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How Architects Use Technology to Stay Ahead

Architecture and technology have been linked throughout history. Learn how the architects today use technology to reinvent the profession.

Technology and architecture have always gone hand in hand. Whenever you look at a picture of the Great Pyramids of Giza and wonder how they were built, the answer could be answered by simply saying: “technology.” Of course, if you gave such a narcissistic, smart-ass response you’d be ripe for a swift kick in the ass, but it wouldn’t make you wrong.

Architects and engineers are on the frontier of technological innovation. They not only apply some of the most radical building and construction practices the world has ever seen, often times they invent them.

But it isn’t just about how the buildings are made, it’s about how the buildings are designed. And for that, they use technology today in ways the Egyptian Pharaohs could only dream of (even with the help of ancient extra-terrestrials). In today’s world the advent of virtual reality, building information modeling (BIM), real-time rendering and lord-knows what else is coming down the pipeline, has positioned architects to be more efficient, more intelligent, and most important of all, more persuasive.

This Ain’t Your Grandpa’s CAD

If you were born somewhere in the last 50 years, I probably don’t need to tell you what CAD is. But, in case that rock you just crawled out from under doesn’t have a high-speed internet connection, CAD stands for Computer Aided Design. It’s the backbone piece of software every architect, engineer, builder and manufacturer has used since Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates bestowed upon the masses the personal computer. The painful drawl of drawing construction documents by hand was replaced by slow-moving cross-hairs and dot-matrix printers. The transition was a messy, but one that ushered in an age of design and construction that catapulted the industry into the 21st century.

But CAD has changed a lot since the 90’s (thank God). And much of that change has to do with the introduction of Building Information Modeling, or simply BIM.

BIM allows architects and designers to construct a building with astonishing accuracy in three dimensions as they develop their design and document set. Imagine how plans have traditionally be drawn - 2D representations of a horizontal slice taken at a predetermined height in order to show the walls, windows, furniture, and overall spatial organization. Sections, elevations and details are drawn in similar fashion. Sounds great, right? Well, it turns out this is an incredibly inefficient way to put together a drawing set, and relied on an expensive team of interns, drafters, and project managers to not only draw the things, but to coordinate and make changes if changes were to be made.

Now image that horizontal slice is actually cut through a tangible, three dimensional digital model that was build with the exact wall, roof and floor assemblies that would eventually built. These assemblies contain all vital information for the physical makeup of the building, and show up in that way in all plans, sections, elevations and details. Of course, there is a certain amount of fine-tuning and QC QA to be considered, but the ease at which a drawing set can be produced and understood skyrockets.

Also consider coordination. A large design job can have as many as 10-15 different consultants working on a project - from structural, mechanical and electrical engineers, to lighting designers and landscape architects. It’s the architect’s job to keep those consultants organized and informed - something BIM handles with relative ease. The structural engineer will model every beam, column and shear wall in the entire building so the mechanical engineer will know where he can and can’t run his ducting or venting. If there’s a conflict, it’s immediately identified by the program and they all run back to the architect with their hands in the air wondering why they are such horrid designers. Better this inevitable interaction happens before a single piece of wood or steel arrives on site than after it’s already been welded together.

But there are caveats. I’ve seen it once and I’ll see it again: BIM makes people lazy. If you go into learning a program like Revit thinking the technology will do all the work for you, you’ll be on the street selling knock-off Ray Bans faster than you can say “Le Corbusier.” BIM will allow you to work faster, but you should be mindful to use that extra time to make the design or your drawings better. If you aren’t aware and in control of what’s happening in your model and your documents, you’ve lost the game.

Don’t. Be. Lazy.

The Power of Persuasion

There are plenty of things they don’t teach you in architecture school as your filling your idealist little mind with three-point perspective and the importance of expansion vs. compression of processional spatial adjacencies - but there’s no neglected nugget of knowledge more important than the art of the sale.

As you venture into the professional realm of architectural design, you quickly realize your brilliant ideas are only as good as your sales pitch to the people who decide who gets jobs. If you can’t clearly and concisely wow your clients with pretty pictures, diagrams, and a slim bottom line, you’re about as useless to them as the low-middle class. An architect must use the technology and techniques available to them to present the idea with clarity and force.

Traditionally, this pitch has been accompanied by a series of finely-tuned presentation images giving the clients a vague idea of what the final product will look like. A street-view perspective here, maybe some birds-eye views there and you call it a day. However, as architects continue to try and muster up more and more sizzle to hide the reality of their questionable cooked cut of meat, new areas of visualization technology have been seeping into the offices of the most world-renowned architects in the world.

Putting the Reality in VR

Virtual reality is going to be ‘uge. ‘UGE I say! Companies with vast economic power and influence like Facebook and Valve are throwing a heap of resources at what they believe to be the next breakthrough in interactive media technology. And while there’s nothing particularly new about virtual reality, computing power and miniaturization has propelled the technology to being capable of providing users with incredibly real virtual experiences.

Architects take notice.

What could possibly be more persuasive than handing an existing or prospective client a goofy looking virtual reality headset then sending them off in a digital voyage through your yet-to-be-constructed building designs. At that point, you don’t need to be a good salesperson, you just need a talented team of visualization artists and technicians to send a boardroom full of jaws dropping to the floor.

While not many architecture studios are currently implementing this freshly-minted technology, that won’t stay status quo forever. These things have a way of crawling at a snail's pace into studios that are already tight on presentation budgets, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the likes of BIG or SANAA aren’t already licking their jobs at the prospect of taking their clients through a tailored and immersive digital viewing of their designs.

But virtual reality isn’t just for the guys wearing two thousand dollar suits and Tag Heuer watches. VR has the potential to be used as an internal design tool that will make architects better designers. The design process is an exhausting loop of production and feedback, production and feedback until it’s cut short by either an impending deadline or a lack of money. That loop could be fortified by giving designers access to a virtual tour of their progress. This would give them a distinct advantage to relay the conceptual design intent to the team implementing the construction drawings and administration.

Let’s Make Architecture Like Video Games

Because people love video games, right? Real-time rendering has just begun to emerge in design circles as a viable way to display design content and visualization presentations. If you’d like to know more about real-time rendering, see this recently published article. In a few words, real-time rendering is a computing technique used most famously by videogame developers to stream gameplay to your screen in real-time.

So, why has it taken so long for architects to use it as a design and presentation tool?

Well, to put it plainly, it’s bloody expensive!  All those pixels and frame-rates and anti-aliasings comes at an incredibly high development cost. Not to mention the time it takes to craft such an interactive visualization experience. But, if you can for a second imagine having a controller in your hand as you physically (digitally) move from room to room of a prospective building design. That’s a pretty mouth-watering dream, right? Technology is progressing at such a rate this dream might soon become a reality.

If you think a pre-rendered animation that transports you to the building via a virtual reality headset will convince your clients to hire you, imagine what would happen if you had the ability to let them move through that space at their own pace. Of course, this could come with the steep curve of explaining to a 90 year old benefactor how to hold an XBox controller, but it’s a small price to pay for emptying his pockets. If firms start to throw design resources at this technology, they can expect to gain instant reputation and clout among the cocktail crowd looking to throw money at new and interesting ventures.

So, What’s Next?

Well, I really have no idea. Some of the things I’ve mentioned here have really yet to gain real traction in the architecture world. I’m sure they will, because the potential we’re currently faced with is just too juicy to pass up. But since you asked, here’s where I think architects will take technology in the next 20-30 years.

The same place they always take it...to the bank.