I will start this discussion with a short parable: Two masons were working on installing brick veneer column bases on a colonnade as part of one of my projects. The first mason, when asked what he was doing, replied that he was installing masonry veneer column bases. True enough. An accurate statement. The second mason responded to the same question with the reply that he was helping build this building.
It is possible that the first mason would perform just as professionally as the second. But I think it is more likely that the second mason would approach his work with at better overview of its place in the total building composition. I also think he would be more likely to care and notice how his work interfaces with the work of other trades, probably resulting in a better final product.
In another way, on another level, architects deal with similar blinkered vision from our teams of engineering consultants. We architects see our work as getting a building – or groups of buildings – constructed. But I have come to the realization that many of my consulting engineers do not view their job as helping to get the building built. Rather, they think of their work in a more narrow consideration. They are designing a system to be installed in the final product.
So instead of seeing their effort as part of a larger collaborative work product, they are focused on the system they are tasked to design. At best, this approach often leads to conflicts with other systems (by other designers on the team) that are part of the overall design.
To be successful, an architect must lead, even inspire, his team to think beyond their contracted duties and make them want to play as a team. The orchestra metaphor applies – if a building is a piece of music, it will be most beautiful when all the musicians are playing their best, together.
As the profession moves towards ever more integrated design processes, it has become incumbent upon the new members of the profession, fresh from their successful collegiate studies, to present themselves to architect employers with an ever increasing list of already-owned and developed skills.
Back in the old days, when drawings were produced by hand – pencil or pen upon vellum or film – the freshly minted architectural graduate could be assured of at least a couple of years of laboring over the smallest details, interior and exterior elevations, plans, or sections. This had the benefit of exposing the candidate, slowly, to all the ins and outs of basic building design as they worked to help a team assemble a set of drawings. Most components of the drawing sets, including all the details, were redrawn for each project. This systematically forced repetition would help instill an understanding of the system or materials contained within the details on the young architect-to-be, while he or she perfected their line technique and lettering “hand”.
Then came sticky back reproduced standard details and things like pin-bar assembly of final drawings. Suddenly the focus of the labor was to select the correct, already drawn details to install on a sheet, see to it that they were copied, and then assembled on the correct sheet. Less time was spent (less was available) actually reviewing the detail for content and accuracy, as the basic drawing effort was already completed. The opportunity to learn about the content and reasoning behind the detail was reduced. Only the most diligent intern spent any time reviewing all of the content for accuracy and personal understanding.
Now computers and design programs allow us to produce even more quantity in less time, with the sticky back detail replaced by “x-refed” details and geometry. The amount of time spent reviewing the contents of the details is even more constricted, and the opportunity to learn how things work is even more compressed.
Intern architects face an ever-shrinking time line between the first viewing of a detail and the time they are required to say with confidence that they understand what the detail is telling them. Couple this with an ever-increasing need to improve productivity, and the pressures on an intern architect to run fast while still learning means that to keep up, they either need to come to the starting line with more basic understanding of a wide range of subjects, or they need to be fast learners who do not mind spending their non-billable hours (outside the work environment) on personal research and professional knowledge gathering.
Parametric design brings with it a whole new potential for forcing the intern architect, as well as the newly-minted architect, to know more and more about the technical aspects of the building sooner and sooner. True parametric design will in fact require a fairly rigorous understanding of structure, and the interrelationships amongst the structure and the major systems of the building such as plumbing and mechanical systems. Then, to add smaller components to the model, such as doors and windows and cabinets, will further test the knowledge base of the designers and draftsmen. Using the previously mentioned door as an example, to utilize all of the capabilities of the parametric program, it will be necessary to know not only which way the door swings on the plan, but to also know what kind of frame it is hung in, how that frame is connected to the wall it is located in, what kind of hardware it uses, what the composition and materials of the door are, etc. This responsibility for knowing more about the details of the design earlier in the process will fall to those middle and lower echelon interns in the office once referred to as the drafting staff. The designers will still be able to deal with the design schematically and aesthetically on a general level. Once the assembly of the three dimensional electronic model is begun though, details will need to be known to make the model effective as both a design tool and path to the creation of an instruction set used in the field by the contractors to actually assemble the building.
In order to participate at an effective level in the coming parametric design based office, everyone, from intern to project manager, from designer to technical detailer, will need a robust set of knowledge about all aspects of the building they are designing. Effective communication amongst team members – and this includes the consultant teams hired to do things like structural design, mechanical design, electrical design, plumbing design, etc. – will be key to the success of a project produced using parametric design. This means that more will be expected of everyone on the team, and much earlier in the process.
Those who continue to fail to keep up with professional knowledge growth will be eventually rifted out of the office and replaced by someone with a stronger skill set. This was always true, but the steepness of the learning curve is increasing, not decreasing. The fact that computers allow us to perform more work in a shorter time span means that we have to keep knowing more just to stay in front of the computer’s demands for more and more accurate information.
The parametric building process, when fully developed, will test the knowledge base of even the most experienced architect or engineer. To effectively participate in this process at a lower level of expertise will require that person to possess a hunger for the rapid, continuous accumulation of skills, to learn faster than they are working so that they will always be pulling the project forward instead of hanging off the back, creating drag.
The advantage that the newer architectural candidates have over their more aged brethren is that they are not afraid of the technology that allows this parametric design to happen. I know fellow architects my age that rarely use computers, and some who insist on drawing by hand, even if it is less efficient. The new architect candidates (since 1995 or so) for the most part have developed no love for the hand drawing process, so the new technology is just a tool to get them to the end of the job.
At the end of the day it will still be the architects with the strongest breadth of knowledge about the total building package that will lead the design effort. The best designers will be the ones who can synthesize ever larger quantities of technical information while not allowing themselves to be overwhelmed by that information, always focusing on the design idea or ideas that drive the underlying solution. The days when an intern architect could ease themselves into the profession has disappeared. The implementation of technology has accelerated the process, and those who do not keep up with technology’s demands will either become discouraged and leave or will find offices where a slower pace – probably combined with less technology – is accepted.
I was conversing with an engineer the other day about a public works project for a local city we had been asked to help his firm work on. We were going to prepare renderings of the proposed street elevations for the property where they were designing and installing a water tank and a pump house building.
The project manager for the city – a city engineer – asked to see examples of our work prior to authorizing the engineering firm to engage us for this work. We submitted a couple of examples of rendered street elevations we had done for recent housing projects. They showed trees, walls, landscaping intent, massing of the buildings and other structures beyond the walls, as well as the relative level of the street to the proposed construction.
The city project manager, after viewing the submitted sample drawings, asked whether or not we had any examples of pump station buildings in our resume’ that she could view. At first, I laughed, and then fired off an email to the engineer we were attempting to be hired by, somewhat facetiously asking – does it matter what kind of building it is behind the wall and landscaping, we are architects, we can draw it. We are professionals. It is a building for goodness sakes!
Subsequent email exchanges brought home the fact that for the city engineer, this was a deal breaker. Without specific pump station experience, she would not allow us to participate in the contract by drawing a pump station elevation with a wall and landscaping in front of it.
This caused me to consider, why architects see things differently, sometimes dramatically differently, than a large portion of the population, including other design professionals. What can we do within the confines of our imaginations that large portions of the population cannot do. I won’t even get into why people like my wife have no problem making statements like…”just because you are an architect doesn’t mean that I should believe you when you tell me what this will look like”. I believe this and similar sentiments are due to a general inability of the non-architect to visualize things in the same way we architects do, even after very eloquent and detailed descriptions of our visualization by us. They may trust us, but they still seek verification.
I will use my long-suffering wife as anecdotal evidence for this claim. I recently constructed a stacked stone wall to enclose the garden in my back yard. To make sure that my wife was not unaware of what I wanted to do, I took her with me when we went to the masonry supply store to select the stone system for the wall. We looked at pictures of completed walls. We discussed color selections for the materials. At home, I walked her around the area of the yard where the garden was to be placed. She understood, I thought, what I was proposing to build. My wife is smart, and even has some artistic perception. Several months later, when the garden wall was completed – those stones are heavy – upon viewing the completed wall, she admitted she had thought it was going to be different than the way it turned out. She was not disappointed, she just did not see the final result as matching what I had so eloquently explained a few months earlier.
An architect composes space. We do it with a variety of building and site components and subcomponents, including, but not limited to, walls, roofs, openings, paving, landscaping, lighting, and colors. We plan for the spaces using our internal visual capabilities that allow us to envision what something will look like before it is actually built. We use a range of tools, including drawings and models, to convey our understanding of what the final product will look like. We take satisfaction, sometimes immense satisfaction, in squaring our design proposal with the actual construct. And we are somewhat oblivious to the details of the process, because they tend to be second nature to us.
Back to the city engineer/project manager. She felt that unless we could demonstrate some specific experience with pump buildings, that we were not qualified to perform any artistic presentation of that project. The fact that the pump building is a spatial construction, that its relationship to other elements such as walls and landscaping and streets and such is not unlike other buildings was beside the point. We could not possibly understand this particular type of building, and thus could not competently produce a street rendering of it.
The city engineer, someone who I imagine is a very intelligent and talented person in their field, could not see beyond the description of the function of the pump house building to understand that it is very much like any other building – it is a spatial assembly designed to enclose specific functions. We were not hired to do the job.