Is it getting too easy?

Where have all the software problems gone?

We’ve tried to do many things with software in architectural offices over the last 20 years.

I used to enjoy challenges such as negotiating between Autocad 12 and a pen plotter over large scale drawings with line thicknesses in the right place. Or a 3D render with shadows and a bit of reflection finished on time, rather than three weeks after the final presentation. In the last couple of years the challenges have mostly disappeared. In 2016, the office Part I can rustle up a 900Mb Revit model with 45 plans, 16 sections and a quick 3D printed model. The system doesn’t fall over when they email the whole folder to the project team. It really makes me feel old.

About two years ago I was asked to help an urban design practice in London implement Revit as a masterplanning tool. It didn’t seem much of a challenge. 

A couple of boxes, thrown at the general direction of a site with the technical accuracy of a charcoal sketch, should be well within the range of most halfway decent CAD systems  these days.  

As with most aspects of London, it turned out to be a lot more complex than you’d expect. Land ownership alone is a sticky web from which we may never escape. You’d think that some time in the last 2000 years somebody could have sorted out a straight line between owners or a property peg to work with. It’s not like the City hasn’t burned down a couple of times and offered the opportunity. But here we are, we have invisible viewing corridors projected across London from St Paul’s, turning even the neatest of sites into a mishmash without a parallel line in any dimension. Throw a couple of other elements into the mix, like a Tube line beneath a Roman road, tangled around a Victorian sewer, and you have some interesting constraints to manage.

Revit is usually reserved for the later stages of projects, but it has proved itself at a front end for us. Being able to collect and coordinate a vast amount of information about a neighbourhood within a single file has huge advantages. The ability to create building envelopes in 3D, schedule areas and visualise townscape impacts was obvious. Cutting blocks into discrete components which can then be assigned custom parameters like ownership, project phasing and building use becomes remarkable.

The biggest asset has been visually managing and communicating data with custom filters such as automatically colour coding heights, densities or tenure.

Each study requires a good deal of thought and time to create, but once the filters, schedules and sheets are set up, they pay dividends as the design evolves, exposing the invisible complexities of each design decision.

However, while it’s really exciting to get drawn into Grasshopper or Dynamo each time a challenge is posed, we’ve accepted that most designers are not programmers and don’t have a week spare to unravel somebody else’s spaghetti code. We’re after solutions robust enough to survive multiple years and many hands. It’s hard enough to make sense of a file using design options, worksets, filters and families. If we can solve a problem using standard software as intended, it makes good sense for all in the end.

Vaughn Horsman is a consultant at Farrells