #135

5 Jan, 2005 By: Michael Dakan

Cadalyst AEC Tech News

Tools of Our Trade

Technology can profoundly impact
architectural practice — if you want

The last time I wrote about the changing practice of architecture spurred by new electronic tools and techniques, I was taken to task by several readers who felt that the practice wasn't changing — only the tools used in the practice. Sure, many firms hold fast to their mode of business and adopt only bits and pieces of technology that fit into their existing processes. But for those firms willing to fully embrace technology and all its potential, the changes can be profound and can impact many aspects of professional practice.

Electronic Tools and Academics
There's no denying that electronic technology has changed architectural education, at least to some extent. Time is spent teaching students how to use computers and specific software programs to accomplish architectural work tasks, and that is time not spent on some other aspect of architectural education. This is the result of demand from the profession for graduates who are well-versed in computer use, including some training in software, especially CAD.

I believe CAD use in architecture has also affected the postgraduate training of intern architects. Reuse of information has been simplified through use of electronic drawings, and therefore less time must be spent redrawing things such as construction details, which used to be a major part of the workload of young architectural trainees. There's not much architectural learning that needs to occur to position a predrawn CAD detail on an electronic sheet compared with the old method of having a young architect copy and redraw a detail line for line, or work out a new detail and draw it from scratch.

All this is generally seen as a positive change in terms of an architectural firm's productivity and the subsequent positive impact on profitability and competitiveness. In fact, productivity and improved profitability have been the primary selling points for CAD, and CAD has been perceived as a tool that is most useful and beneficial during the latter production phases of architectural work, which requires the most time and generates the majority of fees in an architectural office. CAD has generally not been perceived as a tool that is very useful during the early design phases of architectural practice, except perhaps for generating renderings and presentation drawings in support of design efforts. But that may change dramatically because CAD developers have put more emphasis on 3D modeling and the design aspects of practice for the past few years.

Varying Degrees of CAD Use
Of course not every firm that uses CAD has adopted 3D modeling. Indeed, many firms are not using CAD at all beyond a basic level, employing it as little more than an electronic pencil using production methods carried over from the days of graphite and erasers. Nothing forces a firm to adopt the full potential of computer technology, and in fact doing so requires a high level of commitment to training and investment in up-to-date hardware and software tools that not every firm is willing or able to make.

But as the software tools become more capable and sophisticated in 3D modeling, some firms have committed to using it to its full potential. Consequently, it's difficult to imagine that structures like the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, both by Frank Gehry & Associates, could have been conceived and executed without the sophisticated use of computer technology that the Gehry firm employs. Computers and CAD have become a form generator for architectural design, with results that are very different from anything we've seen in the past.

Change is in Your Hands
No, you don't have to change anything about your architectural practice in response to computer technology. In fact, you don't have to use technology at all. Many small firms today have chosen not to, for a variety of reasons. But if you choose to fully adopt computer technology and are willing to make the necessary commitment, you will join a small group of firms that are demonstrating today what was inconceivable only a few years ago.

Not every architect wants to design using computer-generated forms that are unlike the traditional forms they have used in the past. But it's still good to know what is possible, and to have the increased potential to use forms and design methods that were not practical to consider before the advent of computer-aided design methods. An ever-widening palette of design possibilities will be available to architects in the future, but nothing can force a firm to change its architectural practice — except, perhaps, the desire to achieve increased potential and eventually, perhaps, to compete in the marketplace.