The Softer Side of Technology

May 3, 2011 · by Scott Simpson

Technology places a premium on leadership and collaboration, demanding that everyone communicate in ways they never did before.

There’s no doubt that today’s increasingly sophisticated design technology, particularly building information modeling, is having a dramatic impact on the way buildings are designed, documented, and delivered. State-of-the-art professional practice now requires a significant investment in hardware, software, and training. Many firms have established a C-level position, the chief information officer, to oversee the expense and complexity of acquiring and managing the new systems.

Ironically, as more money is spent on technology, the shorter its lifespan seems to be. All that shiny new equipment and sexy software starts becoming obsolete the day it’s installed. This is a great testimonial to the creative ability of hardware and software engineers, who continually dazzle us with ever-clever bells and whistles, but it presents a dilemma. The lifespan of technology is a mere blink of an eye compared to the lifespan of a building. In the years ahead, when we need to retrieve building information, will it still be accessible or will it be locked away in hard drives that are as obsolete as an eight-track tape deck?

New Ways to Work

Technology not only changes what we can do, it also changes how we do things. The traditional value proposition of architects has been to produce paper-based “instruments of service.” These are handed off to the contractor for bidding and construction and are considered sacrosanct. Because plans, sections, and elevations represent two-dimensional abstractions of three-dimensional space, the concept of design intent was devised to cover the many gray areas that are not explicitly delineated. Design intent is like poetry (subject to interpretation), and it has been a boon to the legal profession, triggering too many lawsuits and raising insurance premiums for everyone.

A quick story will illustrate the point. Once upon a time at a fancy dinner party, the dessert course was suddenly interrupted by an enormous crash in the kitchen. The alarmed hostess hurried in to see what the matter was and came upon one of the cooks standing by a pile of broken crockery. “What happened here?” demanded the hostess. “Who’s responsible for breaking my best china?” The cook, looking both sheepish and a bit defiant, simply stated, “No one was holding the plate, madam, so it fell.”

Because BIM enables architects and engineers to portray concepts in three dimensions, the ambiguity of design intent is becoming a thing of the past. There is no longer a requirement for clients or contractors to be mind readers, as options can be fully and realistically depicted in both 3-D and 4-D format. In addition, BIM systems can be linked to various other software programs to drive the prefabrication process right on the factory floor, eliminating the need for an intermediate layer of paper-based shop drawings or submittals. This is an enormous breakthrough and is akin to what happened in the banking industry when ATMs were first invented — they allowed customers to plug directly into the neural network of the bank without the need to go through a human interface (the bank teller). This greatly increased speed while simultaneously reducing error. Most important, it put the customer in charge of the banking relationship.

That word “relationship” is at the heart of the matter. The power of technology lies not in the equipment itself, which is inert and useless without a user, but in how it affects human behavior. These new tools not only invite but require an entirely different approach to accomplishing the work. With paper-based documents, the question of primary authorship is relatively straightforward. An individual architect or firm creates the design concept, directs the consultants, oversees the drafting, and signs and seals the result as a specific deliverable. There’s essentially a master chef in the kitchen (with a few highly trained assistants, to be sure) and a clear demarcation of responsibility between the architect and the contractor.

However, designing with BIM is quite different because it’s a platform that accepts multiple inputs from many sources simultaneously. Indeed, the strength of BIM is its ability to integrate the contributions from a wide variety of experts and stakeholders (architects, engineers, consultants, suppliers, contractors, and yes, even owners) into a single coordinated database. In this way, BIM replaces traditional silo thinking with lateral thinking, linking together a lot of brain power with special expertise and diverse points of view. A well-managed team trumps individual effort every time. This may seem obvious, but it’s as simple and revolutionary as putting wheels on luggage.

Control and Collaboration

The communal aspect of BIM begs the question of responsible control, which is at the very heart of professional licensing. In the high-tech world, there is no inherent requirement for physical proximity. Teams can be co-located in a single room or dispersed across the globe, as the recent trend toward outsourcing has made clear. When networked electronically, even small firms can achieve international reach. In this way, technology acts as a multiplier to leverage talent. It increases both market presence and productivity.

But who’s really driving the bus on a day-to-day basis? That’s why technology places a premium on both leadership and collaboration skill, demanding that everyone communicate in ways they never did before.

Because it is highly democratic, technology fundamentally alters the sociology of teams, breaking down barriers of age, experience, and rank. It’s especially cross-generational. Anybody who’s attempted to program a cell phone knows that the best approach is to bypass the instructions and simply ask the youngest person in the room how the darn thing works. The problem will be quickly solved with a few quick keystrokes and a bemused smile.

However, this comes with a note of caution. It’s ironic that technology can both connect us and divide us at the same time. Case in point: In a typical meeting, many, if not most, of the participants spend considerable time using their smart phones to check messages, process e-mail, and text (sometimes to people in the same room). Technology allows us to multiplex — operate on several channels simultaneously — which dilutes our ability to focus on the issue at hand. It also affects how messages are formatted. Paragraphs are rarely lengthy, and long, carefully composed letters seems to be a lost art. These days, most written communications are a sentence or two at most, if not a tweet delivered in a maximum of 140 characters. So we’re greatly condensing the way we transmit content and are beginning to develop a special language to do so. R U on 2 this?

Internet search engines, especially Google, have also had a profound impact on how technology affects our collective thought process. The Internet is the largest pool of publicly accessible information ever created, and it’s essentially free. It operates on a 24/7 basis and is not limited by cultural or political boundaries. Anybody can deposit information at any time (accurate or not) and anybody can make a withdrawal, like a bottomless bank account. It has remarkably few rules and is essentially self-regulating. It can be used for good or ill. However, it’s only useful if we can find what we need. (Imagine the chaos of a huge library without the Dewey Decimal system.) The Internet is fast becoming the brain stem of the human race. If knowledge is power, then the Internet is the most powerful thing by far that has ever been conceived. It has transformed science, medicine, commerce, education, and even government.

With the advent of cloud computing, technology will take another giant leap forward. Systems are being developed that will essentially function as “design caves” with the ability to simulate a 3-D experience. A firm called SmartBIM is in the process of assembling a comprehensive library of BIM-based product icons (like an electronic Sweets catalogue) that can be easily inserted into design documents on a point-and-click basis. When voice recognition software is perfected, it will be possible to have a conversation with a client over a cup of coffee and translate design ideas immediately into architectural imagery on large screens. The leap from the designer’s imagination to the built environment will be short indeed.

New Perspective

While this may sound like a fantasy, similar scenarios have played out in other industries. Transportation is a prime example. A mere century ago, machine-powered human flight was in its infancy. Within a few decades, Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic solo. A few years later, jet engines were perfected, and the sound barrier was broken. In less than a decade, from 1960 to 1969, technology was developed that successfully put a man on the moon. Today, no one thinks twice about boarding an airliner in New York and landing in Los Angeles a few hours later (well fed and well rested, if you’re in business class). It should also be noted that air travel has become by far the safest and cheapest mode of public transportation on a per-mile basis. The notion of crossing a continent between breakfast and lunch while taking a pleasant nap would have been unthinkable to Orville and Wilbur Wright, but today it’s as ordinary as riding the bus.

Clearly, it was the advance of technology that allowed this to happen. But even more profound, the effect of the technology has changed the way we look at the world and the way we operate within it. It’s entirely altered our expectations of what’s possible and how we live (right down to the fresh Alaskan salmon that routinely appears on restaurant menus all over the world, which would be unthinkable without air freight). Technology has already engendered the wide-scale reinvention of many industries — financial services, manufacturing, communications, retailing, publishing, entertainment, and agriculture, to name a few. The A/E/C industry is hardly immune; although it is behind the curve.

In terms of design technology, we’re just at the Wright brothers stage of development. We know that flight is possible, and we are able to stay aloft for a few minutes at a time, but we remain weighted down by our collective assumptions of how long things should take to build or how much they should cost. It’s been said that if car manufacturers could match the productivity of the computer industry, a Ferrari could be bought for a few dollars. The same basic principle applies (or should) to making buildings.

What’s Next

Where will this take us? In the near term (three to five years), we can expect huge advances in next-generation BIM systems that will accurately and effortlessly enable us to create highly predictive models of architectural form, function, aesthetics, materials, construction logistics, capital cost, energy consumption, and ongoing facilities operations. Designing for efficient facilities operations and maintenance (which traditionally represents about 90 percent of the real cost of building ownership) could well become a new area of specialization for an emerging class of professionals.

Within a decade, nanotechnology will make possible whole new species of building materials — light, strong, easy to assemble, totally recyclable, and therefore cheap. We can also expect a surge in prefabrication techniques, which will enable construction sites to be as well organized and efficient as factories, with many routine tasks performed robotically. Waste, which currently consumes 37 percent of all building materials, will be reduced dramatically, saving hundreds of billions of dollars per year industry-wide.

Sound fantastic? Actually, these scenarios are fairly tame compared to the advances already made in aeronautics and computer science during our lifetime.

Where does organization and management fit in to all this? How should next-generation design firms be re-configured to take full advantage of the technology revolution? First, the easy part: Always bias toward acquiring the fastest processors and as much memory as possible, which will be needed to run upcoming software programs. Second, and even more important, pay close attention to the sociology of design, remembering that it’s the people who drive the machines, not the other way around.

•  Create a tech-savvy culture. Make it a habit to test drive new software systems when they are introduced. Invite industry experts to give in-house seminars. Send staff to professional conferences and trade shows. Make sure that the information they gain is shared freely.

•  Practice co-location.
When a new project starts up, organize the team in clusters or “campfires” of adjacent workstations. Make it a point to mix disciplines (seat architects next to engineers next to interior designers). Always have an extra desk or two for a visiting consultant or subcontractor to work alongside the team.

•  Organize by ability, not seniority. Teams function most effectively when people work to the best of their abilities, like an orchestra. Don’t expect the violinist to play drums. Value each person by the contribution he or she makes to the whole integrated effort. Make your project teams cross-generational and performance-based.

•  Change your metrics. Don’t be seduced by the rear-view mirror. Technology is a huge productivity enhancer. With it, more design ideas can be explored in greater depth in much less time. (If this were not the case, why bother?) Constantly challenge your teams to achieve higher and higher levels of creativity and productivity. Always seek to do more with less. Surprise yourself.

Above all, remember that the drawings are only a means to an end, and that all computers come with an on/off switch. The whole point of design is to make better places for people to live and work. Never forget that technology is merely the ticket to ride, not the destination.

Scott Simpson is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and a member of its executive board. He is a Richard Upjohn Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. With James P. Cramer, he co-authored the books How Firms Succeed and The Next Architect.

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