Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Autodesk University - Day One

The almost month-long wait is over and I'm finally at Autodesk University at the Venetian in Las Vegas. First and foremost, I must express my love and gratitude to my wife and family back home for enabling me to spend time preparing for, and ultimately making the journey to share my experiences with my industry colleagues. Love you and miss you already.

Onto business...Day One is pretty casual with dedicated events such as the Autodesk Developers Network (ADN) and AUGI Leadership Conference, but my arrival time only allowed for the annual AU Revit Mixer. Back in 2003, the Revit Mixer was an informal gathering of about 50 Revit users to mingle and show off their work. This year, we had to limit the crowd to about the first 300 responders! This year might be the last year for the Mixer, but we'll see what we can do about that ;-)

Jim Balding of WATG has done an amazing job for several years as the AUGI Revit Product Chair, but formally stepped down and passed the torch on to yours truly. I am honored by this opportunity and hope to continue meeting more fascinating people in my tenure. Classes begin tomorrow, so I'll be taking notes and sharing more with you all soon.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Building (in) the Future @ Yale, Part 4

The next four speakers presented under the theme ”The organization of Labor: Architecture”. Joshua Prince-Ramus of REX, (formerly OMA’s American office), Marc Simmons of Front, Inc., Coren Sharples from SHoP, and Howard Ashcraft, an attorney from Hanson Bridgett Marcus Vlahos & Rudy LLP. Phil Bernstein, co-coordinator of the symposium, moderated and provided the response. For those of you wondering, yes, this is the same Phil Bernstein who is Vice-President of Building Solutions at Autodesk.

Mr. Prince-Ramus repeated the need for the redefinition and redistribution of the oft-shown Owner-Architect-Contractor triangle relationship. He called for the architect to be able to ‘let go’ of preconceived formal notions in order to find a solution truly fitting for each design problem and cited the Seattle Public Library project as an example of a team effort. The Project Manager for the SPA expected the three major cost centers to balloon uncontrollably, thus killing the project. OMA was able to redistribute cost allocations for those three centers and redistribute the costs among all three centers, thus keeping the project budget stable and the project viable.

To prove his point about ignoring predefined outcomes, he continued describing his collaborative work with Front, Inc, in developing a cost-effective solution for the façade. The key, he explained, was Front’s ability to develop appropriately-sized glass panels that could be bolted into place with little additional labor. The panels, he further explained, were also optimized for panelization, efficiency of materials, ease of installation, and portability for transport. He explained that architects don’t focus on the issues that are important to developers, issues such as financing. Without beginning to understand and address these and other issues, we’ll remain limited to being façadists.

Finally, his demonstration of innovation within severe cost limitations is evident in the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts project. He took what they considered to be the cheapest ‘monumental’ building material, aluminum, and explored it fabrication. They rationalized that extruding aluminum in different shapes produced by standard dies and tools would cost roughly the same as a standard extrusion, e.g. corrugation. They experimented with different arrangements of these standard dies and arrived at a unique extrusion that became the panel profile for the project.

Prince-Ramus and REX are extremely visible right now, probably partly because of REX’s new status as an independent office, partly because of the success of the Seattle Public Library. I found a recording online of a similar speech he gave about a month earlier. If you’re interested you can watch it here.

It was only natural that Marc Simmons spoke next. Front, Inc. has worked closely with Prince-Ramus, giving Mr. Simmons the opportunity to explain some of the specifics of the Seattle Library project. Front has also worked with quite a few others of the most recognizable architectural firms, including Renzo Piano, Peter Gluck, Frank Gehry, KPF, and Gluckman Mayner. It’s definitely worth a visit to Front’s website to check out the projects. I find the SCL Glass Headquarters project to be very interesting in its use of technology to determine the limits and possibilities of glass construction.

Mr. Simmons spoke most engagingly about his work with Ryue Nishizawa on the Novartis Office building, located in Basel, Switzerland. Nishizawa’s design is little more than opaque horizontals and transparent verticals. Front was consulted to help realize this most minimalist of designs, and to ensure an all-glass building could meet the strict energy efficiency requirements of Switzerland.

Front immediately opted for the highest-efficiency double paned, argon-filled glass panels available, and due to the architect’s requirements sandwiched motorized Venetian blinds between the panes of glass. They then devised a system so that there would be no mullions visible in any of the operable panels. They even went so far as to model the MEP objects to ensure a fitted coordination and adherence to the minimalist design of the building. You can see all of this on their website (did I mention you should check it out?)

This leads to a question: what, exactly, does Front do? Mr. Simmons explained that they don’t consider the firm to be an architectural or engineering one. The staff, however, is comprised of architectural professionals as well as a variety of different types of engineers. Often he positions himself and the firm as a “curtain wall consultant” but only because there’s already a slot in a project’s fee structure for that. This firm serves as a highly technical consulting firm to assist in realizing a client’s designs. If ever there was an example of the re-merging of architectural and engineering professions into a single office, this would be it. However, Front seems content to assist in projects only, making it a rare breed.

Coren Sharples began her portion of the session by responding to some comments made by Mr. Frampton in his Friday night keynote. She agreed with him in that architecture must be grounded in space, light, materials, and context. What she disagreed with was his belief that these premises couldn’t be achieved through the collaborative digital process. It was a polite and reserved response to Frampton’s comments, which were obviously designed to provoke. By responding in such a manner, Ms. Sharples effectively neutralized them, inasmuch as they didn’t even deserve a lengthy retort.

SHoP has identified some major roadblocks to an office adopting a new working method. Management will defend prior technology purchases, and the staff will defend existing skill sets. SHoP’s management has taken a clear and decisive step in declaring the digital workflow to avoid any confusion of the firm’s message. They reinforce this position by working with students from John Nastasi’s students at the Stevens Institute in developing software tools outside of what’s currently available. (I know I promised I’d talk about them. I will.)

The first of two projects shown was SHoP’s Camera Obscura building, located in Mitchell Park in Greenport, Long Island. SHoP’s philosophy of many of their design and building process is exemplified in this work. It was designed entirely via 3d modeling, including mid-construction adjustments due to site discrepancies. The construction process was approached as if the building was a model airplane, packaged as a ready-to-assemble kit of parts. The construction documents were created to be more like a set of assembly instructions than a traditional set of working drawings. What enabled this process was the modeling and digital fabrication via the model. Everything except the slab was manufactured offsite and simply assembled upon its arrival. Traditional 2d drawings were still required on the project for agency review and estimation, but they were irrelevant for construction.

Certainly this isn’t a completely new process. Modeling and fabrication have been the talk of the community for some time. What makes SHoP’s endeavor unique is that they’ve developed a digital design, fabrication, and assembly methodology and successfully applied it to a low-bid public works project. Wow! One point of caution is that by providing the digital files, SHoP inserted themselves into the CM-subcontractor relationship. Doing so required an allocation in their compensation structure, as they assumed more risk.

The second project shown, a residential development in NYC, was SHoP’s pilot project in implementing a parametric design and production workflow. A standard brick panel was deformed by shifting the faces of each of the bricks from what would ordinarily be the front face of the panel. The result is a panel that, in section, undulates like a shallow sine wave. The limits of the material, maximum overhang dimensions, optimal panel sizes, the site, cost, and building and zoning codes were all analyzed and adjusted through the use of modeling, and determined the amplitude of the wave. Ms. Sharples called the parametric modeling of the work “essential” to achieving the end result, as there were dimensional changes to the brick panels that would not have been coordinated without the use of parametrics.

Through the appropriate use of modeling, the “document” (model) also allows for many different types of outputs. For example, changing the panel sizes would affect the dimensions of the panel molds, as well as the actual square footage per apartment. A simple extraction of data from the model yields accurate results.

Ms. Sharples ended by reiterating what others have stated, but it’s worth repeating. The relationship between the exterior wall subcontractor and architect through the entire design process was essential to the project’s success. Again we have an example of two crafts joining early on in the process to create something truly unique.

Howard Ashcraft started his presentation by reminding us all that we can’t lose the passion for design amidst all of the legalities, contractual obligations, limitations, and management issues. He sees that in the future, digital design processes will be a given. The real question is how it will be used.

To manage risk, he continued, one has two choices: to insulate oneself from it by shedding responsibility, or by “owning” it. By assuming the responsibility, it’s giving the architect greater control and hence, less chance for errors, omissions, miscalculations, etc. If you haven’t guessed by the theme of the symposium, he advocates the second choice.

The legal concept of “responsible charge”, said Mr. Ashcraft, kills collaboration. Communication is channeled through very narrow, very specific channels. What is needed is a rebirth of the process, known as “Distributed Design”. As one would expect, a battery of questions arises: what is the “design”? Who is the “designer”? Where is the design? Is it even in a physical location? Who is now in “responsible charge”, and how is that shared? An “we, not I” attitude is required, as intellectual property rights merge, and the designer is drawn into owner/ contractor disputes. The “standard of care” changes, too, as would be expected when “responsible charge” becomes distributed across the team.

Commercial barriers to this workflow include excessive risk with little short term reward. There is no standard business model, either, so few collaborators are available. Implementation is easiest if the “Distributed Design” model is scaled back a bit, i.e., it’s practiced internally by a firm. That limits the benefit, but if there’s nobody around to collaborate with, it can’t hurt the benefit that much.

Mr. Ashcraft spoke a little about the shared design processes currently being shaped in the UK and Australia (see my comments about Kent Larsen’s presentation), and he sees it as a great first step to developing a business model. He ended with this caution: “We’ll all get there, but we should get there with a plan.”

Concluding this session, Phil Bernstein offered some comments. Designers are viewed as people who “think about things” and don’t really make anything. Constructors (his word), are supposed to “make things” and not really think about what they’re making. Eliminating the boundaries that separate the two camps is when “issues arise”, as he so subtly put it.

Construction Management industries are based on the “dotted-line” (non)relationship between the Architect and the Contractor. Front, Bernstein continued, falls on that dotted line. SHoP is also doing its part by “warping” the project delivery paradigm. Firms such as these are demonstrating a growing interest in who has control over the entire process. There’s a fork in the road ahead – do we want to see a future that holds the Architect as an asthete or as one in a position of control? Finally, he ended by proclaiming that reinvention of the business model is critical to the change. Software technology will follow, and should not lead the charge.

To start the Q&A session, Mr. Bernstein posed a “what if” question to the speakers: what if Mr. Prince-Ramus was hit with a lawsuit on the Seattle Public Library? How would the legalities and responsibilities work out? Mr. Ashcraft spoke of the importance of developing a strong client relationship to head off the lawsuit. He advised that an architect call the client immediately to show that she was being proactive and was working to solve the problem that drove the lawsuit. Mr. Simmons advised firing 10% of your clients each year, and more pragmatically, involving your employees in the “ownership” of the design. Doing so increases morale and project quality rises. Ms. Sharples repeated the importance of crisis management, and that when the owner and contractor see your involvement, the crisis becomes much less severe. The overarching response was: be honest. Show you want to fix the problem.

The next question was about “doing the extra work” for the 3d model, and how (if) it was reflected in the architect’s fees. Mr. Prince-Ramus was able to secure a percentage of the General Conditions from the contractor on a particular job, since he was doing the shop drawings in his model, but that’s so often not the case. Ms. Sharples’ firm takes the opposite approach by rolling it into (what she hopes is) a higher overall fee.

From the audience, James Timberlake brought up the role of “the Academy” in the educational process, and if it places the emphasis on individuality and isolation rather than collaboration. Dean Stern defended Yale by describing the design/ build studios and co-op programs. Mr. Prince-Ramus thought that students need to learn the notion of “other” in the design process, namely one who cannot be convinced that the student’s design is the way to go. “Collaborating with like-minded people is easy,” he said. “What you need is denial.”

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Building (in) the Future @ Yale, Part 3

Written by Bob Yori.

Saturday’s sessions began with a series of speakers addressing Information Sharing. William Zahner, from A. Zahner fabricators, Hilary Sample of mos architects and Yale University, Kent Larson from MIT, and Chris Noble, a lawyer from Noble & Wickersham LLP. Cristiano Ceccato from Gehry Technologies provided the response to the presenter’s speeches and led the Q&A session.

Zahner’s company is highly regarded for its ability to build the skin for projects requiring sophisticated metal skins such as Morphosis’ Eugene Courthouse, Herzog & de Meuron’s deYoung Museum, and many of Frank Gehry’s works. He presented several, and talked about how using tools such as Pro Engineer and CATIA enable the models being made to be directly translated into built form.

The deYoung museum was a good example of the Architect and the Builder collaborating early in the project. The desired effect for the metal skin was to mimic the effect of light filtering through trees. Zahner and HdM worked together to develop a series of perforations varying in densities across the façade, enabling the light to filter through selectively.

More pragmatically, his collaboration with Frank O. Gehry Partners in the design of his ‘Pods’ project for the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Mississippi. Apparently, the cost of the steel structure combined with the cost of the metal skin almost cancelled the project. Mr. Zahner’s company worked with Gehry and “took the steel out of the project”, enabling the work to continue. Through their use of model-based collaboration and solutions, re-engineering the metal skin panel structure to also handle the buildings’ structural loads was possible. Unfortunately, the project has yet to be built, as Katrina ravaged the region before construction began.

Hilary Sample then spoke about what an “office” is. She reviewed today’s popular digital technology, and began to reinterpret the office in today’s YouTube/ Google/ Wikipedia/ Flickr world. Using tools such as these enables an ‘office’ to share information on such a scale and at such a speed that it’s truly in sync with today’s “interface culture”. She expands on the Flickr model of following a predefined set of trails (photos), to developing and posting your own via del.icio.us, and establishing your own connections via archinect.

She performed an analysis of SOM’s website and noted that there are very clear divisions between many of the disciplines and sub-disciplines that the firm markets to and contains. Her proposal is, from what I understood, to provide the antithesis of such a website. Interesting that her firm’s name (mos) is an anadrome of SOM. I’m sure it was her grand plan from day one. (disclosure: I work at SOM, in case you forgot)

Mos architects has developed a website that embraces this interactive environment. It encourages more transparent collaboration, and fosters the ability to work from a jobsite or client’s location. It provides access to both the client and contractor and enables communication via all the modern accoutrements of the web, such as image posting, tagging, chatting, and blogging. Project schedules are shared and coordinated, and the entire site is auto-archiving so that the entire process is as automated as possible.

I wish I could provide you with a link to the site to see it, but Archinect, Google, Yahoo, MSN, Altavista, Ask.com, and Lycos turned up nothing. I find it a more than a bit ironic that Ms. Sample’s website of collaboration and interactivity doesn’t turn up as a result on major search engines and wasn’t immediately accessible. Perhaps this is by design? I wonder if, since the client’s projects are so easily accessible on the website, that it’s hidden from general view? It would make sense, but then one gets into the argument about the purpose of a firm’s website. SOM’s website, for example, is meant to be a portal to the casual browser as well as having a link to project specific information that’s protected via login. Wouldn’t that be the same thing as having a website that’s hidden from the general public? I would imagine her ideas about information sharing via the web would be best implemented in that ‘hidden’ mode, accessible by employees, owners, and contractors. It then begins to separate itself from the marketing side of the practice and becomes the ‘digital office’. Of course I could be wrong on all these counts, and the website may still be under construction.

Kent Larsen's comments focused on the pragmatics of making modular fabrication possible, as well as making the client/ owner more interactive in the design process. His presentation began with the statistic that Architects have no real role in 95% of the housing that is built in this country. While this is surely a debatable figure, I’m sure we could all agree that there’s a lot of housing being done out there without direct consultation of an Architect. So how do we fix this problem? (I assume, of course, that there are others besides architects that consider it to be a problem.) Kent argues that speculative development must no longer be a viable option for the builder, and that managers need to take control of the logistics of planning, whether it be urban, suburban, or rural.

Kent’s proposals are refreshing in that they seem so tangible, so easily implemented. He suggests that site information come in the form of digital point data, weather and climactic information, and other site specific data that enables a proper holistic approach to the parcel. In the case of urban environments, each unit would be delivered with a set of critical dimensions outlining location of services, critical dimensions, and the like. It would provide a consistent base of data for anyone to start planning their project.

A “Design Engine” would be crucial to involving the client in the earliest stages of designing their residence. He drew the parallel to the “build your own car” section of many automobile websites, giving Maserati as an example (an excellent choice if I do say so myself). The Design Engine allows the user to design/ configure their spaces. His slides showed what looked like a rigged-up light table that’s configured to respond to user input in the form of rearranging objects on the table’s surface.

Coupled with the Design Engine, there should be a ubiquitous search engine that allows the objects to be sourced immediately, and an iTune-like download process for accessing specifications and components. Builders are then simply assemblers of this “modular, disentangled plan”. Sounds good to me.

Going further, he proposed modular HVAC systems, and called for the need for a universal connection for services within these modular components that are to be snapped together on site. The construction equivalent of a USB port, this connector would allow disparate components from disparate manufacturers and sources to be combined easily. He completes his idea of the process by suggesting an eBay-like process for bidding on the assemblies, and gives Target as an example of a company who does something similar today.

Finally, Chris Noble spoke about the issues involving collaboration and intellectual property rights. He observed that today’s B141/ B151 agreements’ “Ownership of Documents” sections are very much rooted in a paper process in that they distinguish between originals and copies. This is all rooted in copyright law, and assumes that the Architect is the Author.

The fact is that architects are not the full authors of any of the “instruments of service”. And what about the specifications? Have any of you tried to get your spec writer to give you the Word files of their specs for a job? I’ve never had much luck with it. Between the specs, manufacturer data, and consultants contributions to those “instruments of service”, there are many authors. But it’s ignored.

The 1991 Architectural Works Copyright Act was, presumably, passed to protect the built work, not just the documents that define the work. For example, in principle, someone couldn’t duplicate the design of a building; under the Act it would be considered a copyright violation. But again, who actually is the “Owner” of the work? The building’s owner? The architect? The builder? All of this is unclear an open to interpretation/ litigation.

Mr. Noble sees the Federal Copyright Act to continue to be the basis for intellectual property (IP) rights. He also sees a continued dependence on contracts in the US, mainly because of the fragmented nature of the industry. There are many small firms (architects, engineers, consultants, builders) who aggregate themselves for a specific job. Because each of these organizations is separate from the other, what binds them together are the contracts. He also sees the need for tighter and more comprehensive contracts, because, in the future, we will shift from doing one-off projects to prototypes. Lastly, migrating collaboration to the internet will require legal language. The entire audience seemed to groan audibly when he suggested that when logging on to a site such as mos architects, one may have to click through an IP-like “licensing agreement” box, similar to when installing software on one’s computer today.

With that cheerful thought, Cristiano Ceccato presented his extremely brief response to the speakers. From his experience working in a digital environment, he’s seen the relatively new role of “3D Coordinator” rise to prominence, and argues for its centrality.

Diving right in to the Q&A session, his first question was about sharing models from disparate software platforms. With this workflow, there’s a need for translation from one file format to the other. While each player is responsible for the validity of his or her own data, who validates the accuracy of the translator software? Mr. Noble responded by describing the ‘defensive’ nature of the current transmittal structure, and hasn’t seen that the ‘validator’ really has a defined role yet. Mr. Ceccato answered his own question with the observation that Foster’s office shares raw numerical coordinate data and not models.

Adding another tough question, he asked about the vulnerability of data and the hackability of websites, and what could be done to address the potential? Kent Larson gave the most applicable answer, in that he recommended architects look to supply chain management software used in other industries as a model for security. He went on to posit that we don’t have “big players” in our industry, which inhibits rapid adoption of standards. He gave the example of residential window manufactures who haven’t agreed on something as simple as a common insertion point for their CAD blocks. This “big players” comment echoes Mr. Noble’s sentiments about why we’ll continue to depend on contracts.

It’s obvious that Larson has spent considerable time evaluating the logistics of standards implementation. He gives the example of initiatives in the UK and Australia, among others, that have successfully “flattened” the risk factor. I visited www.productioninformation.org just today and am excited to see that standards are emerging, albeit not in the US.

Scott Marble (of Marble Fairbanks) was concerned that managing the 3D model would add extra cost to what is often a fee that’s too low to begin with. Ceccato responded with a brief “no”, explaining that he had worked on some very small 3D projects without any extra expense.

Finally, and I feel it’s important to note the dissenting voice, Bob Gutman (who later gave the symposium’s closing comments) pointed out that he’s seen more than his share of ideas designed to reduce coordination problems between architects and engineers, and so far, they’ve been of limited success. “Anything we can do to get people in the same room will fix the problems,” he said. His point? Technology is not the answer. Communication is.