The Transition from Digital Documentation to Digital DESIGN

In the last decade, the once finite toolbox available to the modern architect seems to have evolved into a bottomless bag of new digital tools, ever widening the gap between seasoned architects and young interns coming out of school having never learned more than a semester of “hand” drafting.  I count myself fortunate to have had an architecture education that straddled the transition between drafting and digital “inputting.”  My future blogs will delve further into the application of digital architecture at MGA and the industry in general, but for this first blog, I wanted to focus on the profound shift in how we, as architects and designers, are practicing.

My undergraduate education (1998-2002) consisted predominantly of working at a drafting board, supplementing my projects with only occasional help from Photoshop and a large format printer.  CAD (at least at the University of Virginia), was still separate from Studio.  Although my peers and I did take additional courses focused on computer-aided drafting and rudimentary 3D building modeling, rarely did the two meet with positive commentary from the A-school professors and critics.  In hindsight, I attribute this friction to two factors.  As students just beginning to hone our design senses, interjecting a computer into the mix only served to limit our imaginations to the constraints of what the software could do, often times guiding us into stagnant and lifeless designs.  On the other side of the critique, those judging our work were 9 times out of 10, “old-school” Architects.   Their tools were pencil and trace, pen and ink, a drafting board and a large pot of coffee.   Our clumsy attempts at electronic expression were met with little enthusiasm, perhaps deservedly so.  I’d be the first to admit that I could never replicate the ‘spirit’ of a building through digital representation like I could with hand-drawn sketches and renderings.  Perhaps that wasn’t so much the fault of the tool as just my more-developed capabilities with a familiar tool set that didn’t tend to get in the way of my design process.

Fast-forward 3 years to grad-school at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (2005-2007).  A new architecture student at NJIT would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the studio environment and a computer lab if not for the tell-tale signs of sleep deprivation and vestiges of ‘creative’ endeavors presumably fueled more by caffeine than rational thought.  Computers had replaced the drafting board as the centerpiece of a studio desk.  In addition to being the primary method of design education, Studio had now become the de-facto CAD training venue as well.   Students were left to their own devices when trying to learn the latest CAD software, presumably because of the same lack of CAD knowledge on the part of the studio faculty that I experienced at U.Va.  Like being dropped into a foreign country without knowing the language, the immersion was the most effective teacher; and students quickly became fluent out of necessity.

When I juxtapose my undergraduate and graduate experiences, I’ve concluded that I, and those that came up in similar circumstances, have a rare frame of reference to really gauge the current paradigm shift in our industry.   One could argue that the introduction of the computer to the architectural process is old-news, and hardly worth mention nowadays, but I’d counter that only now are we finally seeing the fledgling phases of true realization of technology integrated into the architectural process.   CAD (2D) had given way to ‘modeling’ (3D) years ago, and 3D is now evolving rapidly into true building information modeling (BIM); creation of accurate virtual representations of buildings.

For decades, pencil and paper were the primary tools of the trade, and CAD was merely the method of codifying our design for replication and construction.  It was a convenient documentation tool, but was rigid and lacked the fluidity and rapid feedback needed in the design process.

However, fluency in virtual building is finally bringing digital architecture on par with the pencil.  For those familiar with current 3D/BIM software, creating within a virtual landscape has become near as accessible as sketching and physical model building.  Before the last decade, the capability existed to develop 3D models of buildings, but this was more often a matter of ‘inputting’ an analog design rather than designing fluidly in a digital environment.  The current software tools on the market give the modern architect the extra benefits of a toolset that can synthesize every facet of design consideration from quantity take offs to energy modeling and consultant collaboration; all while designing instead of while documenting.  Imagine a pencil that could draw the construction of a wall, tell you how much of each material is in that wall, how well it performs thermally, and give you every conceivable viewpoint of it.

There’s always a place for pencil and paper in the Architect’s repertory; from an efficiency standpoint of externalizing a simple design idea, there is no more efficient method.  However, modern tools that flow in virtual space as readily as a pencil over trace (but imbued with informational value) are finally a realization in the modern DESIGN process.

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1 comment

  1. Jared says:

    Scott. Fantastic post. Can’t wait to see more. Of course you know I agree about 100,000%

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