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AIA Design: Don't Just Consume Technology. Make It.

Experts call on architects to take action at a January conference on technology in architectural practice.

By Steve Cimino for AIArchitect

The message of the 2015 AIA Building Connections Congress, hosted by the AIA's Technology in Architectural Practice (TAP) at AIA National in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5, came through loud and clear: Think outside of the box.

Attended by architects, software developers, federal employees, and engineers, TAP's congress serves as a yearly forum for the architecture community to come together and discuss how technology is affecting design projects and performance.

This year, TAP focused on the limitations of existing technological options. Despite the inquisitive, problem-solving nature of architects, there is often blanket acceptance of what's available in the digital marketplace. Speakers pressed attendees to look beyond the familiar to create smaller tools that might benefit their organizations, and larger tools that would advance the community as a whole.

Jeffrey Ouellette, Assoc. AIA, the 2015 TAP chair, welcomed everyone to the forum with a call for personal industriousness.

"It's about going beyond making something for yourself, and trying to provide a solution for a broader marketplace," said Ouellette. "Architects are meant to use ingenuity and innovation.

"Don't make the excuse that we can only take what's given to us," he added.

That message was accentuated by AIA CEO/EVP Robert Ivy, FAIA, who gave a brief presentation on the Institute's long-awaited Digital Transformation and how the AIA intends to upgrade its systems and technological capabilities. "We're changing our organization at all levels," said Ivy, "the way we work together at [AIA headquarters] and the way we work with our components."

"We've been thinking differently about the way we bring things to market, the way we work with our members," he added. "We need to be leading in our thinking and our execution."

AIA President Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, spoke about how both the Institute and its members need to anticipate the impact of technology's constant evolution.

"Time is a precious commodity," said Richter. "How we use time, and the value of how we use it, is of great importance. Technology can give, and also take away, time."

She also acknowledged just how predisposed architects are for such an augmented future: "Architects are good at mastering tools that already exist, and inventing tools for tomorrow's work, in order to enhance productivity and stretch our talents further."

The question for conference-goers then became about the role of architects in developing software and applications that benefit both process and performance. The general response was to instead promote curiosity and inventiveness. Instead of necessitating in-house development, they advised increasing the involvement of younger staff members with technical skills, along with learning to recognize areas where technology can help alleviate the mundane.

"If you catch yourself doing something repetitive, step back and say, 'Could this be automated?' " asked Andrew Heumann, a designer at Seattle's NBBJ.

"What's crucial to success," he added, "is training firm leadership not on how to code, but on how to think about how computational tools work."

Ouellette also raised the question of how architects respond to these issues at a core level.

"Are we applying the design process-and that sort of reasoning, methodologies, investigation-to our own problems?" he asked. "We're very good at solving everyone else's problems, but not our own, in many cases."

Changes on the Horizon

In a subsequent session on new business opportunities for architects, the speakers stressed the importance of clients in pushing this conversation further.

"How do we as architects begin the dialogue with our clients and ask them, 'How do we build the right building?' " said Zigmund Rubel, AIA, co-founder of Aditazz, a data-modeling company.

Any industry-wide need for technology upgrades would be a major disruption, and Rubel noted that "disruption always comes from the outside." While the majority of architects may not have a need for novel tools right now, a collection of clients asking for advanced systems-hospitals were mentioned-would add new value to the proposition.

"One day, the owners will flip," said Dennis Shelden, director of global services and strategy for Trimble (formerly Gehry Technologies). "The risk is the owners will flip and this [architecture] community will not be able to respond in time."

Along the same lines, several discussants expressed concern that fears about cultural change, not the tech itself, would slow many firms from moving forward. "Technology doesn't mean anything if no one takes it on and uses the tools," Ouellette said.

That said, the conversation generally tilted away from immediate answers and towards the value of interoperability and the need for collaboration between all members of the architecture, engineering, and construction industry.

"This conversation is still relatively new," said Nathan Miller, director of Architecture & Engineering Solutions at CASE, "and we're having it in an industry that, historically, does not move fast. But we need to break down silos of interest and discuss how to find and build business models and workflows that allow all of these different groups to interrelate better."

In a conversation after the conference, Ouellette voiced those same goals for the rest of 2015.

"I want to take this theme of making tools and carry it throughout the year," he said, "to work on expanding that understanding of what we're trying to talk about.

"We're at least 10 years behind the rest of the computing world curve when it comes to innovation and functionality and general growth of ideas," he added. "I want to know why that is and what we are going to do about it in the future."

For more on TAP, including awards and other upcoming events, visit

This article was originally published in ARCHITECT March 2015.

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