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Design Tools: The Computer Revolution & The Simulated Architect (part 1/3)

The title of this post may lead you to expect a thrilling sci-fi adventure, but in reality, it's about something even more exciting: how computers have revolutionized the world of architecture and design. From traditional architects to new modes of practice like Experientially Focused Architects, professionals who rely on the construct of spaces are experiencing a dramatic shift in their industry. In this post, we will explore how the advent of computers has fundamentally altered the way architecture is created, depicted, and even conceived.


This post on Design Tools (in three parts) will dive into: how the computer affects the creation of architecture today and the act of designing, how architecture/design is depicted in "renders" and visualizations, and the future of creating architecture.

The Act of Creating Designs in the Computer Age:

Design using computers began simply as a way to automate drafting. Drafting was time consuming and changes to designs necessitated many hours of re-drawing. Likewise, the repetition of design elements was needlessly time consuming. The first versions of Computer Aided Design (CAD) software allowed a designer to type in coordinates to draw lines and shapes. While this was more time-consuming than just drawing a line, it was much easier to copy and paste design elements already drawn and edit existing work without full re-draws. Quickly the software moved beyond the clunky input systems and let designers click and drag a line giving it inputs like length, radius, or other data. This system of computer drawing coupled with easy copying/pasting similar elements (like columns or windows), quick editing of the digital file, and large format printing gave designers a fast way to produce architectural designs.

This speed of drawing/editing led to one of first major changes to the profession in decades ("change" here is not stylistic like a movement - Modern, Post Modern, or Neo-Classic- it is explored as fundamental to the way architecture building information is shared). For the first time architects could create designs quicker and show many more iterations and options to a client. If changes were needed, the digital file was much more easily changed and simply re-printed. This also meant Architects and designers did not need to be slim with how they conveyed the information. They could show as many details as they wanted such as, full elevations, reflected ceiling plans, landscape plans, details at multiple location, etc. Construction document sets ballooned. Construction document (for commercial buildings) sets today easily exceed hundreds of pages for design, hundreds for plumbing, for HVAC, Electrical, Life Safety, Engineering, etc.

The latest CAD software, called BIM short for Building Information Modeling, have moved beyond re-creating hand drafting where the architect makes a floor plan, then draws an elevation, then draws a section, then draws a detail. Granted this system offered easy editing but was mimicking the order of operations that one might take when using a pencil and paper. With the expectation that ballooning construction documents show every detail and every bit of the process (and that Architects, Engineers and Contractors are in a world built on litigation), even basic CAD systems were not enough. They did not show enough detail - details build around mitigating fault if something should fail and a lawsuit occurs. These details showing things down to the level of nail patterns, mortar thickness and grout lines.

Today, software allows the architect and designer to create 3D model or virtual building where these types of drawings like floor plan, elevation, section, etc. are automatically generated.

This system makes the task of capturing information about a building even more efficient, in that the designer does not have to make a digital edit more than once - for example, if a room gets bigger the designer used to have to update the plan, the elevations, and the section drawing- essentially making the change several times. Now, if the room must get bigger the designer updates the model and those same drawings are automatically updated. In addition to the act of drafting being streamlined, information related to materials, price, fastening methods, etc. can be associated with the virtual 3D model.

More on 3D renderings in the next post -->

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