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Technology to Master in Architecture in 2017

Nine leaders in digital practice and design name the existing tools that firms and individuals—including themselves—should learn this year.

By Wanda Lau

A new year often refreshes the search for the next great thing to upgrade our professional and personal lives. But that quest often overlooks longstanding, tried-and-true ideas and technologies that still possess years of useful life. As a follow-up to last year’s article on the tech to expect in architecture, we asked leading digital-savvy architects and designers two questions: What existing tools and tricks would benefit any architecture firm to master, and what is their personal tech-related resolutions for 2017?

Enhance the World

Nicholas Cameron, AIA

Director of digital practice and associate principal, Perkins+Will

Recommendation: With virtual reality (VR) already big in architecture, mixed reality (MR) is where real opportunities lie to inform our design solutions and to engage and excite our clients throughout the design process. With MR, which merges actual, physical environments with virtual, digital environments, a client can physically be in a location—say a doctor’s office—and then see it transformed before their eyes with virtual architectural interventions and modifications. The client can even interact with those virtual elements in the physical space. Microsoft HoloLens is an example of MR technology: We’re seeing it as a rapid virtual prototype system that allows us to create scaled models and then view them instantaneously. As great as 3D printing is, it’s still a slow process; HoloLens gives us and our clients viewable, interactive results in a fraction of the time.

Resolution: A big goal for our digital practice team is to train as many people as we can on visual scripting tools like Grasshopper for Rhino and Autodesk Dynamo Studio. These tools allow us to streamline our processes, rapidly iterate and explore, and create the best solutions for our clients. They also fill a large gap in many workflows, allowing teams to leverage model interoperability for analysis, design, and workflow automation.

Phil Bernstein, FAIA

Lecturer, Yale University School of Architecture; consultant, Autodesk

Recommendation: If I were running a firm, I would build capabilities in two areas: reality capture—using scanning, digital photography, and drones to create models of existing conditions, including construction underway; and analysis and simulation—using tools to reason about design as it is unfolding. Lots of possibilities here, but in the Autodesk portfolio, Recap 360 for reality capture and Insight 360 for energy evaluation analysis are both available, easy to use, and BIM compatible.

Resolution: I have become very interested in the relationship of systems to architecture so I want to get proficient in three related areas. First is Systems Dynamics Modeling, which is a discipline used by industrial ecologists to represent simulations of complex environments; I’m building some models of architectural practices and the related building delivery system to use for teaching and research. Second, I want to learn how to build Arduino-based devices to understand how architects might create bespoke digital monitoring and other information infrastructure in a building. Along those lines, third, I’m experimenting at home with various Internet of Things gadgets to understand firsthand how the digital nervous system of an interconnected building might operate.

See the Light, Hear the Feedback

James Garrett Jr., AIA

Managing partner, 4RM+ULA

Recommendation: As a dedicated Art Deco “head,” I’ve always considered light to be an important building material. The iconic skyscrapers that inspired me to become an architect were theatrically lit at night: the Chrysler Building, John Hancock Center, the IDS Center in Minneapolis, and the First National Bank Building in St. Paul, Minn., to name a few. The rapid emergence of affordable, advanced, color-changing LED lighting technology has transformed our 4D-storytelling ability within the built environment. We can now dramatically light our buildings like actors on a stage and program color patterns that change by the second or by the season so our buildings can respond four-dimensionally—over time—at the whims of their owners and express a sense of social unity during national holidays and tragedies.

Ten years ago, Philips Color Kinetics LED lighting system was the gold standard. Now, I consider Rosco LitePad RGB and RoscoLED Tape at the cutting edge of technological innovation in this space.

Resolution: I endeavor to be more digitally proficient in the representation of my design ideas. As a visual artist, my natural instincts are to hand sketch and physically model everything. When we decided to become a 100-percent Autodesk Revit office about six years ago, I found myself outside my AutoCAD comfort zone. I want to do a better job of staying on top of digital software—but change is so rapid, and a day has only so many hours.

Catie Newell

Principal, Alibi Studio; assistant professor and director of the M.S. Architectural Design and Research program with concentrations in Digital Technologies and Material Systems, University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

Recommendation: Designers should learn—or re-learn—how to use the light meter. We have reached a point at which the design-to-fabrication process is quite fluid. Architectural offices and schools are increasingly tooled up with machines, software, and the ability to dream up novel constructions and processes. Within this swift cadence, we must embrace the opportunity to study the intended and resulting material and immaterial effects of a design before it enters into a completed structure. This critical moment requires us to analyze our works for performance-based aspirations—be it light, thermal contents, structural extremes, or the like—as physical assemblies cued into their environments. We need to be running them through a gamut of environmental inputs and outputs that challenge the fluidity that technology can now have with its raw surroundings, and assess how that feedback can return into the workflow of our digital and material climb.

Resolution: Alibi Studio is developing design tools and processes that apply our years of experience in ephemeral material behaviors toward the construction of small, single-use buildings. As we scale up to a larger construction team, this demands the creation of new drawing techniques and material tests. Having started as a team of makers, we are looking to up our stakes and our scales. We resolve to move into our sites.

Z Smith, AIA

Principal and director of sustainability & building performance, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple

Recommendation: The most sophisticated piece of technology in buildings today is the people inside them. They know what works and what doesn't, what gives them joy, and what makes them uncomfortable. Imagine how great our buildings could be if we made them more responsive to their users and set up feedback mechanisms that could learn from their patterns of use and inform better design.

Some startups are working to crowdsource feedback—think of the Comfy app, which allows individual occupants to communicate with the heating and cooling system. And the retail industry is spending millions on indoor GIS systems that (somewhat creepily) learn from where visitors spend time inside shopping malls to optimize the location of products. Why aren't more architects using the same tools to learn about their buildings? Any architect can set up a SurveyMonkey for free; you'll be surprised by what you learn.

Resolution: We have sophisticated tools available for simulating everything from daylight to moisture drive to thermal bridging—but we never have enough time to conduct detailed studies. The more sophisticated the black-box tool is, the more important it is that designers develop the gut-check intuition to recognize when their tool has output the wrong answer, to three decimal places. My goal is to develop simpler tools and training so that every member of our design staff can quickly evaluate options, make informed decisions, and know whether to call for a more sophisticated analysis.

Digitize the Workflow

Paul Audsley, Assoc. AIA

Principal and director of digital practice, NBBJ

Recommendation: With a plethora of new technologies, services, and experiences hitting the market, it’s easy to get distracted from the fundamentals of efficient project delivery. While almost every project now has a client requirement for BIM, few firms have fully leveraged the technology to transform their business process. Though firms should and must explore new tools and technologies, they should also focus on elevating digital leadership and training in effective project workflows.

Resolution: We’ll be building on the success of our digital leadership program to further elevate workflow, application, and software development skills. We also plan to integrate new experience-focused technologies into existing workflows to further integrate our clients into the design process. These technologies include projection mapping, digitally-enhanced rapid prototyping, virtual reality, and sensor networks.

Shane Burger

Principal and director of technical innovation, Woods Bagot

Recommendation: Architects today should learn Rhino, Grasshopper, and other Grasshopper add-ins—especially analysis tools—to enhance their design process. Learn the basics of a scripting or programming language, like Python and C# (pronounced “C sharp”), so you can automate and enhance your design process. Don't be limited by what the software companies give you in the latest version of their design tools.

Learn Autodesk Revit or another BIM tool. You don’t have to know every button, but you need to fundamentally understand what it does and what it is good for. Learn to integrate it into a coherent, team-wide BIM methodology. And get comfortable with conducting design reviews within models and with digital markups. Skip AutoCAD and Trimble SketchUp: two-dimensional CAD is at its end-of-life, and rough sketch modeling environments that aren't connected to actual production are a dead end.

Dynamic visualizations are the future. For design representation, move into a game engine like Unity. Learn to automate as much of your graphics work within your design platforms as possible; Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop should only be used for final touches.

It is time to get comfortable with short-form and mobile team communications. Use Trello to plan your team's tasks and learn lightweight communication platforms, such as Slack.

Most importantly, learn how to integrate all of these into a coherent, collaborative team workflow that is guided by your design and delivery approach. Take a critical eye to digital workflows, learn to curate your design environment, and don't let one tool limit your creative output.

Resolution: Game engines, Slack, Trello, and similar agile project management tools are my focus at the moment.

Look Up From the Desk

Alvin Huang, AIA

Principal, Synthesis Design + Architecture; assistant professor, University of Southern California School of Architecture

Recommendation: Architects shouldn't focus on the technologies themselves, but rather on the mastery of the thinking behind them. The distinction is critical and often overlooked. Architects often concentrate on technological advances as either tools for production—workflows that automate or expedite existing ways of working; or as techniques for application—tools that produce known design results. Architects should leverage the potential of parametric modeling, digital fabrication, and other forms of emergent design technologies as a form of techne, or a way of thinking. (In philosophy, techne refers to knowledge of the principles of making.) In short, architects should focus on design technology as a form of craftsmanship that is informed by the intelligence of the tools and techniques available.

Resolution: I am challenging myself to do more business development and marketing. My emerging practice has focused on developing a body of work for the last few years. We now have a portfolio of built and unbuilt work that begins to describe who we are and what we do.

Sheila Kennedy, FAIA

Professor, MIT School of Architecture + Planning; director, Design & Applied Research, MATx; principal, Kennedy & Violich Architecture

Recommendation: This year provides architects and designers with a new urgency to reflect on design and technology in context. Technology per se is of less interest than the emergent relationships among design, technology, networks, and communities that will continue to develop in unexpected ways.

The unprecedented events of the last four years in politics, national security, energy, the creative economy, and business illustrate the need to think in new ways about how technology and design are enmeshed in a diversity of contemporary local and global cultures. This may be the year of the network: hacked, constructed, splintered, re-formed, and shared exponentially across an ever-fluid set of constituencies. The process, fabrication, product, distribution, and eventual disposal of design are interconnected with big data, social media, and digital technology. Community access, engagement, dissemination, and reach suggest anew the power of the many—at a moment when the efficacy of traditional forms of democracy appears to be on the wane.

This influences the design fields in two ways. Design can go soft. No longer purely material, our buildings, artefacts, and cities can be calibrated to respond to digital feedback loops, the environment, and localized just-in-time fabrication, dissemination, and use. The creative challenge for design professionals is to produce work that engages nature, technology, and the built environment as integral parts of a single spatial system—and to enter a broader debate, formulate ideas, test new directions, and take risks. This year, design and technology in context offer the potential both for mainstream exploitation and for unexpected forms of material resistance to dominant cultures and political environments.

This article was originally published in ARCHITECT in January 2017.

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