Tools have limitations and opportunities. After you choose a tool, it’s directing your next steps.
Modern architects have a myriad of tools at their disposal - choose the correct tool, and you unleash your superpowers. Unfortunately, consideration is not always given to the tools we use for design. The designer gets out trace paper or opens SketchUp, Rhino or Revit on the computer and starts solving problems. We need tools to achieve our design goals, unleash the potential of a place to benefit the community, and create the best value for our clients. I advocate for designers to be deliberate about the tool they select to explore solutions.
Architects can harness technology and explore how beauty can be derived from durability and utility of the materials.
In the past, architecture was all about arranging classical elements and putting them together according to the classical cannon. That cannon consistently prescribed the arrangement of elements for cathedrals, civic buildings, villas and palaces. These classical structures were reflective of the design tools and methods of early eras, and as you can see not much changed from 1500 to 1800.
Jumping ahead about a hundred and fifty years, buildings with steel structures could go higher, and the architectural canon struggled to prescribe the arrangement of a skyscraper in classical elements. Architects investigated the capabilities of materials and worked directly with the industries producing these materials. Architects and manufacturers began collaborating to see how tools and materials could inform design innovation.
The Bauhaus school was famous for merging industrial production components with the design process. Mies Van Der Rohe explored the limitations and possibilities of materials to inform his designs. When we see his work, it may seem familiar, but at the time, building directly from industrial elements was a new approach. He brought this concept to the mainstream.
László Moholy-Nagy aligned his designs further with industry, and selected materials that were easiest to make. In his experiments he communicated his design solely over the phone without drawings. At the time, this approach was new, even though now it’s become commonplace.
Students at Bauhaus experimented with compositions influenced by materials to find ways to create beauty and balance and to explore creative ways to manipulate materials to find form and order.
Now there’s a nebula of software that designers can use to investigate new capabilities. While opening Revit may seem like the defacto choice these days, and while it’s great for documentation, it’s not as fluid for design studies.
Some designers have embraced animation software to push the limits of what a building can look like. However, bringing these novel concepts to a construction site can be complicated. A limitation of using this kind of software is the challenge to realize these designs in an actual building.
Eric Owen Moss, on the other hand, has gone the other way and emphasizes physical models. His concepts are buildable by design.
Tools can be used to tell a design story and show the inevitable conclusion of careful iterations.
Another challenge of modern architecture is communicating with clients. If a designer approaches a stakeholder group with a didactic tone (This is what the building will be and it will look like this. Full stop. The end.), it’s hard to accept. You may have board members to convince about a certain building, so using diagrams that convey the process can be immensely useful. It can be instructive for clients to see the thought that went into a design.
We can also use tools that help us measure things we can’t sense innately. Infrared technology can measure thermal leaks. Data visualization software can distill specific information for an audience to quickly grasp. In an age of ever-expanding design and material choices and diverse groups of stakeholders, tools that can aid communication and generate effective measurements of building performance are powerful.
Furthermore, just about everyone has a mobile device that they can bring with online data, people, and references they can access with a swipe of a finger during any meeting or collaboration session. This is a tool that directly links us all together and augments our ability to reach whatever or whomever we need.
Sophisticated software, detailed models, diagrams, methods to measure our environment and building impacts, data visualization, mobile devices – these are different design mediums to generate and evaluate architectural solutions.
Finding the right tool for design exploration is an important but invisible step.
What is the purpose of your design? How can the tool you use help you find design solutions? Is there another tool that’s more suitable?
Designers should look beyond the staid choices of Revit and sketch paper and consider what they want and which tool can help.
The beginning of a project has the greatest flexibility for these sorts of decisions and the most opportunity for cost savings. The first step for designers is to understand where our clients are coming from and what design challenges the project faces and what problems should be solved. After taking the time to do the conceptual work, designers can decide which tool will be the most useful. The further along we go in a project, the more elements get codified and locked into place.
Choosing the right tool gives us a superpower, and in many ways makes us superheroes when it comes to innovating, measuring performance and communicating.