New Methods, New Results

Digital Methods and Tools Are Transforming at the Intersection of Modern Building Demand and Design Methodology

September 16, 2019

Associate Dean and Senior Lecturer, Yale School of Architecture

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally authored for the December 2018 issue of A+U. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

In the prescientific era, humans built by experience, trial and error. Traditions of design and construction emerged from repeated attempts, failures and refinements of technique, and even the earliest “building standards,” as defined by Vitruvius in his Ten Books of Architecture, did not even have the benefit of drawing to demonstrate results. Architecture has progressed as a slow but steady march toward rationalizing our approaches to creating the environment.

Refinements in methods of representation (drawings and models), abstraction (mathematics) and evaluation (analytical techniques like formulas and algorithms) have barely kept up, particularly in the 21st century, with the demands of complex building in the modern world. This has been especially true in architecture, where a myriad of social and urban constraints, increasingly sophisticated building materials, enclosure systems and digital infrastructure, demanding briefs and risky construction delivery models call out for new design sensibilities and methods.

Digital methods and tools are transforming at the intersection of modern building demand and design methodology. Having transited from the purely analog techniques of hand drawing, algebra and reference tables in manuals, through the era of electronic CAD drafting and spreadsheets, architects find themselves on the cusp of a “second information revolution” powered by robust building information modeling tools, the computational and storage efficacy of the cloud, and ubiquitous connectivity from  design studio to factory floor to job site through the internet. Experience and trial and error give way to analysis, simulation and prediction of results before the first shovel of dirt is turned.

That revolution will change how buildings behave, and therefore how they must be designed and built. The bright line between digital and physical systems, understood until recently as “the structure versus the wiring” is blurring rapidly in an era of digital control infrastructure, information systems integrated into spatial experience, and the blending of virtual and actual spatial perception. Making architecture is no longer just tectonics alone, but the integration of information and digital space.

At the same time, the decision-making of daily life is increasingly reliant on information, data, analysis and insight. Architects’ clients will no longer rely exclusively on the experience, intuition and judgment of the designer without more substantiating proof of an assertion, based upon available data. This is not to say that architecture will be reduced to only the prosaic, hyper-rational or “best mathematical idea.” Far from it — the ineffable aspects of building to express the aspirations of our culture become as important as ever. But the analytical basis upon which many design decisions are made — in the realms of performance and systems behavior — will inexorably improve, and designers who can leverage the opportunities of the former while accomplishing the latter are best positioned to define 21st century practice going forward.

Thus, new building demands and techniques demand novel design methodologies that are equal parts experience, enthusiasm, competence and innovation, both within the design studio and without on the construction site. Relying on established methods of design and the lessons of past work is table stakes towards this new challenge. The deft deployment of the digital tools of the trade — advanced modeling, analysis algorithms, big data collection, scripting and design-to-fabrication techniques — combined with the willingness to experiment that is part of the designer’s toolbox yields these new methods and equally interesting results.

Hack-a-thons, a technique used for years in the software industry, are a recent addition to the architect’s toolbox and an excellent example of ways to experiment, develop and test new ideas and strategies quickly. Rapid prototyping of narrowly focused questions that can be built, evaluated and refined quickly is a design muscle that transfers new strategies into the design studio. This is not a case of emulating another discipline (although clearly architecture benefits from such ideas) but rather accelerating design thinking through a different lens. The measure of success in a hack-a-thon is not just an idea, but a physical and measurable result, much like the shift in design methods outlined above.

At the building scale, applying these techniques in the intersection of design generation and physical form takes a certain fearlessness (to innovate) and determination to plow new fabrication ground. Architects have traditionally eschewed this connection, staying safely in the realm of “design intent” and leaving “the means and methods of construction” to contractors, with the expected timidity of built result. Digital tools, however, are particularly adept, in the right hands, at creating precise, understandable and buildable results starting from a provocative formal idea, through iteration,  evaluation and refinement, and landing upon a novel built result.

Experienced, digitally enabled and innovative architects do more than just produce unexpected, and in some cases astonishing, results for their clients. They build not to simply create space or meet schedules and budgets but rather to make things happen for their occupants, users and the public. Company headquarters are not just brand markers on a skyline or providers of workspace, but rather environments that enable creativity and results while contributing to the texture and life of a city. Hospitals are intended to make people healthier, not just mediate operational relationships between caregivers and patients. As digital tools — and the architects who best deploy them — are used to understand, generate and evaluate integrative solutions to complex building projects, the value of architecture (and architects) improves, and the propositions that architects bring to improving the built environment become more powerful. The rationalizing influence of such tools to measure and predict can be met with equal enthusiasm for the creative and expressive possibilities of making space.

All images courtesy Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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