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(Re)presenting Dimensions

09.26.12 / Douglas Shilo, LEED AP BD+C

As human beings, we can perceive three dimensions of space, and another dimension we call time.  Architects are tasked with communicating complex ideas, and are limited to these four dimensions.  Rapid technological development has led to new requirements for buildings and architects alike.  Thus, as buildings become more complex, we find ourselves revisiting familiar dimensions for novel methods of representation.

Historically, the classic method of presentation includes: meticulous hand-made drawings, a beautiful hand-made model, and a charismatic principal to guide listeners through the carefully prepared material.  This process starts with a design charrette, where the basic massing and big ideas are settled.  The project architect then draws plans, elevations, and sections over and over again until they are resolved.  If a floor to floor height changes, then all sections and elevations must be redrawn.  Eventually, these plans are sent to the model shop, where interns slave over basswood, sometimes for weeks, to produce a beautiful model (or five!).  Meanwhile, the architect might make a few water-color renderings.  The presentation materials are irreplaceable and beautiful, the effort required to produce them is palpable. 

As older members of our firms would say, “Those were the days.”  Now, there are new demands on the profession.  Today, we live in a litigious atmosphere, and must document the design thoroughly, carefully covering all our responsibilities outlined in legally-binding contracts.  Also, buildings contain more complicated systems that must be integrated into the design and work together more efficiently.  Where there was once a master builder and his craftsmen, there are now Architects, Project Managers, Contractors, Structural Engineers, MEP consultants, Code Consultants, Cost Estimators, Specification Writers, Acoustical Engineers … the list goes on!  As the building profession fractures into more categories, more coordination is required, and that means more drawings, correspondence and communication.  A building that once required 25 drawings can now require hundreds, and our LEED AP is telling us we should be using less paper!

Luckily, there are more dimensions available to the architect!  Buildings are now drawn in three dimensions, and we can engage a fourth through animating this three-dimensional space. 

  • Need a plan?  Truly cut one from the 3D model! 
  • Need to change the floor to floor heights?  All the other drawings are updated automatically! 
  • Need a rendering?  Take a snapshot! 
  • Need a whole set of drawings showing these changes for a meeting tomorrow and the printer’s busted?  Print a PDF with one click and send a file transfer in five minutes! 
  • Need to coordinate with consultants to raise a ceiling height?  Share a central model over a secure network and get those dimensions exactly right! 
  • Want to keep an impressive presentation flexible?  Pause that animation and take a look around in real-time. 
  • Need a physical model?  Press print, and your multi-colored, multi-material model will be shipped to you in two weeks!         

Rapid prototyping technology has allowed us to build complex models accurately and quickly from a digital source.  While models like the one shown above still require a good deal of hand-finishing, advancements in this technology show incredible potential.

Digital presentations have yet to overcome one major hurdle: the interface.  Interaction is limited to who can run these complex programs, which are still far from intuitive.  Our hands are a direct connection to our brain, and these keyboards, mice, and wires just get in the way.  That is why everyone still loves “real” models and drawings – anyone can get involved in the conversation.  Physical models are more accessible, precious, and inherently interactive.  A complex digital presentation can dazzle and impress, but is not really interactive and tangible. 

As the digital world matures, it is becoming more engaging and “real”.  One day, there will be less distracting interfaces and more augmented reality.  These developments will lead to whole new ways of interacting with digital representations, and even to new notions of what our “built” environment is.  No paper.  No monitors or keyboards.  No lifeless, lecture-style slide shows.  Lots of intuitive hand motions.  Lots of two-way conversation and engagement from everyone in the room.  Physical items we take for granted may be left to luddites as we are forced to adapt once again to a paradigm shift.  Until that day, we will continue to show up with paper models, pens, and some glue (just in case). 

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