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Why technology will put architects back in control

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5 Jun 2008

Profession Calum Fischer-Keogh argues that the use of new technology will put the architect back at the centre of the design process

Architecture has always had something of an identity crisis – being in part science, part art; a mix of abstract ideas bound within the physical reality of bricks and mortar. The architect uses wide ranging skills and understanding in many subjects; history, sociology, psychology, and technology, to name a few. Among the most valuable strengths of the architect is the ability to combine this knowledge to solve problems and apply these within a very practical scenario.

In being considered one of the ‘Arts’, historically architecture has been the slowest to evolve; a natural result of the timescale of the design and building process. While the profession would rarely consider itself conservative politically, we are a conservative profession in relation to change. This is particularly true when it comes to breaking away from what is generally accepted as ‘normal practice’. It is not surprising that the architectural profession is on the whole generally cautious in its approach to change in the use of new materials, adapting to contractual changes, or even embracing new technology in our own offices.

This conservatism may be one of the factors that has allowed the architect’s status to be eroded over the years. The architect is no longer assumed to be the natural leader in a project, and we work alongside (or under) other, often newer disciplines in the design team who control parts of the projects that architects once had responsibility for. The most concerning aspect of this is that today the profession is faced with more rapidly changing demands in the processes of design and construction than at any time in history. How can the profession adapt to these when we have such mixed success in dealing with change in the past?

History has shown change is often brought about by external pressures – from clients or public demand. Architects are then forced to adjust what we do to either maintain existing relationships or to be in a position to win new contracts. Today, it is too often still clients who set the tempo and demand changes: in how we present information, in providing more accurate information at each stage of design, and in understanding how the building will perform both in terms of its energy use and cost over its lifetime. Many of the new statutory requirements are in response to client and public demand, and accordingly the design information we provide is adapted, or enhanced by others, to comply.

In technology the demand for this information and the move from CAD to BIM (Building Information Modelling) that is increasingly gaining momentum gives the profession the opportunity to respond to the demands of clients and the public. This has the potential to put the architect back at the forefront of the team in driving the design process. The profession has the opportunity to reclaim control of parts of the design process that will otherwise be taken up by others, as the need for additional and more accurate information becomes more critical.

One strength of the architect is to turn a perceived constraint into an opportunity. The demands for more, clearer and precise information being available earlier in the design process should not be seen as an additional burden in our already overcrowded schedules, but the opportunity to use the range of talents of the architect to produce a better service and product, and convey this to the client and others in a way they can fully understand. Without an appreciation of the major changes to the tools with which we both assess and convey design ideas – the CAD and BIM programmes, we will not be able to meet the new challenges that clients, statutory authorities and the public are demanding of the profession.

It is incumbent for the profession to make the time to properly understand and use this technology to our advantage for the benefit of the entire design process. Those who can do this will be in position to meet and exceed the demands of clients and the public. Through proper adoption of technology, the architectural profession can re-take responsibilities within the design team that will allow us to drive the design process. We have the training and understanding to find solutions that encompass technical, aesthetic, economic, environmental, and social needs, but only if we put the profession back at the centre of the design process. The alternative is to continue being conservative, continue producing the same type and level of information in the same way, and allow more of the design processes and decisions to be taken by other disciplines who can identify the new needs of clients and the public, and who will adapt quickly to fulfil that need.

Calum Fischer-Keogh is an architect with Thom Micro Systems (TMS) CAD Centre, Autodesk’s Scottish-based system centre for architecture and the built environment. TMS provides software, training and consultancy in implementing CAD solutions.

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