Make your own way

A couple of weeks ago I took part in the yearly Intersections Symposium held by the Fuse Lab at Citi Tech. I was part of a panel (aptly) named “Tools” (?) with Axel Killian from Princeton SOA, David Rife from ARUP Assocites, and Jonatan Schumacher from Thornton Thomasetti. It was great to get a chance to catch up with these guys and recommend you follow their work where you can.

The central question posed to the panel was ‘how are students to prepare and keep up with the fast moving advance of digital tools?’  It’s a great question and one that has been a big part of the professional world as well. The explosion of digital tools in the last decade has had a profound impact in practice just as much as it has in the academy. We hear a lot today (…has it been 6 years??) about BIM and how this process is changing the established workflows. For some reason, we did not hear as much about the effect that Rhino (+ Grasshopper) and SketchUp  also had on our industry. I sense these were more disruptive technologies in their day, giving access to cheap or free 3D modeling to designers en masse.

Tinkering and architecture

In any case, David, Jonatan and I, the three non-academics on the panel, all took a similar approach to the topic, presenting concepts and examples of pushing past limitations of commercially available tools to find workflows and solutions for a our projects.

My part focused on defining the difference between tools and workflows. A workflow being defined as a series of connected steps, or a recipe as Dave Fano would call it. A tool (a digital tool in this case) is the means by which we perform any one of those steps in a way that is both efficient and yielding high quality. A good workflow will re-purpose tools in ways their makers never imagined. A good workflow has a purpose.

At the time of the symposium and only a few months after the site launch, AEC Apps already lists more than 425 tools. This number is made up of both highly successful commercial products and one off hacked-together add-ins made by many of us. My sense is that this number is still low, but it already begins to expose the magnitude of options that we as designers have every day in tool selection as we design the workflows that enable our design process.

Apps listed on AEC Apps

Some may see this as a problem, and will call for consolidation of options to a select few. They will do so in the name of inter-operability or standardization, but this is the wrong move for AEC.

An industry in dire need of more applied research should find ways to to add fuel to the fire and encourage designers to continue to take on tool-making as part of the design process, while also challenging software vendors to continue to innovate. But we shouldn’t stop there. We also need to share more. Sharing our experiments or tools, whether they be a model jig, a good family, a few lines of code, or even a polished add-in does much to push us all forward. It is through these examples and the conversations that happen online that we learn, adjust and forge ahead.

The underlying lesson of the talk was that emphasis must be given to the problem being solved, and not the tool. The question is not ‘what does the tool enable us to do?’, but instead, ‘what do we want to do, and how can these tools help us get there?’. By refocusing the conversation on solving real building problems we will find it much easier to make decisions about which tools to use, and when it may be worthwhile to even build your own.


Thanks to Brian Ringley for the great photos.

Thanks to NY City Tech for the invite. I had a lot of fun. If you’re interested in all the work that is happening over there, have a look:


Review: Building (in) the Future: Recasting Labor in Architecture

This book review was written for the Yale Architecture Magazine.  Original links here and here

Review: Building (in) the Future: Recasting Labor in Architecture
Peggy Deamer and Phillip G. Bernestein, editors

The book is a collection of essays, broken into two main parts.  The first, dealing with the relationship between maker and the object, and the second, between the makers themselves (defined as: architects, builders, subcontractors and fabricators).

Section 1: Working and Making

Intention, Craft and Rationality
by: Kenneth Frampton

Imagining Risk
by: Scott Marble

Parametric Profligacy, Radical Economy
by: Mark Goulthorpe

Valuing Material Comprehension
by: James Carpenter

Between Conception and Production
by: Branko Kolarevic

Exclusive Dexterity
by: Kevin Rotheroe

Detail Deliberations
by: Peggy Deamer

Technology and Labor
by: Coren D. Sharples

Open-Source Living
by: Kent Larson

Section 2: Collaboration

On the Cultural Separation of Design Labor
by: Paolo Tombesi

Innovation Rates and Network Organization
by: John E. Taylor

Furthering Collaboration
by: Howard Ashcraft

Overcoming Embedded Inefficiencies
by: Rodd W. Merchant

Controlling Intellectual Property
by: Christopher Noble

Marketing and Positioning Design
by: Phillip G. Bernstein

Models for Practice: Past, Present, Future
by: Phillip G. Bernstein

In Building (in) the Future, editors Peggy Deamer and Phillip G. Bernstein take an important step in grounding the conversation on the use of technology across the building design and construction process.  The book is a collection of essays by industry leaders, theorists and academics organized into two main sections titled “Working and Making” and “Collaboration” respectively. Its main contribution, and what sets this book apart, is that it is not a traditional show and tell of successful technology stories, but instead a close look at technology’s role as a catalyst for change on the “larger issue of how the profession and all the players in it want and need to reposition themselves for the future.”  The book, as a collection, becomes a telling cross section of the diversity of viewpoints across the different roles in the profession, and highlights a single core theme: technology (in its many forms) is forcing a restructuring of traditional labor barriers and relationships, whether we’re ready for it or not.  From Kenneth Frampton’s warning on the continued focus of the application of technology on cladding both in academia and the profession (an element, he states, only counts for 20% of a building’s cost), to Phil Bernstein’s reminder that an estimated 90% of building projects in the U.S. are finished without the use of an architect, this book (especially the second section) becomes a timely resource in a conversation that must be broadened to include all aspects of the building process.

The first section studies the relationship between the maker and the object, and more specifically, between design and craft.  Here, designers discuss craft as the most directly impacted area of practice in their application of technology.  In “Valuing Material Comprehension”, author James Carpenter underscores the importance in the link between material and craft, stating “…the realm of the nonstandard comes with the possibility of greater risk during construction, but a full understanding of a material’s potential removes risk from the equation.”  This follows architects’ Peggy Deamer’s and Scott Marble’s assertion that for architects, the term craft is intrinsically tied to the idea of detail.  Mr. Marble states “Architectural detail [is] an architect’s means of introducing craft into buildings.”  Author Branko Kolarevic takes this idea further, emphasizing the importance of detail and craft in the digital process itself.  Mr. Kolarevic invokes David Pye’s definition of craftsmanship, downplaying the tool employed by the craftsman, while emphasizing the expertise of the craftsman’s application of that very tool: “The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making.”

All of these essays then, focus on the idea that craft must be re-linked into our process as a means to an end founded in the need for further control and a more established professional identity.  Digital fabrication, is stated, provides this link…Yet, Peggy Deamer points out, “A much more interesting path is to employ technology to dispense with fixed identities altogether.”

The second half of this book takes a more analytical look at the definition of labor and technology’s potential impact on it.  In this section, the focus is no longer the designer’s yearn for control, but the very infrastructures that allow a design team to work together toward a common goal.  In what Paolo Tombesi, a professor at the University of Melbourne, calls “Design Fragmentation”, “Design Contributing Enterprises” create a “system of design production, independent of the profession”.  Mr. Tombesi takes the time to explain the influence of market forces in the definition of work structures.  He explains the rise of specialized contributors as a response to market pressures.  “In situations where market prospects cannot be certain, either because of natural fluctuations in demand or particular technological conditions, and where investments are needed to increase the efficiency of the production process, an economic subject may decide to specialize its mission, decompose the total demands of the product into stable and unstable components, and anchor its structure to the former.”  In this scenario, the task of designing is parsed out amongst several parties in a team, each responsible for their own interdependent scope.  Lawyers Howard Ashcraft Jr. and Chris Noble go into detail on the legal changes necessary for that scenario to be implemented, describing how it differs from the fragmented situation we have today.  Could this model provide non-traditional opportunities for future architects? Is there a role for an architect in the structural engineer’s team? Or the fabricator’s team?

In the end, Phil Bernstein elegantly closes with: “But if architects define those benefits [the application of technology] only in terms of formal or aesthetic ends, they will miss the fundamental and unique opportunity offered by the transition.”  He continues, “Closing the intention-execution gap, bridging the acts of “thinking” and “making”, will also be driven as much by clients’ desire to increase productivity and achieve more predictable outcomes, so business models that rely more closely on collaboration between thinkers and makers, designers and constructors, architects and engineers, can be tied to results.”  Architects, then, are challenged to take a leading role in the changing landscape of the building industries, not through formal exploration, but in answering the call to reposition the profession as a leader in the push for a more sustainable building delivery process, and more sustainable building overall.

Federico Negro