Topic Number: 195
Today's Research, Tomorrow's
By: B.J. Novitski
Date: 1 . 24 May 2000
www. Architecture week .com/ articles .html
shady emad abbas al- shorbagy >
There is a crystal ball that can show us
the future of architectural software. It
depends not on gimmickry but on the
fact that tomorrow's technology goes
through years, sometimes decades, of
development before it becomes
All over the world, architecture
professors and their graduate students
are engaged in innovative research.
For many, the goal is to produce
inspiring design tools, such as those
that make 3D modeling more intuitive,
in contrast to the pedestrian
production tools offered by most
commercial software developers. For
others, the goal is to improve the
integration between applications,
promising efficiency benefits to the
entire construction industry.
One example of research-turned-
product is the conceptual modeler
DesignWorkshop, from Artifice Inc.,
which architect Kevin Matthews began
as a master's thesis at the University
of California, Berkeley and further
developed while teaching at the
University of Oregon.
Another example is the rendering
software Lightscape, with roots in
Cornell University's Program of
Computer Graphics, headed by
professor Donald Greenberg.
Countless other pieces of commercial
software have their theoretical or
computational origins in the volumes of
academic journals from the last
Unfortunately, it takes more than a good academic idea to make a
marketable product. According to Matthews, the obstacles are
both technical and institutional. In academia, he says, a narrowly
focused solution is acceptable as a proof of concept. Direct
interaction between researchers and users can make manuals and
technical support less necessary.
"But to succeed in the marketplace," Matthews notes, "any
software has to be part of a complete solution for doing real-world
jobs. That means you have to develop flawless software plus
accessory information, documentation, training materials,
packaging, delivery systems, marketing, sales, and support."
Although professors can receive academic kudos for generating
good ideas, they are less likely to be rewarded for all the work
required to bring a program idea to market. Furthermore, work
done in a university setting is subject to disputes over copyright or
Even so, university researchers tirelessly pursue their innovative
work. Assuming that the obstacles can be overcome, a glimpse at
four current and recent Ph.D. dissertations shows some tools that
practitioners may be using in the future.
Next week this article continues with a report on an innovative tool
for space planning.
B.J. Novitski is managing editor of ArchitectureWeek.
This article first appeared in Architectural Record, December,
Small Firm Makes It Big
When John Marx, AIA, was a senior
designer at a large architecture firm, a
joke circulated that "two guys and a
fast computer" could accomplish more
work, more quickly than a
department. Indeed, with well-honed
skills in both design and computer
modeling, Marx often completed the
firm's competition entries for very large
buildings with a team of only two or
Now he is further testing the veracity
of the joke in the new 13-person San
Francisco firm of Form4 with partners
Robert Giannini, AIA, Gary Adkisson,
and Paul Ferro. Scarcely a year old,
Form4 enjoys the challenge of large,
complex projects normally considered
beyond the scope of small firms. The
efficiency gained from doing practically
all their work on computers also
affords them the luxury of engaging
But diversity of projects is not their
only benefit from technology. They
also use it to blend design and
business skills to meet a range of
client needs. Where other firms use
the subtitle, "architecture, engineering,
and planning," Form4 business cards
list "architecture, management, and
This emphasis on nontraditional
services reflects the partners' work
with clients beyond the construction of
a physical facility. It also recognizes
that a small firm benefits from working
in partnership with other firms and
individuals. Form4's architectural
design, business management, and
team collaborations are all integrated
through computer technology, giving
them a competitive advantage.
Giannini sums it up: "To make it as a
small firm, we must be able to do
more, better and faster."
The architects do 3D modeling on
Power Macintosh G3 computers with
form-Z, which they feel is a
comfortable, graphic environment for
design. They do 2D design
development of elevations, building
cores, and so on, on Dell Dimension
XPS Windows PCs with AutoCAD
R14, which they have in common with
their engineering consultants.
They believe these advantages
outweigh the high per capita
investment in hardware and software
necessary for a dual-platform office.
Translating files between platforms
with the DXF and DWG file formats
keeps all work-in-progress digital, so
they never have to redraw what's
already been designed.
Although few experienced architects today are familiar with both form-Z and
AutoCAD, the firm's goal is to soon make all staff proficient in both. Form4 still has
"wish list" for future hardware purchases, intended to further extend the firm's
capabilities. These include a high-speed Internet connection for the principals' home
offices and a digital camera for documenting problems found in the field and instantly
transmitting images to consultants and other team members.
From the beginning, Giannini's passion for "giving form to ideas," coupled with the
technology focus, has led Form4 to concentrate on relatively large projects. They
specialize in corporate and hospitality facilities and have entered international
competitions for large office buildings.
In one recent fast-tracked project, Ferro, Marx, and two staff members completed
design and working drawings for a half-million-square-foot corporate campus in four
months. This was possible, according to Marx, because computer technology
enabled the designers to also be the decision makers. Such direct principal
involvement in the design of every project is a key selling point to potential clients.
Marx has been working with form-Z so long that he usually does not begin with
manual sketching but starts on the computer from the outset. The software's ability to
display the building-in-progress from any view is essential to his creative process.
And its ability to model curvilinear forms gives his designs their distinctive drama.
Form-Z incorporates rendering capabilities, which the firm uses for in-house and
informal evaluations as well final presentations
Form4 follows what Marx refers to as the "Silicon Valley model" of office
management. "Unlike in firms where decision-making is top-down," he explains, "we
foster an atmosphere of trust, creativity, and collaboration." One way they do this is by
communicating openly about all projects in the office.
Meeting notes and other construction administration documents, for example, expose
the junior staff to a broader spectrum of professional experience than they might see
in a more conventional setting. Office management tasks, such as correspondence,
scheduling, and contact management, are integrated through Microsoft Office and
FileMaker Pro applications and internally circulated by e-mail. Keeping all staff
informed enhances team cohesiveness and makes them more effective and
independent decision makers.
This philosophy of openness is reflected in the firm's floor plan. Instead of fixed walls,
half-height partitions enable everyone to see, hear, and interact with the rest of the
office. (The partners frequently telecommute from home when they need quiet for
concentration.) The office is scattered with fully wired tables for impromptu
conferences. Employee workstations on wheels shift positions frequently to adjust to
varying sunlight angles and changing needs for nearby reference drawings.
It's not just in house that Form4 excels in management innovations. Computer
technology is also used to expand client services. Management partner Gary
Adkisson has recently demonstrated the power of integrating financial planning with
architectural planning. He designed and commissioned a custom computer program
that would link an architectural program to a system that helps the building owner
track the financial performance of the various program areas.
For a 64,000-square-foot wellness center in Livermore, California, Form4 worked with
the client, owners of an adjacent hospital, to make the facility serve double duty as an
up-scale private fitness club. They designed spaces that carefully balance luxury and
privacy to serve two disparate populations of those who come to relax and exercise
and those who come for cardiac therapy.
Fueling this dual-purpose facility are the financial and operational models which
Adkisson developed. With the custom software, the owners can evaluate the
profitability of particular areas daily and react immediately by renovating space for
alternate purposes. This not only ensures the profitability of the private club, but it
enables the surplus to help subsidize the community-based medical services.
Adkisson says the clients' confidence that this unusual experiment would work was
bolstered by the fact that the financial management model and the architectural
planning originated from business and design partners in the same firm.
The phrase "virtual firm" is becoming cliched, but the ability to collaborate with
anyone anywhere, supported by digital communications, is key to the success of a
small firm with big ideas. It enables Form4 to extend their capabilities without
expanding their staff.
For example, when a project calls for a highly polished rendering, they send computer
models by e-mail to San Francisco Bay-Area-based digital renderer Michael
Sechman. They can communicate with him about the renderings-in-progress by
digitally redlining the drafts within Photoshop. If the image files become too large to
send easily by e-mail, they transmit them through the Internet's file transfer protocol
(FTP). Face-to-face meetings are seldom necessary.
The Form4 architects similarly send digital files to their engineering and landscape
consultants and receive digital files in return. They prefer not to work with those who
use manual methods because that disrupts the continuous flow of electronic drawings
from team to team and from phase to phase.
This digital collaboration is particularly useful for working with geographically remote
professionals. Form4 is currently working on projects with architects-of-record in
China and Brazil. These collaborations work well because of the varying levels of
knowledge and resources. The foreign architects often do not have easy or affordable
access to the state-of-the-art design software, yet they uniquely possess the
necessary knowledge of local codes and practices. Form4 also collaborates with
other U.S. firms on large competitions.
Key to the success of this young firm has been the technical and business savvy of
the four partners. They did not have to overcome the inertia found in existing firms
characterized by an established culture and headed by partners and managers who
pre-date the computer age. As more young firms emerge fully in control of
technology's levers, the profession will witness new models for doing business and
new ways to succeed.