While talking one evening with an architect friend, he began to sing the labor-shortage blues. Yep, yep, I thought; same song, different troubadour. I started to mention how we’ve covered this pretty extensively in Pro Remodeler and Pro Builder. I understand. Yes, I do.
But then the conversation took a turn. And it wasn’t what you’d expect—it wasn't what I expected.
First, some background. Having cut his architectural teeth at several firms, including a number of years spent working at a well-known firm in the area, this architect went out on his own with a partner about six years ago. As you can imagine, 2010 wasn’t the ideal time to strike out and start a firm, but he did it and the practice has been steadily building year by year, to the point where now it’s going totally gangbusters. The firm has a backlog of well over six months of work and focuses on design excellence, no matter the project. Not interested in being pigeon-holed as having a singular specialty, the firm is keeping it fresh by working on a wide range of projects from single-family residential to multifamily units to restaurants to institutional jobs. And the work keeps coming.
But now my architect friend is looking to add to his existing staff of eight so he can stay on top of all this great work coming in. And this is what’s proving to be the heftiest challenge. “Sure,” he said, “I can get any number of young tech-savvy hotshot designers, but what I desperately need is someone with about 10 to 15 years’ experience who really understands how a building is put together.”
Wisecracks about architects being strong on theory and short on practice aside, I was curious about possible causes … Could it be the prevalence of AutoCAD, I asked? Were architects relying too heavily on the computer in computer-aided design, in effect eroding their understanding of construction by being too removed?
“Computer, yes,” busy architect said. “AutoCAD, no. The culprit is … Revit. Its plug-and-play nature is the issue. You just plug in a window, drop in a door. You’re just assembling pieces, like building with Lego. And when you look at the drawings, the building seems right—lord knows you’ve got all this fancy modeling ability at your fingertips and manufacturer product libraries out the wazoo—but then, when it’s time to build and you see how things actually fit together, it doesn’t quite work.”
Autodesk’s Revit isn’t the only BIM (building information modeling) program out there. And it’s not exactly new, having been released around 2000. But BIM has, for the past few years, increasingly been replacing 2-D CAD as the preferred delivery method for designing and documenting projects.
This got me thinking. From talking with my architect friend, I’d argue that BIM is more than a tool or technology. It’s not just another CAD program because it goes well beyond that—so much so that it’s shaping the process of design itself. Turns out Revit is more like a sea change.
The use of data-driven design and modeling tools presents opportunities and challenges for any design firm’s culture on a variety of levels. One advantage of BIM is that it allows you an earlier understanding of the relationship of all design elements. But I think the point my architect friend is making is that the challenge inherent in using BIM tools to their best effect is that you still need to know how a building actually gets built. Yes, interns and recent grads may know how BIM software works or learn it quickly, but it’s unlikely that they’re as well-versed in how a building’s systems and elements fit together. And using these tools won’t teach them.
So, despite the many advantages of techie tools such as BIM, maybe it’s time to step back and recognize that there are some potential shortcomings to the heavy use of technology in the design process, remembering that technology is a tool not a process in and of itself. To wield the full power of such tools, there first needs to be a solid understanding of design and construction—and you don't simply develop that through your skills at "building" structures in 3-D modeling software. And maybe it’s time for some serious mentoring by the older construction-savvy architects of the younger crew.
Which brings us to where we started: Where are all the mid-level seasoned architects with real building knowledge?