By Charlie Williams, AIA, Chip Marasco, and Nick Kramer
How a culture of collaboration between design and technology teams maximizes software and hardware results
Technology is often seen as a disruptive force that affects virtually every aspect of our professional and personal lives. Time and time again, we’ve witnessed technology transform a business model and impose new rules with lower margins. It is essential for architects to view technology as an inspirational instrument as opposed to a support device.
Like any software or hardware, a tool sitting on a workbench is useless until it’s placed in the hands of a craftsman who can leverage the tool to create amazing objects. Inspired by a great idea, a good craftsman can make even the crudest tool work in their favor. However, when the craftsman is paired with a tool that is innovative and accessible, the tool itself can inspire the process of creation instead of simply supporting it. In that partnership between craftsman and manufacturer of that innovative and accessible tool, lies the answer to staying relevant in a changing landscape imposed by technology.
Technologists like BIM managers, digital practice directors, and CIOs are constantly evaluating transformative technologies. Tradition often dictates that one’s initial reaction to new technology is defensive. To be a good steward of your firm, it’s important to consider how to mitigate risks, while maintaining a forward-looking practice.
However, to minimize the disruption and maximize the benefits of new technologies, technologists may find greater benefit in partnering with designers to take a more offensive position. In a true symbiotic partnership, the technologist and designer can advance the likelihood that technology choices will inspire the design process and sustain a firm’s future.
Starting with evaluation
But what does a successful partnership between a technologist and designer look like? In 2015, LPA, Inc. started to investigate this by evaluating the performance of computers within the firm. In terms of need, most designers rank speed first, stability second, and price last because they have a design that needs to be realized and a deadline to be met. The technologist, on the other hand, values stability first, price second, and speed last because they must support and supply the entire company. Because the technologist usually makes purchases, speed is sacrificed for stability and an opportunity to produce transformative work faster may be lost.
In the interest of inspiring the design process, LPA approached the evaluation of computers by partnering technologist and designers to find a better computer. Members of LPA’s technology team and designers from the firm collaborated on evaluating six different computer manufacturers with more than 10 configurations to determine which computer would advance the design process while maintaining appropriate service levels.
Together, it was determined that the real-time visualization requirements of Revit and virtual reality (VR) necessitated a different class of workstation. Like many firms, LPA utilized workstations based on Intel Xeon CPUs and NVIDIA Quadro GPUs. Although these systems were relatively stable and performed well for standard workloads, they could not keep up with current trends such as using video game engines to render 3D and VR models. By migrating to workstations with Intel i7 6700K CPUs and NVIDIA GeForce 1080 GPUs, LPA balanced the needs of designers and technologists to provide a PC that performs 25 percent faster with only a five percent cost increase. Thanks to improvements in the gaming-class components, these performance improvements were realized without sacrificing stability or supportability.
After that initial exercise, LPA recognized more advanced technologies that contribute to evidence-based design solutions will be essential for the continued evolution of the firm. They will inform the design process rather than simply validate decisions. LPA created another collaborative of technologists and designers tasked with finding and implementing new tools based in iterative and generative design principles. Through a series of interviews and evaluations, LPA chose Sefaira for SketchUp, Insight 360 for Revit, and the Ladybug and Honeybee add-ins for Rhino.
Implementing as a team
To implement these tools, designers and internal technologists partnered to develop a design solution. In a series of workshops facilitated by the technology team, designers demonstrated the functionality of the tools and the technology team demonstrated the benefits for staff. Industry experts outside of LPA were also brought in to provide deeper levels of education and project-based evaluation. Having decision makers and users at the table to introduce the technology meant quicker buy-in from all, and advanced how quickly significant results were obtained. For example, LPA is now able to conduct deeper conceptual energy analysis, which allows architects to include it early in the design process rather relying on engineers to solve compliance issues after decisions are made.
While traditional means of evaluating technology have served architects well thus far, they are not the means that will propel firms into the future. LPA found that relationships are deepened when they are mutually beneficial. The firm’s strides in technology would not have been as successful if a culture of collaboration and partnership was not embraced.
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Associate principal Charlie Williams, AIA, and Inspire Design co-directors Chip Marasco and Nick Kramer, are dedicated to inspiring the design process through technology for the California-based integrated design firm LPA, Inc.
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