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BIM and the Human Condition May 15, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, BIM, collaboration, IPD, problem solving, Revit.
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Craft is the pride one takes in making – making things – with one’s hands, mind and imagination. Two books that address craft – one recent and one published 50 years ago – help make clear the predicament architects find themselves in today as they face an uncertain future.

In The­_Craftsman, author and sociologist Prof. Richard Sennett asks what the process of making concrete things reveals to us about ourselves – what people can learn about themselves from the things they make. Craftsmanship here is defined as an enduring, basic human impulse, the skill of making things well. The pride one takes in work – whether making a wood model or a computer model – requires focusing on the intimate connection between head and hand, establishing effective, sustainable habits and a rhythm between problem finding and problem solving. It is an internal dialogue every craftsman – and architect – conducts in practice.

Craftsmanship, by combining skill, commitment and judgment, establishes a close relationship between head and hand, man and machine that Sennett asserts is vital to physical, mental and societal well-being. Combining a “material consciousness” with a willingness to put in years of practice (a common estimate of the time required to master a craft is 10,000 hours) and an acceptance of ambiguity, rather than an obsessive perfectionism, should be familiar to readers of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Dean Simonton’s Greatness and readers of this blog. Sennett asks whether our commitment to work – our craftsmanship – is merely about money, or about something deeper and more human. His answer implies that commitment – the skill, care, late nights, problem solving and pride that goes into our work – is about something greater.

Sennett does not think that craftsmanship has vanished from our world. On the contrary, as another critic noted, it has merely migrated to other regions of human enterprise, “so that the delicate form of skilled cooperation that once produced a cathedral now produces the Linux software system” – or, in the case of architects who take part in integrated practice, their work in BIM. The subject of craft has been all but excluded to date from discussions about building information modeling (BIM) and this poses a liability and potential hazard for architects – for therein resides our dedication, passion and resolve.

Hannah Arendt’s book, The_Human_Condition, published 50 years ago, distinguishes between labor, work, and action, explores the implications of these distinctions and affirms the value of human beings speaking openly and candidly to each other. In the book Arendt (1906-1975) famously distinguishes between Animal laborans and Homo faber, between labor and work. Labor is, according to Arendt, those human activities whose main aim is to allow men to survive, belong to the private sphere, and while the human being strives painstakingly to perform them, is not free. As Sennett – Arendt’s student in the 60’s – points out Animal laborans is akin to the beast of burden, “a drudge condemned to routine.” Here the derogatory term “CAD-jockey” comes to mind, one who envisions spending their working lives in front of a monitor churning out construction documents. Animal laborans: they’re the ones who, working alone, take the work as an end in itself.

With Homo faber, on the other hand, one imagines men and women doing work together and in doing so making a life in common. This is the public sphere, where men, after having provided for themselves and their families what was needed to continue, can at last be free. The name according to Sennett implies a higher way of life, one in which we stop producing and start discussing and judging together. It is in this word – together – that we find the seeds for collaboration and for integrated practice.

BIM is More Artifact than Fact, More Art than Artifact

Look around your office – it is easy to spot those who see themselves as Animal laborans and conversely those who see their role as Homo faber. You can sense it in their attitudes toward their work, their mindset in the way they tackle the challenge of learning –or familiarizing themselves with – new technologies and workflows. If you observe carefully, you can even detect it in their posture, in the way they approach their work and each other. As Sennett argues, as with Gladwell and Geoff_Colvin, motivation matters more than talent. The architect must imagine herself engaged with the model, the input of information no less an act of the imagination than the shaping of clay into new worlds for others to engage in and be inspired by. The architect has to find her inner, intelligent craftsman. If it can be reduced to a formula, as Arendt would have it,

bim = Animal laborans

BIM = Homo faber

where BIM enables integrated practice. The combination of speech and action the book calls for is the perfect prescription for integrated practice or IPD: architects working together with others, collaborating toward a common goal.

Sennett sees it differently and challenges his teacher’s definition of Labor as being too limited, slighting the practical man and woman at work, and offers a more balanced view – where thinking and feeling are contained within the process of making. Such is the student’s prerogative. Some architects complain that BIM – in being so fact-based and answer-hungry – makes them less creative, describing their work as “feeding the beast.” Here again we find Arendt’s Animal laborans, for whom the mind engages once the labor is done, and Sennett is right to push further.

When Sennett writes “leaving the public to ‘sort out the problem’ after the work is done means confronting people with usually irreversible facts,” and “engagement must start earlier, requires a fuller, better understanding of the process by which people go about producing things,” he could have been describing BIM, and IPD, the process it enables. IPD fulfills the promise and dictates of BIM just as Homo faber provides something for Animal laborans to aspire to.  

One of Arendt’s great themes is her sense of the decline of the public realm, the realm where action takes place. With the growing use of BIM, and through it integrated practice, architects once again have an opportunity to find themselves working in – and positively influencing if not creating – the public realm.

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ARE WE LISTENING? April 26, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, BIM, employment, optimism, the economy, transition.
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At Bookman’s Alley of Evanston this weekend, on the cusp of this week’s AIA National Convention in San Francisco, I couldn’t resist opening the May 1977 issue of Progressive Architecture bearing “The Future of Architecture” cover story. Louis Kahn’s last work had just opened at Yale, Harry Weese’s detention center in Chicago received an AIA National Honor Award and 30-50% of architecture firms had recently laid-off staff leading to rampant unemployment among architects. Thumbing through the long defunct but then most-edgy of building design magazines, one could easily conclude that history indeed repeats itself, only in more ways than one could have foretold.

PA editor, John Morris Dixon, notes in this issue that architecture at that time was at a point of “particular anxiety, uncertainty and challenge,” pointing out that the AIA Convention was convening the following week in California to “ponder the theme of ‘tomorrow’,” covering a span of 25 to 50 years – in other words, today – with the hopeful prompt: Where will all this uncertainty lead? Dixon himself responds: “To introspection, we hope; to re-examination of the architect’s role in society; to reconsideration of the power of architectural design in human life – and its potential glory.” It is interesting to note that live stream videoconferencing is available this week for those who cannot attend the AIA Convention – whereas in 1977 “videotaped replays will be shown at a later time.” Despite so much, how much has truly changed?

But this was around the time when the profession walked away from taking-on additional risk – including that of construction administration oversight. Here we find ourselves, over 30 years later, with yet another opportunity to address our collective comfort with risk – this time to the extent it is shared – and the question remains whether we are willing and ready to do so. Or, if not, whether we will take a pass on this perhaps last chance to step up and, at the beckoning of attorneys and insurers – as well as our own inner voice that tells us to stick to the knitting, so often defined as design, increasingly including sustainable and urban design – fall back on old habits, rest on our laurels and the comfort and familiarity of what we do so well.  

To its credit PA got a lot about the future right, having identified trends that we now take for granted – and have yet to successfully nor adequately prepare for – such as the great migration of US population southwest and ensuing impacts on resources, addressing smaller families, aging of the population, fuel shortages, energy conservation and lifecycle costs, rising populations and scarcity of natural resources. There was no mention of computers, CAD or especially BIM in this issue but we only have to be reminded that BIM Handbook co-author, Chuck Eastman, had already penned in 1975 “The Use of Computers Instead of Drawings in Building Design” in the AIA Journal. PA guest author and social researcher Robert Gutman strongly advises “architects to take initiative for their services to remain essential” while presciently pointing out (via Future Shock author Alvin Toffler) that opportunities may emerge for architects in the area of information. Fast-forward 30 years – the “I” in BIM. Humorously, the editors point out that in 1977 “we are already encountering an advance wave of ‘information overload.'” Oh, if they only knew…

Seemingly out of nowhere, Gutman poses an epistemological question that proved unanswerable to those about to attend the 1977 AIA National Convention:  What makes the architectural profession architectural? “Certainly not the fact that it gets buildings up on schedule, or that it designs buildings which are economical to construct and maintain…Such tasks could be handled as well by good contractors and engineers.” Gutman proposes that the architectural profession merits this title because “it alone is expected to coordinate the achievement of these ends with an aesthetic element, producing a design which responds to the canons of order, form, function and convenience all in a single solution.” Sadly, 1977 was the time of style wars in the profession and the answer – had there been one – no doubt would have been in stylistic or theoretical terms. With so much at stake, with so many roles to play, so much to continuously learn, and with so many opportunities before us, I wonder how we would answer this question today: What makes the architectural profession architectural?

Predicting the future is always risky. Living in it has proven even riskier. Who could have predicted BIM when computers weren’t yet readily available in architecture? Or, at the apex of participatory design, who could have anticipated IPD? It’s always both quaint and mildly amusing to look back at what the future was – was to be – and in the end, wasn’t in the least. The ironically titled “Progressive Architecture” now appears – with its colored pencil rendered cover – anything but. Today, with 4D BIM, 5D BIM and xD BIM – we can only wonder now what we are missing, getting woefully wrong and oh so off the mark. This week, in San Francisco, we’re gathering to talk to one another. Let us only hope that this time we’ll listen.

Optimistically, architect Richard Bender philosophically compares the underemployed architect with the fisherman in repose: “In many ways we are like the fishermen who haul in their boats for the winter. We will not catch many fish in this season, but we can patch and caulk the boat, replace some obsolete equipment, and make the many changes and improvements for which there is no time while we are at sea. As designers this is a familiar challenge. It is one I am happy to accept.” Indeed, perhaps there is no better metaphor for our circumstance today as we embark upon the annual gathering of like-minded professionals.

Stay, Architect, Stay January 27, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, architect types, BIM, integrative thinking, problem solving, productive thinking, Revit.
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The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

One attribute that distinguishes architects from nearly every other professional is their comfort with ambiguity. As workplaces become threadbare, virtual marketing firms chasing after anything that moves, architects are alternatively encouraged to get up to speed with the latest technology and software: ostensibly so that they will be all the more valuable to their firms, or the marketplace (if it comes to that,) depending on timing and luck.

Roger_Martin’s concept of integrative thinking, as described in The Opposable Mind, beautifully illustrates that the longer the architect remains in the problem – the more likely a well-resolved solution will be discovered. Tim Hurson, author of the bible of productive thinking, Think_Better, instructs the reader to “stay in the question.” That is essentially what architects do so well. While engineers keep an eye often on immediate results and the first-best solution, the architect tends to take the longer route. Architects working with a number of competing forces, wishes, contingencies and constraints, habitually wait until the last available moment before honing-in on the most favorable solution.

Architect Nathan_Good juggles these variables for as long as he can. “We live with a high degree of ambiguity during the early design phase, because we want to give credit to the site, to the client’s needs,” he says, “to the structure, to what is it going to take for the inhabitants to be comfortable. It’s kind of like we’re juggling these things for as long as we can, and then there’s this flurry of activity right at the end of the design to pull it all together.”

One concern that some architects have is that the latest software and design tools, such as BIM, and design processes, such as IPD, require so many decisions upfront, potentially killing this quintessential quality of the architect. With every material and building system assigned, defined and specified in the early stages of design, how will the architect remember how to juggle, keeping so many balls – however unreconciled, unresolved, uncoordinated – in the air? Will working with BIM leave out the fermentation, the leavening of the loaf, resulting in the flat, dry cracker of design?

No fear, architect. No matter how efficient and detail-oriented, BIM is still just a tool. A tool to create in 3D (and beyond) what already exists in the architect’s mind. Instead of architects having to gradually give-up their core competency – comfort with ambiguity – in time BIM will become more comfortable with ambiguity. Just as architects in the past switched from hand drafting to CAD software, and now CAD to BIM, they adapt the tool to them as they adapt to the tool. We will continue to grow with the technology as it, with each new version, becomes more like us. And perhaps it is the architect’s very flexibility, juggling their variables, that will allow them to adopt to the new frontier awaiting them.

Kudos to architect extraordinaire Bradley Beck for his contributions to this post.