Given the integral nature of computing to practice, how has education evolved to prepare future practitioners? Today’s students will shape the next three decades of practice.

When I entered architectural school in the U.S. more than thirty years ago, computers were, at best, a curiosity. A few schools were experimenting with computers, but there was no systematic instruction or theoretical framework for computing in architectural curricula. Education mirrored practice. A few pioneering firms were experimenting with computers, but mainstream use was nonexistent.
Over the last thirty years, computing has become integral to architectural practice. Computer-aided drafting, specification writing using word processors, and use of spreadsheets for quantity takeoffs are standard in most firms. An increasing number of firms design buildings impossible without digital technology. While the level of sophistication varies among architecture and design firms, digital technology pervades the industry.

Given the integral nature of computing to practice, how has education evolved to prepare future practitioners? Today’s students will shape the next three decades of practice. What are they learning? What skills and attitudes will they bring with them as they enter practice? To address these questions, I informally surveyed several educators and industry leaders familiar with architectural education in the U.S. and Europe. The following is a brief summary of what I learned.

Computers are now integrated into the design curriculum.

The use of digital tools has moved into the studio. The studio experience focuses on design skills and concepts rather than the use of digital tools, which are now transparently supporting the design process. From an educational standpoint, digital tools have faded into the background – as they should.
Students now arrive on campus with computing skills and a working knowledge of key applications. Most curricula build upon this knowledge in introductory “skills” courses. These courses, which once taught only tactile skills such as drawing and physical model making now incorporate such digital skills as line drawing, digital photo manipulation, presentation, and simple 3D modeling.

Most of the digital tools used in studios over the past decade are formal or representational in nature. Some programs have a renewed emphasis in how buildings will actually be realized – including materials, construction methods, and fabrication. New Building Information Model (BIM) tools now use concrete representations of building elements and provide the basis for performance analysis. They create the possibility of design studios that balance form, function, and performance.

Specialty courses augment and extend the use of digital tools in the design curriculum.

To supplement digital tools in the design studio, many curricula offer specialized courses that more deeply address specific topics. Examples include:

  • 3D modeling and visualization

  • Analysis and simulation

  • Fabrication

  • Generative design

  • Digital photography

  • Collaboration

  • GIS

  • Computer programming

  • Facilities management

Over time, these may be absorbed into the mainstream curricula and new courses developed as a reflection of emerging research.

Architecture schools supply a variety of facilities and students often provide their own laptops and software.

Most design studios accommodate computers for each student – frequently with wireless networks. The students typically provide their own laptops and software; most schools recommend hardware and software configurations.

A variety of digital design tools are used in Western architectural programs. Students are almost universally exposed to Microsoft Office, AutoCAD, Photoshop, and 3D Studio Max. Other tools being used are Autodesk Revit, Autodesk Architectural Desktop, Bentley Microstation, ArchiCAD, FormZ, Rhino, and Maya. A few schools are experimenting with mechanical engineering software such as Autodesk Inventor, Solidworks, Pro-Engineer, or Catia. High quality printers and plotters are commonly provided and – as interest in fabrication increases – schools are also providing laser cutters and rapid prototyping devices.

Several new research directions promise to contribute to both the theory and practice of computing in architecture.

The three most promising research directions are:

  • Relationship of Design and Manufacturing. Renewed emphasis on realizing buildings has brought forth an interest in manufacturing and fabrication.

  • Sustainable Design. As energy and environmental impact become more critical, the impact of design decisions from a lighting, energy, and material perspective is becoming increasingly important.

  • Performative Design. We will see increasing integration of design tools with performance analysis and synthesis tools in the domain of structure, acoustics, lighting, thermal, and life safety.

These research directions all point toward a more integrated design process, one in which architects, engineers, fabricators, construction managers, and others work more effectively together to produce ever more complex, yet better performing and more easily constructed buildings.

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h3>Some issues remain.

While significant progress has been made over the last thirty years, issues still remain in realizing the full potential of digital tools.

Architectural education has made enormous progress in the use of digital tools over the past thirty years.

  • Modeling is still primarily focused on form, composition, and visualization. Although building information modeling tools exist, the majority of 3D modeling taught in schools (and used in practice) is concerned only with the composition, and visualization of form; building information modeling tools that incorporate form, function, performance and constructability are only just beginning to be used.

  • The level of integration between digital tools is very low. Digital tools do not typically work well together nor is there much attempt in research or practice to facilitate the flow of data from one tool to another.

  • Mainstream software is under-represented in the schools. Because of the preoccupation with form, architectural schools have adopted digital tools that can create the most expressive forms. These are not the tools in mainstream practice.

Despite the issues discussed above, digital tools have moved from a novelty to integrally embedded elements. These tools have become accepted and have “disappeared into the background.” Architectural education is about designing buildings – facilitated by digital tools – rather than about the tools themselves.

Today’s students will shape practice for years to come. Their educational experiences provide the basis for their use of digital technology. It is incumbent upon our academic institutions to leverage and extend the progress made over the last three decades in teaching computing to ensure that students realize the full potential of digital tools over the next three.

Jon H. Pittman is senior director of Strategic Research for Autodesk, Inc. He holds a Bachelor of Architecture and MBA from the University of Cincinnati and an M.S. in Computer Graphics from Cornell University.