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Design tools and the urgency of architecture


Above image: AR-MA: Trifolium, 2014. Commissioned by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney, 2014. Photo: Jacob Ring 2014

TEXT: Joanne Taylor

Does the familiarity of particular design tools favour particular design outcomes? Are we accustomed to the innate parameters imbedded within design tools?  Can the application of habitual methods applied to tools narrow creative problem solving? And are we complacent in our search for new tools?

These are some of the questions that fuelled an independent research on my behalf into the tools used within the design process and the methods applied to them in order to understand if tools were having an influence on design.

The motivation was inspired by a tepid attitude I had to the value of my own design outcomes during the last year of university. I began to question whether a tool kit comprising of Rhino, Illustrator, Photoshop, Maya, Grasshopper and a dash of the pen and paper was enough to equip me with the design challenges of an architectural career.

I nevertheless had a range of design methodologies, none of them however had I formed on my own, I was still very much influenced by ‘mapping the diagram’ in order to generate form.

To a certain extent I questioned whether I had found myself caged by the technologies and methodologies I was using? Was there more?

The research took place in early 2013 and involved individual interviews with practitioners from 40 Australian firms, from Melbourne and Sydney, on their design process. They were chosen at random from a diverse list of small to large-scale practices across the two states.

The term tool was used liberally and defined any instrument that was pivotal in initiating, communicating, testing and developing design ideas.

The reference encapsulated conceptual tools such as dialogue and intellect, research tools such as the internet and images, digital tools such as CAD and 3D software programs and analogue tools such as the pen, paper and model making.

The results were somewhat surprising.

AR-MA: Trifolium, 2014. Commissioned by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney, 2014. Photo: Jacob Ring 2014

AR-MA: Trifolium, 2014. Commissioned by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney, 2014. Photo: Jacob Ring 2014

Firstly, I discovered that there was an overwhelming conformity in regards to the types of tools being used and secondly I found that there was a constant variation in how the tools were being used; meaning that the methods applied to the tools were the variant that distinguished practices.

Those that were interviewed repeatedly drew from a very conventional toolkit. By this, I mean those tools that have been established in architectural practices for some time, such as drawing, physical model making, dialogue, images, CAD software, 3D modelling programs (i.e. such as SketchUp) and graphics packages (i.e. such as adobe suite).

There was little appearance of the adoption of new tools into the design process. Of the 40 practices interviewed only one actively sought out both new tools and design methods on a regular basis.

The idea of what is a new tool is open to challenge,  it is not just a reference to new digital technologies such as those that have emerged from the digital design genre but those tools that may be found in aligned industries, such as the construction, engineering, sustainability, fabrication, manufacturing, media and research fields.

Where it was discovered that new digital technologies, such as Rhino, Maya and Grasshopper had entered the design process, in many cases they had become not an addition to the toolkit but a replacement for the physical model.

Of the 40 practices interviewed only 13 were still using the physical model within the design process with the remainder advocating that the physical model was too time consuming, budgets were too tight and the virtual was a far more effective and efficient tool in producing iterative outcomes.

Most interestingly, the variations found in the methods applied appeared to be influenced by practice models; they divided into three categories.

There were those practices that had strong ideological positions (one quarter), there were those practices that had strong design methodologies (one quarter) and there were those practices that had neither an ideological position nor methodology but systematically responded to the criteria of brief, client and location, etc. (half).

For those practices that had a strong ideological position neither the tools used nor methods applied were influential in initiating and developing their ideas, rather it was the ideology of the practice that drove the design.  The tools were seen as instruments in the manifestation of this idea.

For those practices that had a strong design methodology the tools themselves were somewhat of a design driver but most importantly they were used as platforms for the variety of methods applied to them in order to pull the design out. It was here that the methods applied to the tools varied the most and in a lot of cases the tool was subverted to alter the outcome.

For the remaining practices, the choice of tool was considered most important. The design process went through a series of standard criteria checkpoints such as site, location, solar analysis, client brief, etc. and the tools were used at different stages to visualise these developments. It was here that the intended purpose of the tool was used and the opportunities and constraints found within the parameters of the tool acknowledged in the process.

The study also indicated a generally level of apathy towards seeking the adoption of new tools. It became obvious that the design tools practitioners trained in remained the design tools used throughout their career. This was verified by the high use of conventional design tools amongst an established generation of architects and the newer digital technologies favoured amongst a younger generation of architects.

What also seemed clear was that whilst practices were not seeking the adoption of new tools they were receptive to their introduced via students and graduates, with three of the most recent software tools adopted into practice, Rhino, Maya and Grasshopper, all having coincided with their earlier introduction into the education stream.

So what does this mean? Does it mean that the values in new tool adoption are rejected as unnecessary or as interferences to the design process or could it simply be that time and budget restrictions influence tools experimentation?

It was noticed that a number of practices chose particular CAD/BIM tools earlier on in the design phase to maintain maximum efficiency throughout the documentation phase, admitting that a market that ‘shopped around’ had forced them to choose particular tools to stay viable.

Regardless of the argument, the results clearly indicate that we are not experiencing the opportunities afforded to us through the adoption of new tools into the design process.

None of this would be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that the value of the position of the architect in the built environment is seriously under challenge and that architecture needs to be actively looking for room for expansion.

Within this state, it is not that the capacity for the architect’s ability to produce the building is under threat it is that architectures ability to differentiate its body of work from the range of other disciplines is questionable.

The positional shift of the architect has seen a move away from that of the master builder to that of the design consultant and in the ever growing complexity of the built environment, where more disciplines have a stake in the ‘ownership’ of the end product, we need to question where this leaves the value of the architect?

Architects need to distinguish themselves through their ability to innovate, to design, to respond to and question cultural, global and local patterns, to position an argument and to strategically and creatively think through design solutions in application to a broad range of opportunities within the built environment.

It is within this identification shift that architecture has the opportunity to not only resist the demand to extend beyond itself but to re-establish its position via an expansion from within.

The adoption of new tools and technologies are a natural part of the evolution of the architect and a valued ingredient to the design process.

If we were to evaluate the three practice models as mentioned earlier all could gain value from including new tools into their design process.

For those practices driven by ideological positioning, new tools provide a filter to push the architectural idea through. For those practices imbedded in design methodologies new tools provide new ways of thinking and seeing. And for those practices responding to criteria checklists new tools provide new parameters to work within.

Equally all three positions could benefit from the collaborative relationships that form when integrating new tools from aligned industries.

We are in a time of rapid global change, when trends such as co-creation, crowd sourcing and crowd funding, social consciousness, collaboration and social responsibility all have an effect on the global consumption and interaction of architecture.  If current practices persist in apathy towards the adoption of new tools then this is not a negative thing, as it paves the path for new practice models to emerge.

Architecture is on a pedestal of being asked different questions and the traditional design and production responses are being surpassed by newer digital technologies and fabrication methods.

Never before has there been a more serious opportunity for the repositioning of the value of the architect.

As is evident in the research there is a strong connection between practice models and the way in which tools are used, therefore it is possible that a new identity for emergent practices could be found through the adoption of new tools.

Practices that have the agility to embrace new design processes, new methods of production and new styles of procurement in response to a shifting global audience could be expanding our capacity to respond to new opportunities and the adoption of new tools into the design process could be the very thing that sets them apart.

Read Annabel Koeck’s reply to this article here.


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