Surviving the Design Studio: Finishing the design when you have have no time left. 

The myth of the lone architectural genius has never really factored in the notion of individual and psychological well-being. We always seem to assume that the super-star designer’s produce a continuous stream of design work. If we subscribe to this view it means that these guys are always spitting out the big new and dazzling ideas. All the fucking time. In reality most architects have crazy lives juggling everything for sometimes very little reward.

Everyone gets tired, even architects, not everyone has a great idea everyday and in reality  its hard work to test the really good ideas that you get anyway. Besides, not every project is great and sometimes it takes a lot of work to make a mundane project with severe constraints good. In reality design production for individual architects is something that waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows, and is subjected to personal circumstance, energy and focus. It can be hard trying to finish a design when you are out of mojo.

Even harder when you are ferrying your kids around town, juggling the cashflow, designing another tiny kitchen and turning up to confront the sly anti-architect jokes at the site meetings.

But perhaps we should also spare a thought, if not any sympathy, for the archetypal indolent architecture student. Especially the one who has done no work. Its always tough for architecture students to get to the end of the project. I was always one of those students that was good at starting, talking up the ideas, but not so good at finishing a project. It didn’t really help that I couldn’t draft my way out of a paper bag. Usually, by the end of the studio I had invested so much of myself, as well as time and effort, into the project that I was exhausted.

I have written a few other posts about the end of semester and these should be of some help to students in this situation. But it’s never over until it is over so here are a few more suggestions. All of these suggestions are meant for those of you, for whatever reason risk falling into  the end of project/semester panic vortex. Or for those of you whose energy has waned. As well as being for those designers out there who who need help because you have spent too much time having fun, ferrying your kids around, fighting off the creditors, and the client presentation is tomorrow.

1.Dont Panic 

Panic produces chaos.

Before you panic and go straight into hyper reactive mode don’t forget to schedule your time. Don’t end up in the print queue at the last minute.

Figure out when you need to submit or present to tge client and work back from that. Allow for printing, digital layout out and modelling. Allow for time to do a proof. Remember you don’t have time to be indecisive or even time to panic. Work back from the end and prioritise your tasks. What are the most important design elements you need to work on? Which design elements will carry the day despite the fact you have done no work or have run out of time?

Once you have your priorities ordered solve each problem methodically.

2. Don’t worry about the other architects.

Let them worry about you.

Forget about what other people are doing. Don’t compare yourself unfavourably to them. Its is such a waste of valuable emotional energy. Its to late to be critical negative of your own or the work of others.

However, you can ask them to look at stuff. When you own eyes start to fail its always good to ask someone, another architect or maybe even your grandmother,  if something looks ok. Use your peers, mentors and friends as a way to filter out the bad bits and details of your scheme.

Your tutors and clients will always like you for not subjecting them to ugly and ungainly graphics.

3. Under no circumstances stay awake all night.

BAD, BAD and more BAD.

There is nothing good about this. You cant make wise design decisions at 3 am in the morning. You run the risk of going backwards.

Yes, indeed: BAD, BAD and more BAD.

4. Annoy your tutors and even your clients. 

After all they got you into this mess.

Yes, the more contact you have with your tutors at this point the better. Email them and ask for advice. Show them your preliminary layouts. Ask them questions.

The more contact you have with them the more sympathetic they will be at the final crit (maybe) and your clients will think you have actually been working.

5. Give everything a second glance.

Tell your story in images as well as words.

Old Raisbeck Saying: If it looks good it is good. But look at everything twice if you can. Think carefully about your graphics. Fonts, typefaces, placement of images relative weightings of images. Don’t get carried away. Keep it simple. Avoid cutting and pasting the following items from your library into plans and sections.

Tutors and even clients can spot graphic filler from a mile away.

6. Don’t colour everything in on those renders.

More Bad.

Digital renders are not like one of those colour by numbers colouring books. Digital images are not real and its naive to think otherwise. Save yourself some time and tread lightly with the colours. Think about the best way to convey your idea through the images and this is not the same as making it real or “natural”.

It is better to build up your layers of colour in your renders bit by bit. Don’t over saturate. Once they look finished you can move to the next task.

The critics including clients will want to know that your design concept relates to final presentation.

7. Make the people, animals cars or trees in your renders appropriate and even funny.

Make it relevant.

If your project is in Kurdistan. Make sure the people in it are Kurds and not rich white guys from New York. Diversity is good and the design critics will think you have actually thought about the whole design if you have thought about the people in the images.

Your clients will love you forever if you Photoshop them into the renders.

7. Remember to think about construction.

Dear architecture students your building is not made of evenly thick concrete with a few walls and openings.

Think about your design as you are drawing it. Don’t just stand up at the end and say its made of concrete or brick. If you have no idea about the construction think of something you have seen and can us it as an example.

Think about water. Yes, thats right water. How does your project, building, project, shed water. Is there a roof? Are there parts of the building where people get wet. What happens when it rains? Have you drawn a roof plan.?Are there pavements, drains and gardens that soak the water up around the project? Also, think about sequencing what is  going to be built first? Is it the  frame or are there panels or other constructions systems or elements that order the construction sequence.

Any construction detail will help convince the clients you are a pragmatist and not some wild and crazy auteur struggling to make a living. In the eyes of the studio critics any kind of constructional nuance will help save you.

8. Diagram as you finalise the drawings.

Diagram, diagram and diagram.

If you don’t have time to draw it fully then diagram it. Diagrams also help you to think about how you will talk about it. Thinking about what you will say might then appear to be integrated with your actual diagrams and images.

What do you want to say? Which parts of the design best exemplify your concept? How do you want to promote or discuss the concept. How can you show this in diagrams.

The more diagrams you have the more the critics will love you and the more things you can explain, without laboriously drawing them completely, to the clients.

9. If you have done no work all semester do a section.

Just turning up with plans and a few hazy renders is a signal to every critic, and even client, between here and Antarctica that you have done nothing.

If you do a section the critics will love you. The clients wont neccesarily understand it but then you can explain it.

10. Go physical.

Make a physical model.

Even if its a bad bad physical model like the ones I used to do. You will always get some points for doing it.

Everyone loves a model.

Now that its the end of the teaching semester I am off to visit the ancient cities and landscapes in the interior of my continent. I will be back in a week or so and I would like to thank all of who who supported and read this blog so far in 2017.  

In Praise of Drawing: Six design things you cannot do in a computer.

Digital computing has destroyed essential elements of architectural design. Digital software is killing our architecture schools and the profession. When I read about Schooomaker (king of the market processes) or the other dudes in the parametric digital tribe my eyes start to glaze over when I hear the same old stream of consciousness about how the, fill-in-the-word-space-with-a-Zeitgeist-word, is going to change fucking everything. This Zeitgeist word is sometimes computers, robots, VR, AI, AR, smart infrastructure, 3D printing or some alliance of technology with ecological systems. But then, when I look at the productive design work spat out by the adherents of the digital tendency, in the words of the former FBI chief George Comey, “I feel mildly nauseous.”

Limited learning

At the level of design practice the digital impetus has wrought much damage in our schools of architecture. A focus on digital practice has limited the range of what emerging architects learn. This has been compounded by the ongoing development of  performance metrics related to financial outputs in our university sector. Much easier to teach a narrow version of architecture via digital computing and then dazzle everyone by pretending the design outputs are great. Usually, and on closer inspection, these outputs too often seem to be riffs on the orthogonal frame with plug-in boxes: straight jacketed versions of Cookie’s Plug-In-City with none of the fun. Too often the allure of the computer limits an understanding and practice of the design process.

Craft Beer

So let’s raise a unique and handmade crafted beer to the old ways: to sketching, drawing, to typology and composition, and to a more mindful consideration of ecologies than just making stuff look like bones, or aortas, or slimy mucus with aerated bubbles. The best architects draw on all available media to design. and here is my list of 6 design things you can do better outside of a computer.

1. You can annotate

You can actually write words on a drawing. Its true. You can use words like “maybe” if you don’t really want to do something. You can add room names, colours, and even thoughts (yes, actual thoughts) about the design’s next iteration. A great thing to annotate on a drawing is to denote different design options and iterations. Even better you can write numbers on drawings. Annotations can help bridge the qualitative and quantitative aspects of a design.

2. You can diagram quickly 

Architects love diagrams. They help to structure concepts and help you bridge the gap between a conceptual arrangement, or relationship, and an emerging form or figure. A flow chart, a graph, a complex social structure, a landscape or a site can be quickly mapped and diagrammed on a bit of paper. The smaller the better (joke).

Design diagrams can help you to remember what the fuck you are doing. Digital deisgn gives the impression that the designer is in control. But design is really about exploring the limts of control. It is about always skirting the line between the chaotic “what the fuck am I doing” and a stable and controlled order.

3. You can scribble and smash things up 

Yip, smashing up your digital model in parts is limited by the software. Digital software just whispers in your ear and urges you to extend and grow things. But with a small drawing you can easily and quickly smash something up into its constituent parts or fragments. You can scribble and cross things out. You can erase things. You can do this in a sketch to test and then see what something might be made of.

There is no point producing prototypes if they aren’t dissected and smashed up. Drawing allows you to draw prototype after prototype after prototype. The problem with digital and CNC computing is that the resultant prototype are too often the result of a linear and step-wise series. With sketches you can do the prototype first and then work back from there.

4. You can stick your head into the models

There is nothing like the joy of a physical model you can hold up to your eye, stick your head into and even place your whole body into. With a physical model we can easily and very quickly apprehend the design from different scales and perspectives. We can get both in and out of the physical model.

Will  VR be the same and supplant the physical model? I doubt it. This is because, we can easily get inside a VR environment, but I am not so about viewing a VR environment from afar or at different distance or scale. Moreover,  physical model’s models, depending on the material they are made from, have an abstracted presence that conveys information that may not be communicated through VR.

5. You can really get fuzzy

There is a tyranny of precision inherent in digital practice. Design precision is not something architects should necessarily value all the time. But with a sketch or drawing you can draw two, three or four or more lines over or near an initial single line. Linework in preliminary sketches and drawings are iterative and help the designer explore the tolerances and limits of a design in a given context.

Its fun to  put icky bits of paper over a sketch, and through further drawing change the design, ever so slightly.

6. You can colour in a lot

Colors are evocative. But, I fear the digital tribes have no need for the evocation of memory or tone. This because, colour is actually a real thing and there are a lot of colours in the world. More colors in a box of Derwent’s than there are on a colour wheel or pallete in a computer. It’s great to color code sketches to denote and then explore different tones, spaces, materials, or functions. Maybe in the digital world we forgot that real colours, like real fragrances,  are actually derived from the natural world.

Spin me around and around

How did architecture become a race to spin the model around and around, to zoom in and out, How did it become such a stylistic cliché and banal mix of Frei Otto structures, Darcy Thompson geometries, Penrose tiling and fractal geometries that look like unconvincing Origami. This stuff was boring in the late 50s and early 60s and it is still boring now.

The digital tendency masks the social constructs of architectural production and privileged taste-making. Whenever, I see the parametric polemics I always think of the original Futurists Manifesto. For a few minutes, Marinetti and the other Italian Futurists, were the brightest stars in the architectural firmament. The digital tendency is worryingly a re-enchantment of the Futurist trope: an impetus that seeks to legitimise itself with a universal history, and then simultaneously populate our shimmering screens with new figurative angels and demons. A polemic with an underlying passion for imagined enemies and the technologies of war (e.g. Drones).

Despite its claims to the opposite, the digital tendency abhors ecological memory and masks this loss with a belief in a universalising human agency. The digital is the contemporary engine of the Anthropocene.

For some of us architecture is still, and should be, a generalist pursuit. By this I mean that, it is a field of knowledge that spans between disciplines as well as media. But the worst of the digital tendency is rapidly turning it into the domain of techno-nerds with no memory for politics. After all, who needs politics when you can convince yourself that the parametric gesture, through its common and seemingly literal organic images, will bind the human species to nature. This unifying concept has always been a little paradoxical because it has facilitated the project of modernity in its orgiastic destruction of the earth.

So given all of the above, what’s wrong with designing outside of the computer?




So you think you can Design: 5 Nextgen rules for emerging designers.

If you think you can design, or think you are a designer, in this modern and contemporary Trumpian age read this. The traps you should avoid and what you should know is very different from older waves of architects. In practice and in your own career here is what I think is vital if you are to call yourself a designer. Certainly, if you are different in any way, and consider yourself to be a designer, I think it’s better to avoid putting all your energy into the traditional career pathways of architecture.

Each year you have been an architect you can multiply your age by 3-4. It’s a gruelling and demanding profession and that formula makes my architectural age a lot more than 100. Yes, in architectural age terms I am as old as Methuselah and this may be why I am both envious and in awe of newly emerging architects. Better educated, more technologically savvy and also young. Some of my much younger architectural colleagues have done things I only dreamed of doing when I graduated. I think this is because the more recent waves of architectural graduates are not paralysed by the old ways of the lone genius and the some of the moribund norms and traditions of the profession. So here is a few thoughts form my vantage point.

1. Designers don’t need  “the one” path career.

I once landed in Phoenix Arizona whilst travelling with a friend. I was meeting my Aunt and Cousin. Three minutes after we met my crazy American relatives whispered to me about my friend “Is she the ONE.” I just thought, OMG I cant believe I am actually related to these people. These days there is no “ONE” absolute career path for design architects. Maybe, there used to be a very simple career path for architects. Or it seemed that way anyway: Go to architecture school, work part-time for a few people, graduate and then get more experience, sit the accreditation exams, and then either end up in a firm or go the crash and burn option of starting your own practice and then crash and burn.

This particular career path was, I think, largely illusory. Yes, I do know people who have crawled their way up the practice ladder to become project architects, associates, associate directors and then maybe partners. It has taken some of them 25 to 30 years to do it and not everyone has the temperament to stay in the one place without going insane with boredom. Architecture takes a long time to learn but once it is learnt things can become routine and dare I say it boring. Others I know have done the hard yards in their own practices. But your own practice can take around 10 years to establish to a point where the cash flows are not volatile.

Compounding all of this is the nature of the construction industry which is based on an adversarial, project to project, and contract to contract culture. Gender discrimination is only the tip of the iceberg and there is a work life culture which is not as balanced as it should be. Career pathways are more ad hoc than planned.

So as a designer I think its best to avoid the pitfalls of putting all your energy into the traditional pathways. You need a few more career options. The might include non-standard ways to design and practice in and between academia, pro bono work, unique collaborations, competitions, as well as developing design expertise and research in a particular area.

2. Designers create new teams 

The role of the single designer who is the repository of all knowledge is a deadweight that hangs over the profession. A figurehead that everyone reports to or extracts design knowledge from. A taste-maker and arbiter.

Under the new rules new designers create teams rather than being the centre of a team. These new designers know that team diversity, collaboration and team processes are vital if they are to create design knowledge. The next generation of designers will be able to actually design and craft the teams they need for each project.

3. Designers communicate in new ways

The old school designers were not that great at communicating. Mostly they grunted a lot and said unfathomable things that sounded deep to the ears of young architects. Mostly this style of communication was to maintain and foster a kind of designer mystique or aura. There is still a bit of this about.

But in contrast contemporary designers need to communicate. They need to do this firstly with the teams that they manage. But they also need to communicate across boundaries with other disciplines and even more widely. In fact one of the key roles of the designer these days is to communicate across a range of social media channels (just like Trump and his Twitter account). Understanding these channels and doing this effectively is critical to positioning, debating and contesting design ideas in the global system that constitutes architecture.

4. Designers actively blur the boundaries 

Sitting in a Silo and pretending you are a designer doesn’t really work. Pretending you can design by, hanging out in your computer with the BIM models, the CNC machine, 3D printer or jiving with the robots, doesn’t really cut it for me. Architectural Design never was just about technical mastery. That was only part of the equation.

New designers nowadays are indeed skilled in and adept at the technological crafts. But they don’t sit in the silo of technology. They actively blur boundaries between domains of knowledge, systems and technologies; as well as theories and histories sub-cultures, groups, and teams. In fact designers are the ones shaping the boundaries between different fields of knowledge and groups.

5. Designers understand that Knowledge is the new currency

It  used to be all about the object, or materiality or presence. I would be rich if I had deposited a dollar in my Acorn’s account every time I heard the word materiality. In the 20th Century olden-times  of architecture  it was all about chasing the next big physical and large-scale commission. For many designers the physical object is where it is at. For many this remains the case.

These days I worry that this is emphasis on the object is just a little too phallocentric and limits the range of what we can do as architectural designers.

These days data, information and knowledge are the real currency of design. Designers now need to understand data analytics, advanced, diagramming mapping and coding. They need to understand these things in order to produce design knowledge and this knowledge may not necessarily be that archetypal prestigious institutional building or commission that every designer wants to design. It may also be a competition entry, a system, a strategy, a policy, a research project, a consultative process, an activist campaign and dare I say it a life.


Architects vs. Builders: Are builders the world’s experts at rent-seeking?

It’s getting towards the end of the semester and we are starting to talk about procurement and contracts in the Architectural Practice class. This inevitably leads to the issue of how architects relate to builders and contractors and which procurement pathways are better for our clients. It is also gets to the issue of which procurement pathways maximise design outcomes and give architects a greater degree of control over the process.

Of course, for those of you who read my previous blog on our alien overlords the project managers you can probably guess what is coming next.

The above picture the back of my bro’s car. He is a highly intelligent concreter and he spends his life existing from contract to contract, driving across the burbs in his Nissan for up to 4 hours a day.  As sub-contractor, he is regularly screwed over by the contractors and builders he works for. This is often when it comes to the last payment.

As a concreter, the type of work he does is hard and gruelling and the industry is not looking after his health. If he gets sick or can’t work he is in trouble. He has worked on bridges, tunnels, rail, pools, facades, toll roads and of course that noble of all structures the floor slab. At the time of the pictures he was doing concrete stairs in a high-rise apartment building.

So with this background in mind let’s make a few points from an architect’s perspective about the state of the Australian building and construction industry.

Builders vs. Architects.

 Builders will always blame the architect no matter what. It’s just an easier thing for builders to do. They will make out that architects are design orientated wankers who know nothing about construction. They are adversarial and combative negotiators. In fact contractors are more likely to blame the architect if the building has been actually designed. For a number of large public building projects around my city this has certainly been the case. In fact many contractors will often cover up their own missteps by blaming the architects and point the finger at “design” issues. Or that other great spectre “design changes.”

The other aspect of this is the way they will go behind your back and whisper into the ear of the client that you are an idiot. Many clients, including large institutional ones, do not often have the expertise to manage the conflicts arising out of these tactics, or have the knowledge to make the necessary judgements or trade-offs when a builder does this. The culture of the Australian construction Industry is riven with anti-intellectualism and these tactics usually work.

I don’t want to sound overly pedantic or didactic. But, for clients, large and small, arguably it is always in a client’s real interests to get an architect. An architect is an independent professional and carries professional indemnity insurance. Just like the lawyers, and just like the doctors. Why would you do otherwise?

Builders love to “design”

Of course, people don’t employ architects because they see them as being too “expensive.” Certainly, this is a notion that the builders, large contractors and project managers will readily promote. Yes, this is all about the dollar for the builders, whatever is cheaper and easier for them to do, they will do it.

They especially love, and are great at, what I call builder redesign. Usually this involves some pretence at simplification, minimisation or easy substitution. Before you know it those well-crafted spatial arrangements, geometries and details have been erased by the builder.

Builders will do anything or say anything to justify changes, variations or easier and better designed ways to do things. Yep, builders love to “design” stuff. They, in their own minds at least, are great designers. Who needs an architecture degree to design stuff? They will always tell you how much they love to design stuff and how much they know about design, which is generally based on the reality TV shows, and what they have observed at their local gastro-pub or shopping mall homewares store. Of course, they all love Utzon’s Opera House. But none of them would have the guts to do or support something like that nowadays.

All about the dollars

For the builder class it’s all about the dollars. Forget about design, life-cycle costs or zero carbon buildings. If there is some eaves framing and eaves lining that can be easily cut back to the top of the wall plate they will do it. It’s cheaper. You only have to drive out to the outer suburbs of my city to see the results. Tract after tract of houses without eaves. Who needs eaves when you can add a Fujitsu air conditioner

The rise of new forms of procurement have tended to diminish the role of the architect. Yet the best civic buildings in my our city have been procured by methods where the architect has the primary role to both design, oversee and deliver the project. In novated contracts, as soon as you get novated across the contractor will ask for a value management meeting. In PPPs (or PFIs) They will pretend to love your design if it gets them the job then they will butcher it.

Zilch policy initiatives.

Most big contractors will say or do anything to get their local governeloper to redevelop that large slab of industrial vacant land on the outskirts of the city. They will do anything in the name of low carbon, green star city densification. The all love to talk about ESD but they really don’t care.

As policy advocates the builders (e.g. The Master Builders Association) have spent a fair bit of time arguing against apartment standards. Their solution to building more “affordable housing” is not to create design innovation but to ease the regulatory barriers (especially planning) as can be seen here. It’s like they actually want more project homes without eaves and apartments with inflammable curtain walls to be built.

Zilch R&D.

 If the builders cared they would put money into construction and urban research. The inside of my bro’s car is his control centre and probably gives you a pretty good idea of the level and state of ICT technology in the building industry. It is an industry with a low technology base. This is where he does most of his business while he is driving about.


In the early 2000s I worked for the CRC for Construction Innovation. It was headed up by a civil engineer and its governing board had a few head honchoes from big builders. Its network comprised of a small tribal clique of contractors and CM academics centred around Brisbane; in other words, a network of mates. The case study and the semi-structured interview reigned supreme. Mates talking to mates. There was a lot of spin about technology futures that did not actually include architects (the naivety of it was unbelievable).

Whilst the CRC did produce some worthwhile intellectual property it produced next to nothing that could be commercialised. You would think after spending millions of bucks on research something might have come out if it apart from a few how to do BIM books. Construction Innovation related research in Australia has never really recovered. In 2013 Australia’s chief scientist Ian Chubb argued that after the CRC R&D investment by the builders in Australia fell into a hole.

Try this and then run 

The Australian construction industry is arguably riddled with bullies, brutes, hi-viz-vest-leering tradies (Tony’s tradies) whose minds are never elevated much beyond low prices and cheap results. Try talking to a builder or tradie about design and watch him (and usually a him) start up with the jokes and the eye rolls and the thought that you are an onanistic character regardless. Of course, cisgender is probably not a word you would even mention to a builder or a contractor: Try it and see what happens.

The upshot

Of course, there are bright things in the contractors and builder’s firmament in Australia. some of them are NAWIC and certainly there a few admirable builders who do support research in my workplace. But mostly it is the builders holding our sector back.

Architects are way smarter, are educated for far longer, have professional insurance, sit actual registration exams and have a better handle on innovation, construction, detailing, urban design and spatiality. Yet many of the builder brutes keep propagating the spin that we are useless aesthetes and could not construct our way out of a paper bag. As one of our graduates once said “I thought you were joking when you said that builders are evil vermin, but you were spot on.”

It’s time for architects in Australia to rebrand ourselves in the public eye. We need to be seen at the forefront of policy and innovation in the design and construction industry. Maybe we architects need to spend less money on the awards programs and the funky conferences and more on promoting our brand at large.