Architecture and the Cycle of Life

Architecture and the Cycle of Life

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Architecture and the Cycle of Life

The environment of architecture firms has undergone significant transformation over the last four decades. Our profession is no stranger to cyclical tendencies and has seen a fluctuation of personnel as a result of demand through economic factors.

Just as the employee demographic has shifted, the interior landscape within the office today is also almost unrecognizable compared to photos from the late 1970s. Smoke-filled rooms lined with drafting tables and metal stools have morphed into efficient office spaces carefully monitored for indoor air quality and outfitted with work stations composed of desktop computers and ergonomically designed chairs. Job captains used to monitor a young drafter by closely lurking over his shoulder towards a drawing taped down on a table. Today, a project architect simply engages in informal educational conversations with young interns.

Young professionals are being presented with more interesting and challenging responsibilities and even the architects’ wardrobe has been renovated. Gone are the days when we were afraid to wear white dress shirts to the office, fearful of the dry cleaning bill due to lead- and ink-stained sleeves. The Steve Jobs era ushered in casual Friday’s and jeans with blazers.

Perhaps the most notable and obvious change, however, has been the technological advancements with which we cultivate ideas and create documentation. Advent of the computer has single-handedly reinvented the face of our profession. In 1980, drawings were created similarly to how they had been for decades: first by hand on vellum, then mylar with ink, and next plastic lead.  An architect’s touch required an acute sense of stroke pressure to produce a distinct line quality, a skill honed over many years. The drawer was always cognizant of time needed to erase and redraw. The pin bar allowed a series of drawings to be stacked, cutting down on drawing time and allowing for a separation between drawing elements (such as structure, MEP, notations, etc.). AutoCAD, Revit, and similar programs have taken drawings off the table and out of sight.

Efficiency: At What Cost?

Technology has brought in an unprecedented rise in efficiency: The lengthy process of printing by diazo is now completed in a fraction of the time and cost by laser and inkjet printers.  Interestingly, our new efficiency has resulted in larger set sizes, not smaller ones. One example is that of the old Parkland Hospital. The original drawings circa 1915 had 15 sheets; the 1921 addition was 30 sheets; the 1931 addition was 80 including structural, MEP, and architectural. Current drawing sets can now contain upwards of 300 sheets and it appears that the quarter rule is no longer in effect.

Project manuals and specifications have grown similarly and we can attribute these changes to our ease of drawing representation and our own desire for protection in an increasingly litigious society. Our language has even evolved: from terms such as slide library to the ubiquitous “photos folder” and from carbon copy to Ctl + C.

Architecture's close relationship with technological advancement has also come with its share of cross-pollination of cultural phenomenon into our profession. The “copy and paste” functions are a perfect example of this paradigm shift. While extraordinarily efficient, we might be on the verge of losing precious knowledge with their ease of use.

The copy and paste topic as it relates to architecture is not a new one. For years we’ve been copying details. Before keyboard shortcuts, offices had sets of standard details, usually in three-ring binders. Details were incorporated into drawings by tracing or later by Xerox onto sticky-back film. With the time inherent in these transferring methods, however, the drafter was still afforded the opportunity to think about applicable aspects from old to new projects.

Fast forward 40 years and we can now produce buildings with unparalleled efficiency through replication. A single copy and paste occurs in under one second. Will there be unwelcome side effects to this ease of reproduction? Lurking quietly, thoughtlessness can prevail without notice. In programs such as AutoCAD, details are simply static images to someone untrained in construction or the brain-to-hand connection formulated through years of manual drafting.

As a colleague points out: “It’s easier to fool yourself into thinking that something is figured out or that a drawing is complete when working on a computer. Drawing by hand requires you to think about what the lines actually mean in a different way.”

The Drag/Drop Dilemma

Compounding the dilemma is today’s aggressive production schedule. We have made it too easy to drag and drop without thinking through decisions, expediting the growing trend of copying without the opportunity to derive. The new cultural norm pushes for immediate results and flawless efficiency most apparent through the popularity of Twitter and its instantaneous feedback in 140 characters or less.

 Here we are at the next critical juncture in our profession as 3D printing and perhaps virtual reality are poised to dominate the industry in the near future. These advantageous technologies offer architects unprecedented fabrication options and complete freedom in developing complex forms, but they add an additional veil between the architect and project. What are we loosing or gaining as theses tools are increasingly integrated into the profession? It’s up to us to navigate through the decades as our roles inevitably transform with these changes.

Our industry is in constant motion. The only absolute is change itself. In this way, it’s comforting that our profession still follows cyclical trends so deeply analogous to the natural world. However small our role may seem, we must play our part to bring advancement to the world and future generations. With the majority of my career ahead of me I can only think of one thing to counter the dauntingly provocative, yet unknown, future of the profession ahead. As Lewis Carroll so aptly said, “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.”


Lindsay Brisko, Assoc. AIA, is a project coordinator at Good Fulton & Farrell Architects.

The author extends a special thanks to Jon Rollins, Steve Hauk, Tammy Chambless, Lawrence Cosby, Jeff Good, and Joe Patti for their contributions.