Re-Upping on Design Technology

“Design firms must change or die,” such has been a constant industry refrain ever since the global economic meltdown of 2008. But it’s hard to know how firms should change, what aspects of practice are particularly susceptible to extinction, or what new, fertile forms of professional practice might look like. Well, hello, no surprise here. As history has taught us, the most meaningful inspiration for change comes from within.

One thing has become clear as we assess the increasing social, economic and environmental complexities of the new millennium: we need more powerful tools to design and deliver more responsive, better performing buildings. How do we accomplish that? We’ve chosen to “re-up” on design technology. In architect jargon: we’re advancing the principals of our integrated approach through new design technologies and modes of delivery. (And as you may already suspect, we also just happen to like really cool design tools.)

In early 2009 we launched LMN Tech Studio, a hybrid lab that provides applied technology services to our projects and conducts research and development on design technologies.  Through Tech Studio we have unified digital and physical forms of design output, enhancing the bandwidth, level of integration, and productivity of all our tools. In particular, our capacity to create interoperability links between various software programs and hardware devices can support new ways of producing and implementing design solutions uniquely responsive to project conditions. We have employed these customized technology processes on such recent projects as the Cleveland Medical Mart and the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in San Antonio.

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Like any design firm, we tend to view the world through the lens of our projects. Soon after the Vancouver Convention Centre West opened in 2010, I took part in a panel discussion entitled “Radical Pragmatism: New Modes of Architectural Practice,” held at the new building.  I recall reflecting on the irony of the theme—how it relates so strongly to our design approach and to the premise for Tech Studio.

We had eagerly embraced Building Information Modeling when it hit the scene what seems like ages ago, and promptly converted our systems and workflow to a full BIM shop. While the immense power of the technology clearly improved the quality of our technical documentation and coordination, it did not fundamentally impact how we design—or how to address the new, profound industry challenges before us. So we committed the firm to explore and leverage the use of design technology through new modes of practice. Of course, this realization did not come overnight—it has a history in how we’ve evolved as a firm. For me, an important point in that history was the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington.

Completed in 2003, the Allen Center introduced us to a different perspective on technology. The client, UW Computer Science & Engineering, is one of the world’s top computer science research units. At the inception of the project, the users frankly communicated their deep suspicions about architects to us. They feared we would design a monument to technology and machines when, in fact, what they really wanted was a building focused on human interaction and the department’s hands-on, entrepreneurial approach to research. This was music to our ears. In response, we instigated a deliberate process to analyze the particular social dynamics that drive their academic program. While the technical needs were certainly robust, we were careful to view technology as an enabler of program functions rather than as a generator of architectural solutions. Through the course of the project we learned quite a bit about how leading computer scientists approach problem solving and became fascinated with how this might relate to our own design processes.

Tech Studio’s impact on our work has been immediate and profound. It elevated the quality of our design as well as project delivery. It has also enriched our firm’s culture. (We will talk more about this in upcoming blog posts.) Whereas a more singular use of BIM tended to reinforce the generational division—young tech hotshots vs senior architects versed in how to put buildings together—the formation of Tech Studio has generally dissolved that divide. In fact, we’ve experienced an upswing in reverse mentoring, with young architects and interns teaching senior architects on the use of new technologies. The key is to develop tools that enrich the entire design process—from conceptual exploration through technical development and construction implementation—where the design value proposition speaks for itself.

Among the most interesting aspects of Tech Studio is how it contributes to discovering entirely new perspectives. Because research projects are subject-based, this approach exposes us to realms not traditionally associated with architecture. For example, in support of research on interaction, we purchased an XBox Kinect game device (“You are the controller!”) and hooked it up in Tech Studio. We were curious to see if we could hack gaming hardware to create more natural design communication tools, for internal use as well as for collaborating with consultants and clients. During this exercise I’ve observed some fascinating experiments on motion capture technology applied to interactive, small group design exploration. But I’ve also just learned a lot about the particular technology, more than I would have otherwise imagined. Be forewarned, though, technology tools can be addictive…

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Architects are accustomed to the gestational nature of the design process and we all have our own ways of riffing on the day’s interesting or pressing problems, individually or as a group. I tend towards long bike rides to clear the cobwebs and be able to just think about stuff. Happy hours and barbeques are ideal for group riffing. Most recently, these discussions frequently involve possible applications of new technology tools, and not just in regards to our work. The world is replete with opportunities in virtually any walk of life and I have an example to share.

Over the course of an evening barbeque this past summer, our Tech Studio team devised a new winning strategy for our beloved ballclub, the Seattle Mariners, a remarkably weak hitting team of recent years. To improve their ability to hit major league pitching, we conceived a psycho-physical training system that combines motion capture technology and parametric modeling with mechanical pitching devices through customized interoperability links. It will be transformative, trust me, given the impact that incremental performance improvements can have on a team’s winning percentage. So I really hope Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners’ GM, reads this post. Jack, you should definitely give us a call.

George Shaw, AIA, LEED AP, is Managing Partner at LMN Architects in Seattle.

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