Becoming a design community

Collaborating across generational, cultural, geographical and technical boundaries

Architecture is in the midst of a quiet revolution. 3D technology has opened up possibilities for creating structures in any shape we can imagine. I like to call this organic architecture. This limitless creative opportunity has in turn challenged us to investigate new materials and construction methods. Architecture of this kind feels especially potent and relevant when it’s empowered by the technology of the era. To complete these revolutionary projects, however, we must bring the right combination of experience, communication, project coordination, mastery of technology and expertise together—often from sources across the globe. To do this successfully and fulfill organic architecture’s imaginative promise, we need to come together in non-traditional ways. To realize this vision, we must become a design community.

It takes a community of people to realize the ambitious vision we see in organic architecture. I find that fascinating and inspiring. This community is global and therefore cross-cultural. Developing a project in this environment requires an understanding of how those from differing cultures can have different sensibilities about art and design. It’s powered by the technology of our time. From wood to stone to industrial age, building design and construction always speaks to the capabilities of our time. Today is no different.

Because this kind of design is so technological, it’s multi-generational and changes the way team members relate to each other. As a senior architect, I can guide a team through the design process and ensure build-ability, but I rely on younger designers with up-to-the-minute 3D skills for drawings. In these organic design projects the community chips in to get the job done.

You can’t do it without them. They can’t do it without you. The whole team is bonded together. In this cloud-based context, design has to become collaborative.

This collaboration happens across time zones and within the same office—even that of consultants and engineers. We all face the same communal challenge. Engineers, for example, can now employ parametric technology to model structural support on the fly and produce cost estimates based on our latest 3D model. But doing so requires faith in those with the latest skill set who can analyze, study and document the structural elements in a 3D environment.

In this world of imaginative architecture, new challenges emerge that require specialists and unique approaches. Fluid dynamic specialists, for example, can shower rain and snow on our digital model and help us solve issues such as gutter placement. Solutions may not be simple and straight forward anymore, but that doesn’t mean they’re not solvable. The answers just require different technologies and methods.

Taking on a project like this requires a certain optimism and an openness to a dynamic new way of working. Once the right team is on board, however, the challenge engages our talent. Trying to build something that’s never been tried excites designers and managers, it heightens their focus. What’s the right attitude? “Together, we’re going to figure this out.”

Every member of the team has to step up and contribute their part. Senior members of the team have to rise to the occasion, leaning on their experience with process, ensuring build ability and guiding the design direction. Project managers have to facilitate efficient communication around the globe amongst an extensive team. The younger designers have to step up and build a very complicated and very intricate model. Dialogue between all three becomes more critical than ever.

Complicating matters of culture and language in this global community of design is the variety of modelling software in use today. Conversion technologies, workflows and cloud-based solutions must be designed in order to allow a variety of preferred tools to be applied to the project.

Understanding the artistic vision of the designer, how the building relates to the sky, the land and natural light is paramount in this collaboration, especially when the vision comes from a different place than our own culturally speaking.

We’ll see more of this global collaboration in realizing the most imaginative projects. Look back on our work on The Swedish Embassy in Washington, D.C. for example. There, the design vision was unique and off the shelf solutions wouldn’t suffice. Global collaborations were important. Economic feasibility plays a part here, too. If design elements can be fabricated more economically in Germany, Italy or Turkey, we go there.

This type of design upends the traditional hierarchy in an architecture studio. In this digital collaboration, teammates become partners. The whole idea of leadership changes to one in which senior designers guide the process and protect the vision, but heavily rely on team members to do their parts.

There’s something safe about doing the building you did last time, with the methods you used last time. But in this organic, technology-oriented architecture, we embrace new methods of working, often in front of large monitors where team members contribute and display their information digitally. Working on these projects with new tools and methods has required us to reconfigure our workspace. Now a meeting takes place largely on a monitor in which we fly around a 3D model with those in Texas, California and China.

This is where architecture is going. This is the digital age.

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