When should we add innovative tech to our designer’s toolbox?

April 3, 2018 Jason Santeford

How the adoption of new technology can determine the success of architecture and design practice

 

We work in an industry increasingly shaped by technology. The ability to define what technologies are useful and important is crucial to our success. But determining which technologies to invest in and adopt is no small matter. So how do we approach each new wave of design tech?

 

Brief history of architecture technology

For the longest time, architecture was practiced in the same way: interns/apprentices drawing on paper under the guidance of a master builder/architect—for hundreds of years that was architecture. 

In the ’80s and ’90s, AutoCAD arrived on the scene, which was a more sophisticated version of a pen and drafting table. While the medium changed, the content remained generally the same: drawings were composed of lines which had no meaning unto themselves. The lines derived meaning from the context of the other surrounding lines to differentiate between a wall, a floor, or a window detail. But for the first time, we saw how technology-aided design could be disruptive. It caused a skill gap between generations. Suddenly, technology was being used exclusively by the younger generation, and the senior staff—those with the experience to detail a building—were divorced from the documentation process.

Since the 1980s that breach has continued to widen. In the late 2000s, for example, Revit came along and you no longer drew lines, but constructed a three-dimensional virtual model of a building using intelligent components. It’s a more sophisticated tool and allows you to do more. It requires you to know more. Closing this knowledge gap between the two generational sides is critical and an increasingly important success factor in defining a healthy professional practice.

 

 

Design technology changes every month. What should designers be using? Which technologies are important?

Most of the emerging technologies we see now are trying to bridge that gap. That’s what we’re seeing in programs like BIM 360 and Revizto. How can we bring those two sides back together? How can we leverage the knowledge that some of the more senior architects have with the technological capability of the junior staff?

Easy—we need to mentor up and down. The traditional mentoring process to impart years of construction and design experience is still necessary, but increasingly reverse training of the evolving technological landscape to senior staff is also critical and mandatory. Even if a senior architect may never open a BIM model, knowing enough about the process to understand changes in management, schedule, and work planning is critical for project success. Remember, the gap we are facing is between digital natives and those that may have learned their craft in an analog world.

 

_q_tweetable:Quite simply, we’re looking for technology that fosters communication and collaboration across boundaries, all in the name of better design._q_

So, what’s the right approach for new technologies?

The first hurdle of adopting new technologies is to look beyond the hype surrounding a new product and critically evaluate its role in the practice. Hype does not reflect how we may use a product or its compatibility with software platforms already in use. One tool we have adopted is Revizto, a program that enables web-based digital red lines. It digitizes a manual task already embedded in our work flow, so it was easy to substitute one for another. Implementation time for adopted technologies can vary, depending on several factors including maturity of the technology, whether it replicates an existing work flow, and integration with existing tools.

 

Bigger is better

We are a large firm and with our size comes the opportunity to test, evaluate, and set a course not only for our own practice but for our clients and partners.

We can leverage our size, diversity of talent, and variety of project delivery methodologies to test out new technologies that are beyond the ability of most other firms. Stantec has the resources and opportunities already in place to explore alternate technologies that provide added value to our clients and provide a differentiator in the industry. For example, through Stantec’s Creativity & Innovation Program, anyone can propose to research, explore, and eventually implement a technology not currently used by our organization but one that has the potential to streamline work flow. Also, because of our size, and the contracts we negotiate with large software providers (AutoDesk, Microsoft), we can command a greater level of service and customized solutions.

 

Technology changes, practice really doesn’t

Regardless of the means of production, at the end of the day we are providing a service that culminates in the delivery of a building. Fundamentally, that is our business and the client, by and large, does not care how we achieve this. The tools and work flows that we employ are important to us because they can foster efficiency and, most importantly, better design. All these tools and technologies must help us to achieve this goal.

 

 

What we think technology needs to do to be successful

Quite simply, we’re looking for technology that fosters communication and collaboration across boundaries, all in the name of better design. That communication is between all levels and all disciplines. For example, some technologies we are exploring facilitates documentation and technical communication between junior production staff and senior management; computational design tools that allow our designers to work more closely with owners and minimize, or eliminate, value engineering; digital redline tools that allow for real-time coordination between all project disciplines to make our process more efficient and accurate.

That is where we are going with the technology in our practice. The most disruptive technologies we see on the horizon are those that foster new lines of communication, and enable multi-disciplinary groups to make better design decisions. Those are going to set us apart.

 

Let’s look at technological advancement in visualization

Visualization is communication, too. It’s fundamentally a way to have a deeper understanding of the building.

Anything that allows a deeper connection between us, our consultants, and the owner or client is something we want to foster. And that decision-making process, even those decisions made by an owner from a financial standpoint, that’s design, too. If we can help the designers and the client make a better decision about one material versus another, based on aesthetics, functionality or cost, that’s design. The better that we can communicate information and ideas, the better chance of making a correct, informed decision. So, we are always looking for technologies that make visualization more accurate, easier to understand, and more agile to manipulate or present on-the-fly.

 

Change—the only constant in our work

The adoption of new technology in architectural and engineering practice will only become more important. We need to approach new platforms with a clear head and with our end goals in mind. For us, that means creating great places that enhance the communities where we live, work, and play. At the same time, we need to take bold, decisive action to stay on the leading edge and incorporate the best tools as soon as possible. If you think things are changing rapidly today, just wait.

 

About the Author

Jason Santeford

Jason Santeford has built his career on the design and delivery of major projects across the globe with an emphasis on mixed-use retail densification projects. Jason created the Design Hive, an internal design charrette that helps our staff engage with expert speakers as well as issues facing the local community.

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