6 October 2011

Tools of Practice

The following extract is taken from Chapter Seven of The Architecture of the Profession, a thesis project submitted to the Manchester School of Architecture as part of the MA Architecture and Urbanism course 2010-2011. For information about how to purchase a copy of the research please follow this link.

Representation Versus Production

Architectural practitioners today are “expected to have a highly evolved set of design skills,” (1) employing a varied range of media to accurately communicate their ideas. Constructing the built environment requires a considerable investment in time, resources and ultimately finances and whilst “representation is an important aspect of any visual or design-based discipline” (2) the importance of accurate tools of representation in architectural practice is even greater. These tools of practice are judged on how readily they allow the architect “to repeatedly describe, explore, predict and evaluate different properties of the design at various stages prior to construction.” (3) There have never been so many tools at the disposal of those who wish to represent and shape the built environment as there are today, “each with the capacity to leap only previously imagined frontiers.” (4) A practicing architect today is able to use anything from ‘traditional’ methods like a simple sketch on pen and paper, through to emerging technologies like rapid prototyping, CNC milling machines, laser cutters, and powerful computational software in their practice.

Throughout history the practitioner’s tools have served two purposes, (i) as creative representation of an idea and (ii) technical production information of an architectural object. (5) The tools of representation have changed little over the past 500 years (6) but in the last 20–30 years there have been several developments that have dramatically changed the way in which architecture is practiced, with the most notable being CAD (computer aided design) and more recently BIM (building information modelling), which seemingly promises to “unlock new ways of working”. (7) Before the rise of the computer the process of architectural representation was achieved through using hand drawings and physical models, with the architectural drawing holding particular sway since the Renaissance. (8)

In the Renaissance the essential components of the architect’s formal training were perspective and drawing, or disegno. (9) Dalibor Vesely talks extensively about the advent of perspective during the Renaissance transforming the representation of the visible world. However because “we don’t live in a perspectival world” Vesely adds that whilst perspective “certainly does influence and can even dominate our way of life…its sway is never total.” (10) All methods of representation, perspective included, “offer no more than the possibility of seeing and experiencing the world in a particular way” (11) because they relied on reducing the complexities of the world. This process of reduction is perhaps best expressed in the development of Parti, popularised during the 19th century at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, that reduced complex ideas into “abstract sketches that are loaded with architectural meaning and intent”. (12) The Beaux-Arts system also included the educational exercise of l’esquisse, in which students spent three months working on one design that had been frozen after just twelve hours of initial work and were then marked based on how closely they had stayed to the original concept. Even in the age of the computer the enticing powers of the architectural sketch remains, imbuing an ideal that “it should be possible to sketch the concept of a good building in less than ten seconds”. (13) These methods though, from the sketch to the rendered perspective (either produced by hand or with computer software), are representations of a creative idea, they do not represent the finished product because “what comes out is not always the same as what goes in.” (14) It is for this reason that there is a differentiation between drawings as creative representations and drawings as production information, distinguished by the type of information they convey.

Hand drawing of the Halifax HQ building
(Image: Copyright BDP)

Problems arise when it is assumed that “if architectural drawing can successfully represent a set of presumed virtues, then surely that same technique can be used to deliver those virtues back to the world.” (15) There is obviously a difference in type of information necessary to create an overall impression of the built environment, to ‘sell’ that project to clients, local planning departments or the public, and the technical information required to build that vision. Both types of drawing rely on graphic instructions, in the form of codes or conventions, which organise complex information precisely and accurately, it is not just the case that one drawing has a higher level of detail or more information than another. The conventions are interpreted as a series of codes that are introduced in education and developed through practice. No matter how good a particular three dimensional rendering may be (whether drawn by hand or using a computer) the chances are it will never be able to convey all of the information required to build that project; for example, the drawing may give an impression about materials but a single image won’t explain the technicalities of how these materials are assembled on site.

Completed Halifax HQ building
(Image: Copyright BDP)

The drawings codes are assumed to be “transparent” however “evidence points to fundamental misunderstandings by nonarchitects of even ‘simple’ drawing codes, such as floor plans”. (16) Architectural practice is not alone in having developed an internalised language from a series of codes that forms a barrier for those not indoctrinated in these methods to understand them. (17) Particular difficulties arise when so many different professions are dependent on information from one another as in the built environment industry. Successful architectural practice makes the most productive use of the various different codes of representation available to them, using the most appropriate drawing (or model) to convey the required information, but they also realise that an architectural drawing is different to the architectural object it helps to create.

The Digital World

Before the computer was introduced into the design process a common site at architectural practices was that of rows of drawings boards and teams of draftsmen producing the range of drawings required to erect a building. Two dimensional, vector based drafting systems had been developed in the 1960s for commercial applications in the aerospace, electronic and automobile industries however it wasn’t until Autodesk launched their AutoCAD software for PCs in 1982 (18) that it slowly became more widely available in architectural practices (as PCs proliferated so did software like AutoCAD). Today the computer is ubiquitous in the design process but the codes and conventions employed are the same as those used when drawings were produced by hand—the computer screen is treated as a piece of paper and the mouse the technical drawing pen. This is an observation that causes Vesely to question “how the new electronic representations differ from the traditional ones; to what extent are they only more sophisticated tools, or do they rather represent something altogether different?” (19)

Regardless of whether or not the computer represents something different it has resulted in different work patterns within practice. The computer allows for smaller teams to produce the same information in less time than larger teams working with ‘traditional’ methods, thereby improving both productivity and accuracy. It is simpler to make changes, different options can be explored quickly and 3D packages allow projects to be interrogated from multiple viewpoints. However, the computer has also attracted criticism because “its immense power tricks its users (the designers) and viewers (potential clients) into believing that what is on the screen is what will be achieved on site” further emphasising the difficult relationship between representation and finished object. (20)

With increased computational power architects are now able to indulge in free form studies, a case of technical determinism, and pursue a new design paradigm of parametricism. (21) The technicalities of constructing these shapes still lags behind the virtual environments though, with the exception of rapid prototyping systems but these remain limited in size and application, and this divorce between virtual form and physical ‘buildability’ is a constant point of criticism of these methods. Despite the criticisms of free form studies the computer has enabled a new dialogue between architects and the process of building. With rapid prototyping architects are able to transfer information from the screen to physical models that are more open to interpretation from those not trained in the codes of architectural practice.  (22) Further benefits arise when you consider that CAD information can be shared with manufacturers of real components for the final building. Architects are able to exchange files directly with the manufacturers of prefabricated components, ranging from individual cladding panels to a SIP (structural insulated panel) system for an entire building.

A Double-Edged Sword

The latest development in the tools of architectural practice is BIM and it could be either “the harbinger of death or the salvation of architecture”. (23) BIM involves working on a three-dimensional model that is essentially a digital prototype of a physical building. It promises to improve design reliability, reduce design risk, reduce waste and enhance communication between different disciplines, amongst other expected benefits. (24) The model coordinates digital information about a project, with every component in the model tagged with data including product specifications, cost, and when it is scheduled to be installed on site. This model should contain information about the buildings entire life-cycle, from design through to procurement, construction, management and operation. It also forces design decisions about materials and construction methods (amongst others) to be made much earlier on in the process, if decisions aren’t made the model has to be made based on a series of assumptions.

It is however a complex piece of technology that requires “additional training and changes to a firm’s business process” and it is perhaps this that has contributed to the UK lagging behind other countries in adopting it. At present it is estimated that only ten percent of UK projects use BIM systems compared with sixty percent of project in the United States. (25) However, in the UK the technology is likely to be made compulsory for all public projects by 2016 (26) which means if architects are going to be involved in these projects in the future they are going to have to adopt BIM systems. (27) Ruth Reed, RIBA President, described the advent of BIM as a “complete game changer” (28) for the architectural profession and it is generally considered the future of building design.

As BIM effectively allows a test run of the entire building before anything is committed on site it has the potential for time to be introduced into architectural representation. The model means that the lines in the sand traditionally drawn between design, construction and operation of the built environment are eroded. It also has the potential to satisfy the criticisms Jeremy Till aims at current modes of communication, which freezes the built environment in one temporal condition, whereas BIM allows the building to be explored at different periods in time, albeit within the limitations of virtual environment previously considered. (29)

It is the multidisciplinary element of BIM which has the most potential to influence the design process, allowing for greater communication between the various different professions involved in creating the built environment. Information from different disciplines is fed into a single model which is then used to coordinate that information (from clash detection to construction phasing). Working with collaborative design information has been shown to produce a minimum saving of 5-10% and in an era where cost is one of the main drivers of design this alone is seen as reason enough to adopt BIM systems. (30) A fully integrated design process will not mean an end to the existing tools of architectural production however they will be challenged to work with this new tool.

Perhaps the largest barrier will be a shift from working in two dimensions, which architectural drawing in particular has relied on, and into a continual process of three dimensional communication, which at present is only achievable through time consuming physical models or computer renderings. Whilst BIM does allow for a level of creative representation its primary function is as a tool to aid the technical production of the built environment.

Beyond Drawing

The tools of practice considered here have centred on architectural drawings, produced both by hand and on computer, but there are obviously other types of information required to practice and to shape the built environment. These other tools range from schedules to specifications, project work flows to contracts and are of equal importance in spatial production but also include the vast array of techniques employed on site to build projects. There are arguments to suggest that even “negotiating a legal contract between an architect and a client is another ‘art’” (31) and as such is just as open to the creative processes of architects as a sketch.

It is though an obsession with image that dominates the discussion about the tools of architectural production, and of representing that image. As new tools emerge they will enable a transition from two-dimensional to three-dimensional ways of working as a new standard. These technologies could also bring about a closer relationship between the other forms of information required in production (the schedules, the specifications, etc) and the methods employed in constructing the final object. (32) Practitioners though should be wary of placing too much faith in one piece of technology or type of representation that can ultimately only predict outcomes based on previous experiences. Whilst there will never be a replacement for actual physical realisation, when the architectural object is embedded and exposed in its context, the better the tools available to practitioners the more informed the decisions they take can be and this is surely a positive thing.


The above extract is taken from Chapter Seven of The Architecture of the Profession, a thesis project submitted to the Manchester School of Architecture as part of the MA Architecture and Urbanism course 2010-2011. For information about how to purchase a copy of the research please follow this link.

1. Nick Dunn, Architectural Modelmaking, (London: Laurence King, 2010), p. 7.
2. Lorraine Farrelly, Representational Techniques, (Lausanne: AVA Publishing, 2008), p. 6.
3. Dunn, loc. cit.
4. Bob Shiel, Protoarchitecture - between the Analogue and the Digital in Bob Shiel (ed.) Protoarchitecture: Analogue and Digital Hybrids, Architectural Design, vol. 78, no 4., (London: John Wiley & Sons, 10th July 2008), p. 7.
5. Jeremy Till identifies these differences in Architecture Depends “…the first requirement is to recognize the difference between drawings as communicative devices, there to work out and express ideas and their latent spatial possibilities, and drawings as instruments used in the production of architecture as built form.” Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), p. 113.
6. Bob Sheil recalls his own experiences “As recently as 20 years ago, when I began my architectural education, the methodology of designing buildings had larged remained unchanged in 500 years. Drawings were prepared by hand and evolved from the tentative to the fully costed.” Sheil, loc. cit.
7. This is a quote from Paul Morrell, Chief Construction Adviser to the UK Government, speaking at Autodesk’s BIM Conference on 31st September 2010, quoted in Building Design Online. Anna Winston, BIM to become part of public procurement process, Building Design Online, 1st October 2010, [retrieved 18th August 2011],
8. “A few well-known but rare individuals such as Pierre Chareau, the designer of the Maison de Verre in Paris (1932), managed it all without such dogmatic trappings, creating his magnificent pièce de résistance in collaboration with Bernard Bijvoet and the craftsman Louis Dalbet, largely through conversation and modelling. Others of the 20th century, such as Antoni Gaudí, Richard Buckminster Fuller, Jean Prouvé, Cedric Price and Charles and Ray Eames, also pioneered efforts to rethink the habitual practices of the design process, but the tools to develop it remained largely the same.” Shiel, loc. cit.
9. Catherine Wilkinson, The New Professionalism in the Renaissance in Spiro Kostof (ed.) The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, 2nd ed. (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), p.135. Disegno, an Italian word for drawing or design, involves both the ability to make the drawing and the intellectual capacity to invent the design. The National Gallery, Glossary: Disegno, No Date, [retrieved 18th August 2011],
10. Vesely, Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation: The Question of Creativity on the Shadow of Production, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), p. 149.
11. Ibid., pp. 139-49.
12. Farrelly, op. cit., p. 15.
13. Till, op. cit., p. 108. This is a quote from Ivan Harbour, a director at Richard Roger’s practice Rogers, Stirk, Harbour (Note 48 Architecture Depends).
14. Robin Evans, Translations from drawing to Building and Other Essays, (London: Architectural Association, 1997), p. 22.
15. Till, op. cit., p. 110.
16. Ibid., p. 112.
17. Architects are just as likely to misunderstand a drawing produced say by an electrical engineer as an electrical engineer is to misunderstand an architect’s floor plan.
18. Autodesk, About Autodesk, 2011, [retrieve 18th August 2011],
19. Vesely, op. cit., p. 310.
20. Till, op. cit., p. 86.
21. Parametricism as a style has been championed by Patrick Schumacher and he claims “offers a credible, sustainable answer to the crisis of modernism that resulted in 25 years of stylistic searching.” As a style it implies that “all architectural elements and complexes are parametrically malleable.” Patrick Schumacher, Let the style wars begin, The Architects Journal Online, 6th May 2010, [retrieved 18th August 2011],
22. Rapid prototyping itself has been around since 1986, with the first prototyping technique ‘stereolithography’ developed by 3D Systems in Valencia, California. Farrelly, op. cit., p. 133.
23. This is a quote from Joshua Prince-Ramus in an interview by Bruce Upbin. Bruce Upbin, Joshua Prince-Ramus on the Myth of Architectural Genius, Forbes Online, 14th June 2010, [retrieved 18th August 2011],
24. The ‘BIM Academy’ gives an extensive list of the advantages of using BIM: improved design reliability; reduced design risk; reduced waste; more time to get the design right; enhanced coordination and fewer errors; improved decision making; greater productivity; higher quality of work; downstream uses for facilities management; supports sustainability; improved safety; computation of material quantities; improved planning, control, management of construction; enhanced communication; effective resource utilisation and coordination f activities; reduction in costs associated with planning, design and construction; reduced number of RFIs (requests for information); improved collective understanding of design intent; less time documenting more time designing; quantity takeoff; client engagement; and improved spatial coordination. BIM Academy, Home Page, 2011, [retrieved 21st August 2011],
25. Martin Day, BIM is likely to become mandatory for public projects, The Architects’ Journal, 13th January 2011, vol. 233, no. 1, p. 25.
26. Initial media reports suggested that BIM would be made compulsory for all public projects with a value over £5 million. Merlin Fulcher, Morrell: BIM to be mandatory for all £5m+ public buildings, The Architects’ Journal Online, 17th May 2011, [retrieved 22nd August 2011], More recently Paul Morrell, the UK’s Chief construction adviser, has said that “There will be a phased rollout over five-years beginning next summer [2012], with a view to getting all appropriate projects in a 3D collaborative environment by 2016. … There are no preconceptions about setting a limit in value or size below which the use of BIM is inappropriate. … BIM’s potential to transform the industry is, fundamentally, not about technology, Undeniably, however, technology is a tool that enables skills, systems and process to be combined and that moves a project from inception to occupation and use.” Paul Morrell, Paul Morrell: BIM to be rolled out to all projects by 2016, The Architect’s Journal Online, 23rd June 2011, [retrieved 22nd August 2011],
27. Paul Morrell and the ‘Construction Innovation and Growth Team’ make the following direct references to BIM in their report’s recommendations. “Recommendation 3.11: That the industry should work, through a collaborative forum, to identify when the use of BIM is appropriate (in terms of the type or scale of project), what the barriers to its more widespread take-up are, and how those barriers might be surpassed, leading to an outline protocol for future ways of working.” And “recommendation 6.14: That Government should mandate the use of Building Information Modelling for central Government projects with a value greater than £50 million.” Construction Innovation and Growth Team, ‘Low Carbon Construction, Innovation & Growth Team, Final Report’ (London: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2010).
28. RIBA President Ruth Reed speaking at the RIBA ‘Tough Times’ Student Forum, (RIBA Headquarters, Portland Place, London, 1st June 2011).
29. “The aspiration, therefore, is to inscribe time in the communicative stages of architectural production–communicative that is, both to the architects themselves and also to an external audience.” Till, op. cit., p. 113.
30. Thomas Lane, BIM – the inside story,  Building Online, 29th July 2011, [retrieved 22nd August 2011], This article offers an in-depth analysis of BIM and takes Ryder Architecture’s refurbishment of Manchester Central Library as a case study (of particular interest as it is a refurbishment project and BIM is usually treated as a tool just for new build).
31. Antonio Tena interviewed by Felix Madrazo in Felix Madrazo, Who is responsible?, L’Architecture D’Aujourh’hui, Jun-Jul 2010, no. 378, pp. 196-7.
32. Technology is also no substitute for the ‘soft skills’ required by architects—communicating, delegating and negotiating—that are found in both ideas of representation and production. Dale Sinclair, Leading the Team: An architect’s Guide to Design Management, (London: RIBA Publishing, 2011), pp. 129-36.