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Tech tools are great, but no substitute for design basics

Tech tools are great, but no substitute for design basics

by SUSAN HEINKING, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP

Susan Heinking

Susan Heinking

Change is constant, they say. And we all know that technology is constantly changing. But believe it or not, at VOA, whether our client is a Fortune 500 multinational, a university, hospital, or nonprofit, our design process doesn't change.

Ours is a creative, collaborative team effort, no matter what, as reliant on human interaction as ever. Of course we employ building information modeling (BIM) and whatever any other state-of-the-art tools may be needed on a given project. But in my opinion, there is actually too much focus on technology and computers today, as if they will just give us answers and do our work for us. But at the end of the day, technology is just a tool. And, as with any tool, we need an understanding of the basic design principles if we want to be able to use it the way that it's intended. 

In my mind, therefore, we need much more discussion around Art-Design-Craft, the process by which good design results. Naturally, this now involves computers, but as I said, they are just another tool, like an X-acto knife. Frankly, a lot of what is being created today, even for our most sophisticated clients, is hand-drawn and still involves physical study models. So, we first have to create a vision (art piece), then work out how to make that vision real and buildable (design piece). Finally, physically building it on the site is the craft piece.

You can't design something without a vision, nor can you do it without understanding the craft that goes into building it. The typical term is "knowing how an actual building is constructed". These things only come with real-life experience, not from a computer program, no matter how detailed and elaborate it may be. Even today, that is still how we go about all our projects here at VOA. 

The author is vice president and sustainability leader at Chicago-based VOA Associates Inc. The firm's recent clients include Google, Walgreen's, LaRabida Children's Hospital, and the Beijing New Material R&D Center.

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