Say Goodbye to Mike Brady

12 Mar, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

Litmus proposal breaks with convention to improve architectural workflow

In 2000, setting up an office out of equipment acquired on eBay and through industry contacts, Julia Wood and Simon Tomkinson launched Litmus Design + Architecture in Portland, Oregon. Six years later, the majority of these software and hardware components are still very much a part of Litmus operations.

Recently, as one of the finalists in The World of Difference contest -- which posed the question, How would $100,000 in technology for your small business change the way you live, work, dream? -- Litmus proposed building an efficient design workflow around a relational database. True to their bootstrap origin, Wood and Tomkinson showed how to assemble the necessary infrastructure using off-the-shelf products.

Forget the Archetypes
Tomkinson is trying to undo several architectural icons: the uncompromising idealist who refuses to accept any deviation from the original design -- for example, Howard Roark in The Fountainhead; the omniscient dictator, who controls every detail of the construction process like a deity -- much like the white-bearded architect of the mainframe in The Matrix; and the sexy celebrity professional -- recall Mike Brady from The Brady Bunch.

"It's an imperfect world," Tomkinson reminds us, "so we need solutions for the imperfect world." That means the architect has to not only design, but also reconcile the disparate structural data provided by building team members throughout the construction process. He proposes "vertical integration of technology and process" to tackle the real architect's not-so-sexy role.



The traditional architecture workflow vs. the new technology-enabled workflow, as presented by Litmus Design + Architecture at The World of Difference contest.

Data Integration
"The No. 1 goal for Litmus is to have all data integrated across all formats within a relational database, with more processing power and specific output mechanisms to interface with the physical analog world," says Tomkinson.

As his choice of database package, he suggests Orange Loft's ArchiOffice, developed by a group of Chicago architects. Built on Filemaker Pro, ArchiOffice is compatible with both PC and Mac platforms. The home dashboard of the program serves as a launch pad, providing tabulated fields for active contacts, project status, time and expense slips, calendar events, to-do items and more.

For heavy-duty production work, Tomkinson recommends ArchiCAD, augmented by SketchUp, the design-exploration package from @Last Software; Piranesi, a 3D painting tool from Informatix; Artlantis R, a 3D rendering tool from Abvent; Construction Office, a project-management solution from UDA Technologies; and Adobe's Creative Suite graphics presentation bundle.

Networking and Communication
Tomkinson's data hub is to be supported by a network built on Microsoft Small Business Server 2003, using the Centrino laptops, Pentium workstations and a dual-Xeon server from Litmus' technology partner Computer Technology Link. The workflow is largely digital, but Tomkinson realizes that for field use, permit issuance and board presentation, paper output and physical prototypes are still necessary. Therefore, in addition to online portfolios and Web-based conferencing setups, he has made room for an HP plotter and a laser cutter by Universal Laser Systems.


The new network structure proposed by Litmus Design + Architecture.

Litmus is preparing to roll out its contractor development program. "It's something to get contractors to understand the value of what we're doing, in risk reduction, pricing and bidding areas," says Tomkinson. "We want to have an open relationship [with contractors]. By exporting the building model to them, we want them to be able to use the actual callouts in the program for square footages and cubic inches of concrete."

Ever an optimist, Tomkinson is also approaching insurance companies to persuade them to reduce liability costs. His argument is that the deployment of technology -- the 3D building model in particular -- helps Litmus detect potential errors beforehand, so its projects are less likely to suffer from costly mistakes in the field.

What's Stopping It?
The proposed workflow model seems to make sense, but Tomkinson is also a realist. He foresees a fair amount of resistance to it, some stemming from how architects traditionally charge for services. "We have to rethink how we charge for our services." he says. "In addition to designing, there's also data collection and consolidating."

And another reason for reluctance, he says, might have to do with how architects have been working for so long: "In the traditional workflow of an architecture office, the bulk of the work happens in design development and in construction documentations. They make up about 60% of the work. What I'm proposing is to reverse the ratio, so we spend 60% of the effort on facilitating the construction process instead."

Tomkinson believes his proposed workflow -- or something closely resembling it -- will eventually prevail. "In our current projects, budgets go up to about $5 million," he notes. "We're an upstart firm, but if the savings we're seeing in our small projects are applied to bigger projects, they'll be significant." And savings always look sexy to the clients.

In a perfect world, Tomkinson and his team might have won The World of Difference contest and collected the $100,000 award money from The Small Business Technology Institute. In the imperfect world, the award went to someone else.