Advancing a Data-Driven Approach to Architecture

I’ve always liked to build stuff. When I was a kid, I had something going at all times. Tree forts, go-carts, lots of projects that were more or less useful. In my formative years, I worked as a carpenter and builder with the happy result of getting paid for doing what I loved. Upon entering the profession of architecture, with the requisite reduction in compensation, I remained involved in the construction industry. I created, collaborated, and administered construction. But I did not build stuff.

This is changing.

As a partner in LMN, a 100-person architecture office in Seattle, I’ve been fortunate to take part in transforming our practice, a transformation that has broader implications for our entire profession. Innovations in design technology are changing the way we work. In the first posting of this series, George described how LMN was Re-Upping on Design Technology by starting Tech Studio in 2009. While the decision to start Tech Studio was borne out of opportunity, the business case for it has proven to be sound as our work progressed and our skills got sharper.

LMN was well along with implementing building information modeling (BIM) when Tech Studio was created. We were using it to produce contract documents and to coordinate the work of different disciplines from early design through construction. Simultaneously, we had more fully embraced sustainability and advanced our green design skills by using simulations in daylighting, energy, and air flow. Our simple idea at the time was to have Tech Studio leverage the BIM model earlier in the design process, in order to facilitate these studies. Little did we know what it would actually lead to.

Tech Studio is a design technology resource for our project teams. Its members interact with a team, understand the design goals, research appropriate design technologies, customize software or hardware as necessary, train the project team to use the tools, and support the on-going design effort. Independent from project teams, the Tech Studio is free from immediate deadlines and thus able to devote more time to research and development. Time spent on projects is billable to the project, but R&D time is not.

Tech Studio has advanced our research-based, data-driven design approach to work. The work is quantitative, parametric, iterative, and most importantly, temporal. Architecture has always been an iterative process: design, document, build, and repeat. Lessons were learned over the course of years and an architect with 20 years of experience may have seen a dozen iterative cycles. Data-driven design has transformed the iterative loop to model, simulate, analyze, synthesize, optimize, and repeat. Generative models based on the manipulation of parameters replace the physical act of building in this loop. And the biggest impact is temporal. We are now running simulations on hundreds of design variations in a matter of days. We can perform sensitivity analyses to determine which factors are the most critical to achieve our performance goals. Intuition plays a smaller role in the data driven design process than it did in the analog process.

We are able to design buildings that quantifiably perform better than before. This is a skills differentiator for our firm, allowing us to compete for projects successfully in an increasingly competitive marketplace. In addition, our recruiting efforts are enhanced by the work that Tech Studio is doing. Potential employees often mention having seen our Tech Studio blog, which, to them, makes LMN unique. As Adrian noted in an earlier post in this series, there is a story to be told about this endeavor. There is a wow factor to the technology and it’s entertaining to see the facial expressions of clients when they see the toys we get to play with and the impressive results they produce.

Then there is the age-old question of productivity versus performance. Do we use the design technologies to complete our work faster or do we use them to produce a better design? I would argue that the power of the technology is such that we can have our cake and eat it too. As data-driven design becomes more embedded in our process, we can evaluate different solutions more thoroughly and in less time than before. A bigger question is, to what degree do we change our design process to adapt to the technology? Data-driven design clearly represents a shift in how we approach design, but we must not let numbers alone dictate a solution. Rather, architects are in the position of balancing the tangible with the intangible. We just have a lot more tangible things to consider these days.

While we have been having fun discovering new processes and solutions with Tech Studio, we have also been working to understand the serious issues that emerge with this pursuit. Primary among these is the cost to support the indirect time for research and development. At a time when design fees are shrinking, increasing our non-billable time would seem to be the last thing a successful firm would consider doing. But we have found that the resulting combination of productivity improvements and enhanced quality of design has positioned us to compete in the marketplace.

Some argue that the mid-size architecture firm will soon be a thing of the past. And certainly the recent spate of mergers and acquisitions in the architecture profession has created mega-firms that have resources that can be difficult to compete with. But the advantage a mid-size firm has over a mega competitor is that we’re nimble. Firms like LMN can have the best of both worlds: the resources and diversity of expertise of a large firm and the agility of a small firm. But this opportunity is lost if the road is not travelled. We must be willing to take risks to distinguish ourselves.

Challenges are also presented by contract and liability issues. Case law is anything but nimble. In a data-driven design process, what are our instruments of service?  Should the Grasshopper definition that Scott wrote to design the ceiling of a concert hall be part of our construction documents? Owners are writing more onerous contracts and they expect to own everything we produce that bears any relationship to their project.  Contractors are starting to build from models and some of our designs are complex enough that they have no choice but to do so.  Complex design solutions require a more collaborative approach to design and construction through processes such as integrated project delivery (IPD). We’re entering a brave new world and it’s not for the faint of heart.

Ready or not, our profession is about to experience a radical transformation of how we work. LMN Tech Studio is an important component of our strategy to stay ahead of this sea change and leverage the power of computing to build a better world. We are creating smart, three-dimensional prototypes that are being used for simulation, visualization, and fabrication. With what we have learned in the past three years we believe that the time has come for architects to claim more responsibility in the design and construction process as master builders of the virtual project and drive the power of design more deeply into our built environment.

I’m starting to build stuff again and I’m thrilled.

Sam Miller is a partner at Seattle-based LMN Architects. His expertise is in higher education and cultural projects and he is the sustainable design leader for the firm. Before completing his graduate degree in architecture, he worked as a carpenter, engineer, and contractor.

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