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

Asking for LOD alone is not enough

LOD, or Level of Development, is the system for classifying the amount of geometric detail within a model as set forth by the AIA’s E202 documents. James Vandezande has a great post on it from (believe it or not) 2008. The post does a great job at describing the different levels included, 100 to 500, and gives good reference to their intended meaning. Having used this systems on several projects now, I wanted to offer some feedback.

A few years back, when beginning to work on the Louisiana Museum and Sports Hall of Fame, I was inundated with emails and calls from just about every trade trying to figure out what constituted an acceptable deliverable. As the BIM Manager for the project, we were in charge of defining the requirements for a model deliverable that would be efficient, but also meeting the spec requirement for an ‘algorithmic coordination process’.

That project had another requirement that had a big impact on this conversation. The more than 1,000 unique cast stone panels had a surface integrity performance criteria that could only be achieved through CNC manufacturing. The fabricator, then, would be forced to model the panels and then use these models for mold making. This created a precedent. One of the more difficult elements in the design didn’t even have a choice but to create fabrication-level models. Did this requirement extend to the rest of the trades?

What if a trade wasn’t going to use the model for fabrication? What if they didn’t have the capacity to do so in their shops?

What became instantly obvious was that there was an ocean of space for interpretation in the LOD system. The specs called for an LOD400 model to be developed in the service of coordination. An LOD400 model is one that contains ‘shop drawing’ or ‘fabrication’ level of information. There was one big problem with this definition on this project, however. The lack of an explicit requirement on the model’s intended use left a gaping hole in the spec for a participant to interpret as they saw fit.  One company’s view of what makes a good shop drawing versus another can be very different.

The lesson then was to not just ask for a deliverable, but to also ask for that deliverable to meet a certain level of performance. A model used for fabrication will inevitably make for a model that is accurate for coordination purposes. The opposite, however, is not always the case.

In this project, the hook was to also ask that all information presented in shops (the legal document) also be present in the model. This way, the architect could use the model as a real reference in their shop drawing review process. The importance of this requirement was that it ties their legal deliverable with the BIM process. This made BIM central to their every day project management knowing the architect could reject a submittal by virtue of their model quality or completeness.

This move though would not work on many projects and is hard to enforce.  A better way to define model performance is to actually tie the deliverable to a good performance specification. That performance specification would include a reference to LOD. It would also include a responsibility matrix (the MET in the E202), and an intended use matrix. These three elements together make for a much better definition for model deliverables.

A good BIM execution plan (BEP) should include all these documents and a framework for their implementation.

Repost: Why the maker movement is good for architects

This is a repost from our Practice 2.0 column on ArchDaily (original here). Originally posted on June 15, 2011.

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by Federico Negro

Earlier this year I had the following experience. Two friends, the first a lone (and successful) entrepreneur whose company brings kids books to the iPad, the other a banker, both asked what I knew about 3D printing… on the same day!

What was going on? Where did the sudden interest in 3D printing come from? 3D printers had been a staple in architecture schools and many offices for years, so I assumed everyone knew about them, no? Confused, I did what I usually do when faced with the unknown. I asked Google.

Of course…! Two days earlier The Economist had run a feature on the technology (link and link) and Business Insider was proclaiming it as the “Next Trillion Dollar Industry!”. Even the New York Times got in on the action. I started digging around a bit more and quickly realized something amazing was actually happening…

The Maker Movement had gone mainstream.

So what does this have to do with Architects? Well, architects and architecture schools have actually been very quick to embrace the concepts and technologies surrounding digital prototyping, and have adapted their curriculums accordingly (not all of course, but many). The reasons for this tend to vary depending on who you ask, but there is certainly no shortage of additive or subtractive processes in design exploration today both within schools and without. Many schools tout incredibly sophisticated shops, and even use them as a recruiting tool. ARCHITECT magazine even has a ranking of the best US schools for those interested in Digital Fabrication with Ball State University sitting at the top mainly due to its Institute for Digital Fabrication, followed by SciArc and the University of Michigan. This has made architectural education incredibly well adjusted to both participate and take a leading role in the maker movement.

There are two forces fueling the expansion of this movement. The first is a market-driven demand for digital manufacturing technologies to become more economical. We’ve seen this really take shape in the last few years. 3D Systems (an NYSE listed company: DDD) already offers professional printers for as little as $10,000. Architects are taking advantage of this and are tooling up their practices. For about $6,500, the Shopbot Desktop can expand any architect’s shop to include a 24″ x 18″ x 2″ CNC that can cut through wood, plastic, aluminum, etc… For those with a bit more advanced needs, you can even have your very own compact 5-axis for less than $40k…

The second, and probably more interesting force, is the boom in open source technologies that have pushed the barrier to entry down even further and have expanded access to a much larger user base. Lumenlab offers a desktop CNC for under 2k. You can even find open hardware projects on Kickstarter that will send you kits to build your own CNCs for less than $500, not to mention Makerbot‘s success with its popular open source 3D printer, which has taken its founder, Bre Pettis, all the way to the Colbert Report.

On the input side of this movement (3D models), we see a similar divide. Sophisticated tools like Solidworks are typically considered too difficult and too expensive for large scale adoption. Rhino, one of the more popular tools for architects, has done more than its part in democratizing 3D modeling and lowering the price barrier, but may still be too niche for the general population. Google has gotten into the game through SketchUp and has been more successful in attracting a wider audience (it helps that the free version has more than enough functionality for most of these users). Autodesk is also trying to get into the game with the introduction of 123D, a free (yes, free) implicit parametric modeler marketed to ‘makers’ (video of Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk with Wired Magazine’s Chris Anderson). Not surprisingly, some of the best users of these applications are architects…

With economic barriers being lowered every day (or having already hit bottom), the missing ingredient seems to be general widespread access to good design, good models, and good engineering. It is in this missing ingredient that we, as architects, should see the most potential for impact. Sites like Shapeways, i.materialize and Ponoko are trying to attack this problem directly by connecting consumers with designers and fabricators more efficiently, but focus more on consumer goods. GrabCad is a good model for us since it is both industry specific and highly technical. Is there an opportunity for a building industry equivalent?

Current technology trends like building information modeling (BIM), parametric modeling, fabrication modeling and energy modeling coupled with the architect’s natural tendencies toward ‘making’ are coming together to create highly valued professionals with highly relevant skill sets. These professionals have the opportunity for great impact, helping expand the value of the services and products we offer and reshape our industry in the process (see previous post).

We’ll continue to track these tendencies as we move forward and report back on its innovations. For now, I leave you with eleven 3D printing predictions for 2011 and the third of my favorite do-it-yourself videos…