Musser Architects / AnOtherArchy  / Learning Curves and Technology

Learning Curves and Technology

DavidLineDwgAs 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.


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