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August 28, 2010 / Robert Ross

Upheaval….the technological revolution

Early 20th c. drafting room

Technology changes everything. For the those in the design profession, the introduction of BIM (building information modeling) software is revolutionizing not only the built environment, but the studio environment as well, leaving many to wonder about the future of the profession.

In the “good old days” projects were drawn by hand in various media on various media. Ink on parchment, pencil on vellum, ink on mylar. T-squares were replaced by parallel bars. Complicated overlay systems were devised for large scale projects. Most of the actual documentation was completed by lowly paid drones (aka architectural school graduates) handling the mind-numbing and repetitive chores of adequately documenting a project. For hundreds, if not thousands, of years the challenge was to adequately represent an idea with lines on paper so that it could be built.

With the advent of Computer-Aided Drafting and Design- more commonly known as CADD, not much changed. The pen was traded for a mouse. The office was populated by new drones with overdeveloped forefingers replacing inkstained hands. Parallel bars slowly disappeared. The clogged pen nib was replaced by the infamous blue screen of death. Some automation did occur, but not as much as commonly believed. Drones were still working with lines and line weights in two dimension to represent a 3 dimensional object. Many older members of the profession were either unwilling or unable to grasp the new technology, and as a result maintained the standard office set-up.

When I set up my office, I was a drawn-by-hand snob. My epiphany regarding computers and drafting coincided with a client that ran up an enormous bill due to radical redesigns following every meeting. Every designers nightmare. While redrawing the plans for the 5th time, something snapped, clicked or whatever in my brain. I ordered AutoCad LT the next day.

Fast forward several years and BIM (building information modeling) bursts onto the scene. Faced with the need to update my software, I began doing some research on what was available. I worked with a friend that uses ArchiCad. I also had heard a lot of noise about Revit. I ended up previewing Revit and made the decision to switch.  Jumping in at Version 8, I was considered an early adopter.  Two years later the number of users had more than doubled.

The basic premise behind the software is simple. Instead of building a representation of a project, you are building a model of the actual project in virtual space. This simple transformation combined with the inherent automation of coordination eliminated the need for many of the processes that encumbered previous design documentation systems. While many firms still maintained the older drafting stable, the more technologically adept realized that instead of drawing representational lines, they were drawing virtual walls. They also realize that more could be accomplished with fewer staff.

This is just one example of the unexpected fall-out from the recent economic downturn. As corporations are also discovering that by harnessing the power of technology, they can realize large profits while cutting staff. The old corporate structures are changing rapidly and radically. The results are showing up in unemployment numbers and the accompanying climate of uncertainty.  We are indeed in the middle of a shift similar to the upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution.

What this means for the future of graduates in Architecture, I’m not sure. There are certainly fewer large firms out there to absorb the students coming out of college, no matter how well they are trained.  There is a very serious discussion going on within the profession regarding the possibility of builders usurping the role of Architect through their use of  BIM software. While some may see that as a possibility, I don’t believe that the thought process of a designer can be automated. While I have embraced BIM, for now, I recognize it as a tool. It is incapable of replacing the power of putting pencil to paper and scribbling those initial concepts.



Leave a Comment
  1. Jeff Ribnik / Aug 28 2010 9:29 pm

    “new drones with overdeveloped forefingers replacing inkstained hands”

    Robert, this is another well written piece, but I particularly the visuals i get from your word crafting !

    Keep up the good work1


  2. Aram Kailian / Aug 30 2010 5:23 pm

    Hold onto that thought while the next phase of technology catches Architects, once again with our pants down resulting in a futher erosion at worst or new definition of the profession at best.

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