Previous post:

Next post:

Driving the software versus knowing when you’ve reached the destination

by mel starrs on February 8, 2009

in Building Physics

This post is inspired by a conversation I had on Twitter on Sunday afternoon with @dbourbon, @SuButcher and @Revit3D. Yes, I know I bang on about Twitter far too often, but seriously. LOVE it. Revit3D wrote a blog post which I have tried to follow up here.

The conversation started along the lines of debating why some practices (both architectural and engineering) were failing to use 3D software. Is it fear of the unknown? Is it the pain of learning something new?

I have a theory based on my own experience of the timeline of engineering software over the past 10-20 years.

  • Firstly, I believe 2D CAD was a red herring of sorts. 2D CAD was not a design tool (architects might argue that it is, but I define a design tool as something with some kind of calculation engine in there somewhere). It was (and is) a drafting tool. Engineers and architects who were used to the old skool way of drafting a sketch to be worked up on paper by draughtspersons, used the same way of working when 2D CAD was introduced. An experienced engineer’s time was too valuable to be wasted learning new IT skills, and so , in general, they didn’t.
  • Those who were young and inexperienced were sometimes given the time to experiment with CAD (my brain is still hard wired to AutoCAD LT 98 – I get very frustrated when Google SketchUp doesn’t have the same buttons in the same places). But still, was not a design tool.
  • Some engineering tools, such as Hevacomp and Cymap, started to introduce 2D design tools – the ability to draw a line on screen, define for instance, air volumes, and come up with ductwork sizing and fan sizing calculations. A fantastic time saver, especially if there are a number of redesigns. However, many steered away from this and still used good old paper and pen mark-up with a ductulator to hand. Because, if you had to mark up the sketch anyway to give to the CAD technician, what was the point of doing it on screen? (are you beginning to see what happened here?)
  • About the same time (early nineties) we had the last recesssion. Many of the Gen X engineers who might otherwise have become IT savvy dropped out and the hole can still be seen in the data.
  • The next iteration was IES and TAS. But a strange thing happened. Who was supposed to use these tools? They were first and foremost design tools, but they looked a bit like CAD. So, the young (cheap) inexperienced engineers were encouraged to go off and teach themselves how to use the software. Nothing wrong with this, persay.

However, in effect I would argue we ended up with one group who could drive the software, but didn’t know what the destination was supposed to look like, and another group who saw a black box of tricks which spewed out the wrong answers (their experience often trumped the output from the software, which inadvertently was suffering from ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ syndrome as the ‘drivers’ didn’t always understand where they supposed to be going).

Now this is a massive generalisation, and there were some practices who embraced the technology head-on. However, I also still know some practices who swear by ductulators, paper and pen, so not everyone is moving at the same speed here.

As Gen Y move into the industry, their expectations are for 3D tools which do everything from the one ‘box’. It’s a natural expectation and indeed the way that BIM is moving.It’s a little like the leapfrog effect one sometimes sees in technologies in the developing world, where for example, the mass ownership of landlines is eclipsed by the use of mobile phones.

But how do we deal with the gap between those who “get” BIM and those who, either consciously or unconsciously, have got left behind? I don’t know the answer to that one, although I do believe in leading by example.

Any thoughts – please leave a comment either here or over at Revit3D’s blog.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
  • http://texas-sustainability.blogspot.com David Bourbon

    I think some of the conflict is in process and expectations. Tools are tools. I have worked with several interns who thought to some extent that the software would do the thinking and make decisions for them. In architecture, there is always some tension between design and feasibility. In the Design Development phase, one tried to make the design functional while maintaining the intent. Much of the magic and elegance of architecture lies in resolving that tension, as simply as possible. We still need a driver and a navigator. It takes teamwork. How the team communicates is critical, and we must listen to each other and learn from each other to get where we want to go.

  • http://texas-sustainability.blogspot.com David Bourbon

    I think some of the conflict is in process and expectations. Tools are tools. I have worked with several interns who thought to some extent that the software would do the thinking and make decisions for them. In architecture, there is always some tension between design and feasibility. In the Design Development phase, one tried to make the design functional while maintaining the intent. Much of the magic and elegance of architecture lies in resolving that tension, as simply as possible. We still need a driver and a navigator. It takes teamwork. How the team communicates is critical, and we must listen to each other and learn from each other to get where we want to go.

  • http://www.oneplanetequation.wordpress.com Derek Deighton

    This post illustrates two fundamental points

    There is no destination, we are on a journey of continual improvement, building towards sustainability

    This journey is made immeasurably more complex by the need to remain competent in the software and the improving knowledge of technology, passive design and the organizational skills to realise and maintain design intent over the life-cycle of the building(s).

    The possibility of these abilities being embodied in one person is remote, so the answer lies in teamwork and synergy, driven by the power of the ‘Virtuous Circle’ http://trailblazerbusinessfutures.wordpress.com/2009/01/29/the-virtuous-circle/

  • http://www.oneplanetequation.wordpress.com Derek Deighton

    This post illustrates two fundamental points

    There is no destination, we are on a journey of continual improvement, building towards sustainability

    This journey is made immeasurably more complex by the need to remain competent in the software and the improving knowledge of technology, passive design and the organizational skills to realise and maintain design intent over the life-cycle of the building(s).

    The possibility of these abilities being embodied in one person is remote, so the answer lies in teamwork and synergy, driven by the power of the ‘Virtuous Circle’ http://trailblazerbusinessfutures.wordpress.com/2009/01/29/the-virtuous-circle/

  • http://www.extranetevolution.com Paul Wilkinson

    Good post, Mel. I also saw the initial impact of 2D CAD in the late 1980s dissipated by the ensuing recession so that the supposed productivity gains were never fully realised. Early adopter technicians and engineers were often the ones who were made redundant as their overheads were higher and their project contributions allegedly lower than their drafting-only colleagues.

    This makes me all the more worried today. We have another software revolution on our doorstep (BIM) and another, even deeper recession. Already, major consultants are laying off dozens, even hundreds of staff. Will this recession mean that moves towards widespread BIM adoption stall?

  • http://www.extranetevolution.com Paul Wilkinson

    Good post, Mel. I also saw the initial impact of 2D CAD in the late 1980s dissipated by the ensuing recession so that the supposed productivity gains were never fully realised. Early adopter technicians and engineers were often the ones who were made redundant as their overheads were higher and their project contributions allegedly lower than their drafting-only colleagues.

    This makes me all the more worried today. We have another software revolution on our doorstep (BIM) and another, even deeper recession. Already, major consultants are laying off dozens, even hundreds of staff. Will this recession mean that moves towards widespread BIM adoption stall?

  • http://www.sudobe.com/sudobe-blog/ Chris Tweed

    Recessions do blow holes in the available knowledge and skills within the most deeply affected professions and trades. They also persuade a lot of parents that their children should not be studying anything at university leading to a career in the construction industry!

    I was involved in developing CAD tools back in the 1980s and have carried studies of their use in practice since then. One reason why architects did not adopt 3d design tools was that clients were not willing to pay for the time needed to use these tools. Another reason was that they were simply not as good as traditional tools. That is still the case for some general office tasks–see this article.

    There was a 3d CAD programme called ModelShop which was a ‘quick and dirty’ modeller, ideal for exploring massing models at an early stage of design. It was only available on Mac’s and eventually disappeared. SketchUp offers a similar experience.

    Architects tend to shy away from mathematical modelling tools, but this has changed with the development of Ecotect and the Carbon Mixer and may be further advanced by the development of Climate Lite. And yes, I have an interest in the latter.

  • http://www.sudobe.com/sudobe-blog/ Chris Tweed

    Recessions do blow holes in the available knowledge and skills within the most deeply affected professions and trades. They also persuade a lot of parents that their children should not be studying anything at university leading to a career in the construction industry!

    I was involved in developing CAD tools back in the 1980s and have carried studies of their use in practice since then. One reason why architects did not adopt 3d design tools was that clients were not willing to pay for the time needed to use these tools. Another reason was that they were simply not as good as traditional tools. That is still the case for some general office tasks–see this article.

    There was a 3d CAD programme called ModelShop which was a ‘quick and dirty’ modeller, ideal for exploring massing models at an early stage of design. It was only available on Mac’s and eventually disappeared. SketchUp offers a similar experience.

    Architects tend to shy away from mathematical modelling tools, but this has changed with the development of Ecotect and the Carbon Mixer and may be further advanced by the development of Climate Lite. And yes, I have an interest in the latter.

  • http://building.jjholloway.com/ James Holloway

    This is really interesting. I’ve been thinking about software systems for creating cross-discipline 3D building models for some time. However, 2D plans are definitely sufficient for building wonderful architecture. History demonstrates this. 2D CAD is a facilitator for the production of such plans, and it is an excellent tool. Services engineering is perhaps the only industry I’m aware of where CAD is misused industry-wide, as you describe. But 2D CAD is a design tool for industrial designers, architects, the manufacturing industry and other branches of engineering. The resistance to the proper use of CAD is something I’ve long tried to understand.

    When you say that an engineer’s time is too value to learn 2D CAD, that has to be offset against the fact that you are adding many iterations to the design process by bringing dedicated drafts-people into the process. Except in the case of engineers approaching retirement, I believe it is a false economy to prevent engineers using CAD, for the simple reason that in the vast majority of cases it is faster to produce a drawing this way. Many engineers have taken it upon themselves to learn CAD, and swear blind that they are more effective designers when given access to this powerful design tool. In my case, producing architectural lighting designs, I am able to visualise and test many different arrangements on CAD that would be impossible in the same time on paper. This is unquestionably design. I wouldn’t work for a practice that prevented me from using CAD, and there are services engineers of all disciplines who feel equally stifled as designers when deprived of CAD. Indeed, such engineers are highly valued by practices in my experience. When deadlines press, and engineers-don’t-do-CAD policies evaporate, it’s often these guys that deliver projects on time, and save money at the design stage.

    I think it’s helpful to think about engineers and drafts-people being on a design continuum. The unthinking draftsperson that merely produces CAD facsimiles of engineering mark-ups is at one end of the scale, (and should be an anachronism, but unfortunately is not). Services engineers will tell lamenting tales of the excellent draftsperson in their previous practice who could CAD drawings with minimal guidance and carry out full services coordination unguided. They may not be engineers, but they carry out engineering design using CAD, though unfortunately they’re a rare breed. Draftsperson is a term that needs to be reintroduced. The CAD operator mindset is often a can’t-do one, refusing to learn new software. Instead, as buildings drafts-people, they should be continually learning and providing valuable design skills and input.

    2D CAD is a powerful design tool, so long as it’s in the hands of the designer, in this case the engineer. The calculation software out there, if it is a design tool, is a design tool in a risky sense. There’s a danger that such software can be used unthinkingly, it’s outputs trusted without proper scrutiny of the inputs given and the processes its using. There is a danger that they become the domain of the graduate engineer, computer literate, but inexperienced, and who doesn’t necessarily understand the engineer implications of his inputs, or the computer’s outputs. He might be overseen by a senior engineer or technical director shy of the software, and relying on the interpretations of the graduate at hand. This is an exaggeration, perhaps. My point is merely that such packages are open to misuse in ‘undesign’ just as much as 2D CAD is.

  • http://building.jjholloway.com/ James Holloway

    This is really interesting. I’ve been thinking about software systems for creating cross-discipline 3D building models for some time. However, 2D plans are definitely sufficient for building wonderful architecture. History demonstrates this. 2D CAD is a facilitator for the production of such plans, and it is an excellent tool. Services engineering is perhaps the only industry I’m aware of where CAD is misused industry-wide, as you describe. But 2D CAD is a design tool for industrial designers, architects, the manufacturing industry and other branches of engineering. The resistance to the proper use of CAD is something I’ve long tried to understand.

    When you say that an engineer’s time is too value to learn 2D CAD, that has to be offset against the fact that you are adding many iterations to the design process by bringing dedicated drafts-people into the process. Except in the case of engineers approaching retirement, I believe it is a false economy to prevent engineers using CAD, for the simple reason that in the vast majority of cases it is faster to produce a drawing this way. Many engineers have taken it upon themselves to learn CAD, and swear blind that they are more effective designers when given access to this powerful design tool. In my case, producing architectural lighting designs, I am able to visualise and test many different arrangements on CAD that would be impossible in the same time on paper. This is unquestionably design. I wouldn’t work for a practice that prevented me from using CAD, and there are services engineers of all disciplines who feel equally stifled as designers when deprived of CAD. Indeed, such engineers are highly valued by practices in my experience. When deadlines press, and engineers-don’t-do-CAD policies evaporate, it’s often these guys that deliver projects on time, and save money at the design stage.

    I think it’s helpful to think about engineers and drafts-people being on a design continuum. The unthinking draftsperson that merely produces CAD facsimiles of engineering mark-ups is at one end of the scale, (and should be an anachronism, but unfortunately is not). Services engineers will tell lamenting tales of the excellent draftsperson in their previous practice who could CAD drawings with minimal guidance and carry out full services coordination unguided. They may not be engineers, but they carry out engineering design using CAD, though unfortunately they’re a rare breed. Draftsperson is a term that needs to be reintroduced. The CAD operator mindset is often a can’t-do one, refusing to learn new software. Instead, as buildings drafts-people, they should be continually learning and providing valuable design skills and input.

    2D CAD is a powerful design tool, so long as it’s in the hands of the designer, in this case the engineer. The calculation software out there, if it is a design tool, is a design tool in a risky sense. There’s a danger that such software can be used unthinkingly, it’s outputs trusted without proper scrutiny of the inputs given and the processes its using. There is a danger that they become the domain of the graduate engineer, computer literate, but inexperienced, and who doesn’t necessarily understand the engineer implications of his inputs, or the computer’s outputs. He might be overseen by a senior engineer or technical director shy of the software, and relying on the interpretations of the graduate at hand. This is an exaggeration, perhaps. My point is merely that such packages are open to misuse in ‘undesign’ just as much as 2D CAD is.

  • http://www.zed-uk.com Paul Carey

    James makes an interesting point about draughts people. There is a very wide gap between the CAD monkey that sits and just replicates what you’ve probably drawn by hand. In the past, when I was doing my apprenticeship, these people were called “Tracers” as they did exactly that (well more or less). A draughtsperson however, normally can add value to the whole process.

    As Mel knows, I was one of the band of early users of tools such as IES and alike. Most of us I think have pretty much much been pigeon-holed as Building Physicists. A terms I’m fairly comfortable with as after all that was my research area for my PhD. I have always had a slight area of discomfort about “dumbing down” some of the tools though. Whilst I accept that it is important that widespread adoption of 3d modelling and tools like this is good, it is also clear that this can lead to poor design or abuse of the tools. You only have to look at the recent copy of CIBSE Journal regarding School Design or think about the state of affairs that has been allowed to happen with hairdressers and alike using such tools to produce EPCs. Perhaps it’s being slightly protectionist on my part, but then like Mel I consider myself a professional in this field.

    One thing that I have always found strange when giving training though is why on earth just the young engineers are trained up. I’ve only come across it once where I also trained a board director on the same software. He did it so he could understand what his bright new people could actually do with the software. So often is it the case that the people that are checking the work can’t actually drive the software. It is quite often difficult to check just inputs and outputs without understanding what’s been done in between.

    Sorry first time at this, did I go a bit off target then?

  • http://www.zed-uk.com Paul Carey

    James makes an interesting point about draughts people. There is a very wide gap between the CAD monkey that sits and just replicates what you’ve probably drawn by hand. In the past, when I was doing my apprenticeship, these people were called “Tracers” as they did exactly that (well more or less). A draughtsperson however, normally can add value to the whole process.

    As Mel knows, I was one of the band of early users of tools such as IES and alike. Most of us I think have pretty much much been pigeon-holed as Building Physicists. A terms I’m fairly comfortable with as after all that was my research area for my PhD. I have always had a slight area of discomfort about “dumbing down” some of the tools though. Whilst I accept that it is important that widespread adoption of 3d modelling and tools like this is good, it is also clear that this can lead to poor design or abuse of the tools. You only have to look at the recent copy of CIBSE Journal regarding School Design or think about the state of affairs that has been allowed to happen with hairdressers and alike using such tools to produce EPCs. Perhaps it’s being slightly protectionist on my part, but then like Mel I consider myself a professional in this field.

    One thing that I have always found strange when giving training though is why on earth just the young engineers are trained up. I’ve only come across it once where I also trained a board director on the same software. He did it so he could understand what his bright new people could actually do with the software. So often is it the case that the people that are checking the work can’t actually drive the software. It is quite often difficult to check just inputs and outputs without understanding what’s been done in between.

    Sorry first time at this, did I go a bit off target then?

  • http://www.justpractising.com Su Butcher

    I came across this post again when looking for something else – funnily enough due to a conversation yesterday on Twitter about BIM!

    To me all of the problem is culture, not technology. We get the technological solutions that we deserve, and they often reflect the cultural makeup of our organisations.

    The problems you are describing affect any type of professional business – succession, competition, favouritism, failure to take a strategic view, lack of awareness of sources of profitability, resistance to change, fear of failure. All very human problems.

    The tools chosen, when and how they are chosen, whether they are bound to succeed or fail, are all determined by the relationships between different types of people in the organisation. Over the last two years I’ve heard so many stories of practices failing, not through the failure to adopt a new technology as Gregory Arkin (@REVIT3D) argues, but through the failure to take an honest, regular look at what is really going on in the business, where it has to go to succeed, where its future lies, and who is going to take it there.