Pushing the Profession to New Heights

BY MIKE BROTHERS
Drury University Director of Media Relations

Like many industries, the field of architecture has seen an incredible amount of change thanks to advances in technology. While technology has been reshaping the way designers go about their work for decades, new powerful tools are again pushing the profession to new heights. The Hammons School of Architecture (HSA) brings many of these platforms into the classroom and challenges students to broaden their thinking about design.

Assistant Professor of Architecture David Beach explains that the initial wave of technology in the 1980s and early ’90s helped architects do what they had always done, but do it more efficiently. He likens those tools to “a faster pencil,” aiding the designer but not necessarily altering the design process. In recent years, the change has become more profound. Increasingly powerful simulation software helps designers imagine what’s possible, and advancements in hardware such as 3-D printers and virtual reality headsets allow them to blur the lines between experimentation and execution.

“The shift we’re seeing now is the computer becoming something that genuinely informs us and is capable of modifying the way we design,” Beach says.Oculus-1

Beach and assistant professor Gerard Nadeau are two of the resident “geeks” at HSA. Nadeau specializes in using software that’s able to accurately model factors such as gravity or wind to experiment with curved, swooping designs that echo natural forms. Beach uses virtual reality software and headsets to put designers inside their creations rather than merely viewing them on a page or a flat screen.

While these tools are not necessarily brand new, they are more accessible than ever before. “We now have the ability to test ideas as individuals or small groups rather than needing to have an entire architecture firm or corporation backing you up,” Nadeau says.

Making changes to the complex designs architects often work with is not easy. One small adjustment can affect an entire structure in countless ways, and this can bog down the creative process. This is why Beach and Nadeau experiment with new ways to test their ideas in their research and in the classes they teach.

Nadeau uses a program called Rhino to simulate angular and curvy structures, which wring maximum strength and stability from a minimum amount of material. Programs like Rhino show how small changes affect structures in a systemic way, and allow today’s most creative architects to build almost any structure they can imagine. That’s a boon for a designer like Nadeau, who also has a background as an artist. But there’s a practical side to consider as well.

“Some solutions are more expensive than others; some require more material and energy than others,” Nadeau says. If the iterative design tools can help an architect achieve his or her artistic goals by reducing needed materials or shaving construction costs, it unlocks the potential for buildings and spaces to move beyond utilitarian forms and toward something more expressive.

As software becomes more powerful in the future, Beach believes some of the most basic design tasks will be at least partially taken over by the computer. For example, the computer AI (artificial intelligence) might include a database of up-to-date building code information that can be plugged into a plan as it’s being designed. Or it may come in the form of suggesting solutions to various problems. The AI might suggest rotating a building by a few degrees for optimal natural lighting that will save energy costs. Then it’s up to the designer to determine how such a change would affect sightlines or other qualitative factors.

It’s change that architects should embrace rather than fear, Beach says. “Computers are going to continue to do what computers do very well and that’s repetitive tasks,” he says. “Designers are going to continue to do what designers do very well and that’s analyze the information, work with the client and build something that has an emotive quality and fulfills the needs of what the project is trying to do for its constituents.” Beach believes that Drury’s professional instruction and liberal arts learning is an excellent launching pad for this kind of design philosophy. Beach, Nadeau and others at HSA stress to students that it’s not about the tools, it’s about how you approach them and what you can do with them. That’s the kind of thinking that will lead to success right away and over the course of a career.

“It goes back to the computer as something that gives you the opportunity to approach design as a researched, critical thinking process and the educational mission of a liberal arts university exemplifies that,” Beach says. “We’re producing graduates who are becoming professional leaders right from the early stages of their careers, and that’s exciting.”