Remembering Our Roots: Principles in a Technologically Based AEC World

Ryan Davis, Assoc. DBIA

Back when I was in good old architecture school at the University of Michigan, CAD was a mandatory class.  Although it had already been in use in the professional world for years, few students really took advantage of CAD in order to complete their coursework.  We still used mylar, vellum, lead holders and pens.  We cut chipboard and balsa wood to make scaled models in our design studios.  It was time consuming and, even for the time, seemed a bit archaic.

The reluctance to utilize available technology in school was a matter of time (deadlines), proficiency in that technology (time vs. effort), and a need for a stronger communication of the art and discipline of design and construction (design principles). Therefore, we most often defaulted to the traditional methods we were taught.  We knew how to use technology, but we did not rely on it.  That was the key.

It is today, I will admit, embarrassing to confess my inability to intelligently communicate certain classical principals to people when I talk about my profession. I can talk about the codes, new materials on the market, going ‘green’ or the latest version of Revit, but had somehow forgotten most of my classical architectural training.  Someone may ask me who designed such and such, what is the predominate mechanism of a Prairie School floor plan, or to explain the importance of hierarchy, organization, proportion, and circulation to great architecture.  It had unfortunately been pushed from my brain by more “important” items.

In today’s AEC world we are constantly upgrading our technology to offer ourselves the ability to design more complex structures more efficiently and accurately while at the same time building a platform to communicate the idea across multiple disciplines and to the end users.  But while we are spending our time (and big money) learning BIM, utilizing high end estimating and PM software, rendering programs, and other collaboration tools…are we spending less and less time learning or maintaining our knowledge of the real nuts and bolts, the principles of good design and construction?

As technology has proliferated society to the point where today people would rather Facebook, Netflix, or play a video game than read a book or have an intelligent dialogue, so has this begun to happen in our industry.  With a growing over-reliance on technology, it is of the utmost importance that we as designers and constructors do not lose our way in the modern era.  Do not misunderstand me; technology is a useful tool but we must remain proficient in the principles and be able to think just like the masters of old did, that is, truly understanding what is on our computer screens.  Not only may reliance on technology weaken our ability to do so, but I believe it also cheapens the substance of it to the point where just about anyone who can use a computer believes they can “design” a building.    It is my hope that academia, as well as, leading companies will realize this and promote more than just cyberspace architecture and construction.

It is our responsibility to ensure the next generation of architects, engineers, and contractors know how the things they draw on a screen look, feel, and function in real life. Teach students and employees more than just CAD, BIM, and rendering; teach them what it really is and what it means.  Let’s not forget how to survive if someone were to pull the plug, but be just as capable.  Let’s remember our roots.


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