Have you ever licked your finger and put it up in the air to determine the direction of the wind? Or maybe you have been out golfing on a tee box, like me, and picked up some freshly cut grass, letting it drop to see which way the wind carries it. You then look at the distance listed for the hole before you choose your club.
We do this so that our first swing on the hole is a good one. By using the available information at the correct time and in the correct way, we increase the likelihood that we will post a good score. These are simple concepts that work.
This applies to the practice and process of designing buildings. The design process involves both the analysis of information — owner’s requirements, program requirements, site requirements, code requirements, performance criteria — and the creative process of generating a building’s form, structure, organization, systems, and material composition.
Early on, architects strive to convey the simplicity of a single, overarching idea that will drive the project forward. As we continue the process, adding information at each stage, we strive to maintain the clarity of our vision while also accounting for the detailed complexity of a working building.
The introduction of the computer to our profession and the rapid progression to our Building Information Modeling (BIM) disrupted this paradigm.
First, we used the computer to do what we had already been doing — producing two-dimensional drawings and images that communicate design intent to the client and contractor. Then came 3D-modeling and BIM, with much excitement and talk of new possibilities. We first had to adapt this three-dimensional, information-rich process to the status quo: more drawings. Having mastered that process, we are now able to truly put the Information into our BIM.
INFORMATION: THE GRASS IN THE BREEZE
It’s not often discussed that information is available at a seemingly high level of detail from day one. The notion of a linear development from the simple to the complex, from the rough to the detailed, has been turned on its head, or – perhaps more accurately – has been exposed as fallacy. We’ve always been ‘Building Information Modelers,’ even before BIM, capturing information, synthesizing it, creating a ‘model’ of our intent, and communicating it at the appropriate time. Architects and designers have a gift that allows them to take great mental leaps forward and backward in time, to mentally juggle competing criteria, to conceptually shift from complexity to simplicity and back again.
Problems develop when the information starts becoming a hindrance to creativity. Something funny happens when detail, complexity, and numerous choices get formalized in hard data, discrete model elements, and real lines on the page. They convey a false sense of certainty at a point in the process when we are far more comfortable with a loose simplicity. The process can seem more complicated or encumbered with detail when we are still working out our “big ideas.”
It is no mistake that at the top of the list of improvements of our industry-standard BIM software in 2014 was a function that displays 3D models in “sketchy line” mode to soften the illusion of precision. It’s been a great help to designers.
While it is true that working digitally demands rigor, it needn’t be crippling or even cumbersome if we control it. Architects and designers must overcome the notion that more information, more data and greater detail earlier in the process means more rigidity. What we really have is more ‘explicit’ information — information recorded – rather than the implicit or intuitive information carried around in our heads. But do not mistake explicitness for precision or certainty. Once we accept this, information and data become a friend to creativity — as fluid and flexible as our minds allow it to be, and a valuable guide in our design exploration.
One example is the conceptual whole building energy analysis that takes the basic system information (project location, climatic data, and building geometry) and returns a rough idea of energy use. This is intended for qualitative and comparative analysis and not to fix our designs to a quantitative outcome.
Rather than using the analysis to rationalize a chosen design after all of the decisions have been made, the rough results of this conceptual analysis are used to compare multiple design options against a baseline to drive design decisions. This is our “grass in the breeze,” or our windsock, to help answer the early, “big” design questions of form, orientation, and scale. Our tools and our data create a feedback loop, whereby we can test and evaluate iteratively.
LOOK BEFORE YOU SWING, AND CHOOSE THE RIGHT CLUB
This represents a shift in mindset from many people’s architectural education, which often focuses on the aesthetic, the visual, the material, or the functional. We must now also give attention to designing for performance, which means designing with data and explicitly merging the analytical with the aesthetic.
This does require discipline and some technology, but discipline and technology do not equal rigidity any more than explicitness. Designers need to be diligent about defining goals, acknowledging that some goals may change at every step of the process. We need to embrace explicit information and align our analysis with those goals. We have many tools to choose from, but rarely more than one that’s right for the job at given time. To extend the metaphor, we have to be careful about which club we select to swing.
We also have to be conscious of the fact that design information can go too far too early. We must give attention to the level of development appropriate to the stage of the project. We can’t let a false sense of precision and certainty through our tools become a proxy for clarity of our overall vision. Keep your eye on the ball, as they say.
It’s true that when we design now we might be doing radically different things than in the past and paying attention to an amended set of criteria, but this shift in our thinking not only involves a new mindset by practicing architects, but a new education system that prepares the next generation to work with the technologies and the information at their disposal.
The good news is that design is still a creative and iterative process. We just have more information available, clubs in our bag, and fortunately there are still multiple holes on this course.
Now, relax and swing!