Bypassing Architects? Confronting Change in the Information Age

By Mark Dietrick, AIA, LEED AP Posted on July 18, 2012

Mark Dietrick, AIASeveral weeks ago, the New York Times published an article that highlighted computer programs that can help owners bypass architects and questioned the wisdom of such an approach.  While our first reaction as architects to this concept and many of the ideas represented in the article is likely absolute abhorrence — architecture is a process that only trained architects may orchestrate — I have spent the last couple of weeks pondering what we can learn from this story and generally what it might mean to be an architect in the information age that is radically transforming our world.

Most importantly, I don’t think we can simply ignore it and pass it off as just a small percentage of “DIYers” and therefore not a serious trend.  Sure, it may be a small faction now that want to get involved in designing via CAD software; but we just need to look at other industries to see how information technology can quickly change the way the average person may actively participate in processes that they were once separated from and understand that we are just at the very beginning of serious change.  As a recent article published by MIT called “Automate or Perish” points out, “Now a combination of growing computing power and advances in data crunching mean automation is primed to threaten not just tax preparers and travel agents but higher-rung jobs such as those in the medical and legal professions, where software can increasingly do things like analyze images and understand speech more accurately and in more contexts than ever before”.

The ease of creating, accessing, and analyzing data naturally draws the lay person into the process they otherwise had only a peripheral role in because,  as the New York Times article points out, they feel that they are more connected to and in control of the process if they are actively involved.  However, the important part of engaging the lay person in the process is to assure that the data they are accessing and creating is well structured and meaningful (information).  Once data is structured and becomes information, knowledge may be applied to automate processes and analyze scenarios.

As an example, for many years there has been a vast amount of medical data available on the internet in so many forms that it was pretty much relegated as meaningless and not reliable. Then, trusted web portals came to be that structured the data into meaningful information by leveraging the knowledge of medical professionals. The combination of well-structured information along with knowledge can produce tools that effectively engage a lay person in a meaningful analytical process as in a “medical diagnosis wizard”. I recently had a medical issue where I used such a tool. While I also sought medical counsel, I was much better informed and felt empowered to have a more meaningful interaction with my doctor, which made for a more efficient and enlightened process.

The New York Times article highlights owner involvement in the residential design process by using simplified CAD modeling tools.  While this might allow for the creation of information that effectively clarifies the owner’s intent on form and space, as the article points out it has the potential to lock them in on an architectural solution before important functional and performance characteristics are defined.

Even without owners producing a CAD model themselves, you might contend that architects rush too quickly to an architectural solution prior to adequately defining the functional and performance characteristics of a project through their use of technology. Building Information Modeling (BIM) promises to provide more meaningful information to support better-informed decision making related to the function and performance of a project. However, constructing BIMs early in the design process can be time consuming and may not be the most fluid tool to enable rapid iteration and support the types of decisions that need to be made early on.

A new type of “functional information modeling” is beginning to emerge that is geared toward intelligently defining the functional and performance characteristics of a project quickly and iteratively without requiring the construction of time consuming BIMs very early in the design process when the cost of exploring decisions is low and the impact is at its highest.  Much like the “medical diagnosis wizard”, functional information modeling leverages structured information and professional knowledge embedded in a tool that provides space program, life-cycle cost, building performance standards, etc. based on the owner’s requirements.  This type of tool will support real-time exploration of alternatives that will allow one to investigate many iterations of function, performance and quality in an attempt to assure that the optimal balance of factors are achieved prior to beginning the architectural form exploration process.  Armed with meaningful information that has completely defined the critical project characteristics, the architect may efficiently and confidently offer creative architectural solutions knowing that they will be guided by solid information.

A good example of such a tool is currently being developed by the National Institute of Building Sciences for the Department of Homeland Security; the “Owners Performance Requirements” (OPR) tool.  An early BETA version of the OPR Tool enables the user to examine multiple building enclosure configurations and performance standards in order to optimize energy efficiency, cost-benefit, and several other building attributes in real-time using a web-based “wizard”. This specific application also examines the interactions between energy performance, durability (service life) and a variety of natural and man-produced hazards and facilitates comparative analysis of multiple schemes.   What powers this tool is well structured, standardized information and the embedded knowledge of experienced industry professionals and I believe, may most effectively engage an owner in a meaningful process.  This is but one example of applications that are being developed that seek to leverage information and extend industry knowledge; given the creative capacity of architects, I can only imagine all of the incredible ways this might develop as long as we realize that our process will change and we embrace and help define that change.

The increasing rate at which data is being mined, accessed, and analyzed is staggering.  Where this will ultimately lead our industry is hard to predict, but it is logical to think that our process will be much more structured as a result and in fact we may begin to think more about the production and performance of the building as a “customized product”.  A very interesting article published on Forbes.com entitled “The Big Data Gold Rush” speculates that “…the capture and processing of all of this data may very well enable us for the first time in history to create true mass customization of products and services – i.e. customized clothing, shelter, entertainment, work and healthcare for every individual.”

How are you thinking about the “Big Data Gold Rush”, engaging your clients in technological processes, and leveraging your knowledge and creativity beyond each individual project?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Read Mark’s previous Viewpoint here.

Photo credit: Anna Lee-Fields

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5 Responses to Bypassing Architects? Confronting Change in the Information Age

  1. here’s a wonderful unexpected consequence of all that data flowing around. i recently asked my doctor about a medication i was taking and whether it might be impacting my short term memory because an article i had read on-line mentioned that this was a possible side effect of the medication. my subsequent application for long term care insurance was rejected because of the doctor’s notes in my file about “my concerns about memory loss” . the insurance company extrapolated from this that i would be a risk for alzheimer’s and would not find me an acceptable risk. “data” cuts in many ways, usually not in the way you want.

  2. I found this to be a wonderfully insightful perspective. At an age where a multitude of people have ever increasing access to the same tools, data, and synthesizing software; it is the “wisdom” to recognize how clients and architectural practices can harness these technologies that will dictate future success. This global evolution is both a threat and an opportunity. And it appears to be inevitable…

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