The Failure to Fail Fast: The parametric and BIM fail in architecture.

I recently came across two quite disparate fragments of knowledge in my travels across the so called interwebs. The first was an article at e-flux, one of those curiously named architecture websites, by the eminent American architectural academic Joan Ockman. Ockman’s article, which can be found here, details the trajectories of history and theory in architectural discourse since the 90s.

Elon is really Iron Man 

The second fragment was more fleeting. This was a glimpse, as one tends to get these days when scanning and cramming your brain with your social media feeds. I saw a post in my Facebook feed about Space X.  Space X is Elon Musk’s, the Iron Man like entrepreneur, attempt to develop cheap low earth orbit rockets. In the process a few of Elon’s rockets have crashed.

As Elon says, “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” This led me to a few other interweb mantras and business school type aphorisms such as: “Innovators today are told to run loose and think lean in order to fail fast and succeed sooner” and of course there is all the Lean Start-up and Lean Design thinking encapsulated in the “Fail Fast, Learn Faster, Deliver Fastest”

It was then easy to worry if I had missed something in the past few years. To worry if I missed the whole lean design movement. Had I missed another potentially career propelling and thought leading bandwagon?

The managerial ethos. 

Thankfully, Ockman’s article had a few choice quotes that helped me to think a bit more deeply. The article helped me to join the dots, in my mind, between the proponents of the lean design, fail faster, movement and the unfolding catastrophe that is the digital “revolution” in our profession of architecture. A “revolution” disguised in futuristic rhetoric that is diminishing the domain and agency of architectural practice and knowledge. Ockman writes:

“Now that capitalism is the most revolutionary force in the world, a triumphant managerial ethos has given rise to a host of new specializations laser-focused on issues of optimization, performance, and delivery.”

Citing the last issue of Assemblage, the influential (and oh-so-pedigreed) architectural journal, as a point at which political and critical theory departed from architecture, she argues that:

“Instead of history/theory today, what we now have is research. Research is the holy grail of contemporary architecture education, and the “laboratories” in which it is carried out–by white-coated architectural technicians, figuratively speaking–are its shrines. As for criticism: arguably, we now have something like “curation.” History/theory has turned into research/curation.”

In the current climate of neoliberal universities we, myself included, all prey to the idea that curation is research (but that’s probably the topic of another blog).

Productive creatives

But then, just before I got diverted into a curation-is-research reverie, there was this little gem:

“Yet in an increasingly commodified system in which architecture students are in training to become future members of a productive (and debt-ridden) class of “creatives” and, at the same time, are not shy about exercising their rights as educational consumers, the tradition of scepticism and negativity associated with critical thinking holds less and less allure.”

The need to fail

My thought linking all these interweb fragments is that the education, research and digital practices now inscribed in the global system of architecture does not allow architects to fail. It doesn’t allow us to fail quickly enough.

I don’t think Parametric design has failure built in to its processes. In the studio, once the designer is committed to a particular digital model it becomes a kind of juggernaut. Once the model’s relational geometries are loose, design is then just addition and refinement; addition and refinement in the service of optimisation.


As architects we are not teaching our architecture students to fail. In the neoliberal university it is easier to teach the architecture students that everything is ok.  Consequently, design teaching has become focused on serial techniques and technical problem solving disguised as “productive” and waste minimising techniques. A lather of doing good for the world.

The rhetoric of techno-future 

What also bound my own disparate thoughts together is the thought that the rise of the digital in architecture and its associated rhetoric of the future has, by and large, escaped critical scrutiny. The abandonment of theory in the 90s, in the name of a post-critical position, in architecture has led to the erasure of politics in our discourse. It is worth reading through Ockman’s article to see the outline of this history.


Both BIM and Parametric design seek to optimise and configure patterns rather than socio-material systems. In both of these architectural methods, the everyday experience of the user has been replaced by the gaze of the operator, design iteration has become the spinning of the model in the shimmering screen, experimentation has become additive rather than truly generative, collaboration is reduced to the efficient exchange of data and there is no sense that architects should learn how to fail and fast in the design process.


Let’s face it, Parametric architects don’t care much for history and theory. Who needs it when you need a job in an office after you graduate. Who needs the politics of the everyday when you can play in the spectral sphere of the digital. As a result parametrics as a movement in architecture has done little to free architectural discourse from a global system that perpetuates: entrenched privileges of professional strata, a culture of design optimisation and design research that is techno-utilitarian rather than thought provoking.

As noted here Architects need to think more about digital disobedience.

The Research Paradox for Architects: What is design research?

The image on the home page next to this post is a picture of a typical architectural researchers desk. Sadly there are people in this world who dont think architecture has much to do with research. Even I sometimes have trouble convincing people that I am actually doing research. 

Yet, in recent practice, architects have argued that architectural design is a research activity in its own right.  The research activities of architects include a range of problem solving and design related research activities such as data collection, workshops, internet searching and design drawing. In addition architects also research historic precedents, climatic issues, construction methods, products and materials. Design as research, also points to the emergence of research amongst architects related to the scripting of programmes, 3D digital modelling and prototyping. But is design research simply speculative or generative designing?

I like many other architects agree with the proposition that designing can be research. But this is clearly a problematic proposition.

 The design as research culture

Numerous PhDs, design studios, books and even entire courses have been built around the notion of Design as Research. In fact no one really knows how to write it: design research, or is it Design Research, or is it “design as research” ? But the real point is that, many architects regard design processes such as creating sketches, making digital CAD models, building physical models and building prototypes as research. But is that what design research is?

Of course, some have had a go at defining what it is. Dr. Peter Downton at RMIT argued that design is a ‘way of enquiring a way of producing knowledge; this means it is a way of researching.’ In a study of architectural design PhDs Radu asserts: ‘Architectural design is to architecture what research is to science’ and the ‘process of architectural design is close to the process of knowledge creation in the sciences’

No research infrastructure

Across the globe system there is clearly a lack of research infrastructure for architects at a number of levels; research infrastructure doesn’t just mean having big grunty boyo computers. In my country of Australia, research skills are not clearly articulated in the architectural accreditation system. Architects don’t often do formal research methods courses and few graduate schools of architecture offer courses around design research. Notably, my own school does offer such a course. Worse still design research outputs, such as buildings are not counted in research evaluation and publication exercises.

The reality of practice.

In actual practice, I fear that the documentary, formal and methodological structures supporting the organic activities of design research are fragmentary and adhoc. Few practices have formal R&D procedures in place, and few practices have developed procedures for articulating and documenting its original design outcomes. Aside from, practices publishing their projects for peers and marketing. much of the knowledge generated by all of the research in architectural offices remains largely implicit within firms.

Few firms write research reports on the information they collect and yet many often claim that research information is transferred to other projects. These adhoc practices make it difficult to ascertain, and argue, which aspects of architectural research are a contribution to new knowledge.

 Research models in practice

As a result, many firms flounder around when it comes to research. A lot have tied their own research models focused around digital design and fabrication. Other firms have focused their research on Sustainability. But simply having and seeming to follow through on this research focus is not enough. A few firms go beyond a simple focus on a strategic research area. Many dream of, or attempt to adopt, research models related to a management consulting. Larger firms are better at this. But this is, more often than not, without the well-worn and templates and proprietary methods that real management consultants have.

Moreover, only a few architects have embraced research models related to patent innovation and product development. I am still struggling to teach graduate archi students what Intellectual Property is.

The research paradox for architects.

The paradox is that many architects often state that research is a part of their design philosophy yet there is often no further articulation of this. Often in practice the organic integration of routine research and design as research activities makes it difficult to identify what is routine design and what is design which creates new knowledge. Establishing the contribution to knowledge of any research endeavour is necessary if it is to be regarded by non-architects as research. I worry that to many architects in practice R&D is about simply placing product and materials information at the back of a project file.

This is not to say that architects do not develop new knowledge or insights as a result of design processes. But, many firms appear to lack the methodological infrastructure, systems or research training needed to support R&D activities. This makes it difficult to isolate and position the research knowledge and innovations arising out of design research. Without these methodological and meta-structures in place it is difficult for architects to argue how design as research makes a contribution to knowledge. It also makes it difficult to position and distinguish new design from previous design research.

Policy failures

The focus on design as research, and its rise in architectural schools, has too often tended to emphasise research related to material issues: drawing, modelling, fabricating and constructing. But further research in the architectural schools could identify to what degree design as research in practices is focused on non-material and context-dependent topics: urban space, gender identities, teamwork, and cross cultural issues. Not to mention history and culture.

Arguably, few other professionals would actively have this broad range of skills and expertise at their disposal. Yet, the role of architects is not often accounted for or encouraged in national innovation systems or construction innovation policies.

All the politicians love a so-called smart and sustainable city. We require initiatives need to examine in the potential role of architectural design as research in national innovation systems. These considerations could lead to policies that highlight the linkages between, design as research arising out of architecture and new technologies, construction, industrial design and manufacturing.  But at present the design thinking and research of architects is often subsumed and only seen as a minor element in national innovation, research and educational policies. As architects, we need to build and develop our industry in a way that substantiate, explore and promote the design research agenda to the max.

Just designing, and then making something, and then claiming that this is research will not be enough.

Two tribes: Why design teachers are second class citizens.

As universities have become global marketing machines in search of students the architecture schools within them, have I think, suffered. Architecture schools are now embedded in corporate entities with slick brands, advertising campaigns, and strategic statements and so-called KPIs. As a result, our architecture schools are now stratified by two classes, or tribes, of knowledge workers.

Tribe 1: Travelling in First Class

University rankings and brands are these days built on reputation usually linked to research outputs and some notion of reputation. There are various ranking regimes and national processes and metrics differ from country to country. The problem is those research outputs, in my country at least,  are linked to traditional academic activities. Creative works or anything outside of this doesn’t get a look in. If these works do count they are certainly harder to count. Of course, writing a blog like this accounts for zilch or as we used to say in the bogan suburb: Jack Schitt. Moreover, I always suspect that anything cross-disciplinary, or from the sociological (especially ethnography), or the organisational sciences is viewed with suspicion by athe first tribe.

Brownie Points 

In many architecture schools the research brownie points mostly go to the historical or technical research (especially around sustainability)  and  sometimes, but less so, architectural theory gets a look in. There are lots of architectural historians (myself included I guess) and technologists in architecture schools. In regards to the brownie points anything related to design is often put into the too hard basket.

As a result the people who do well in these university systems are not the architects or designers or even the design studio teachers, teaching in the sludge of the undergraduate studios , it is very often the tribe of “traditional” academics. These academics find things to study, they ask research questions which more often than not they answer; they produce papers and they arguably, and demonstrably, contribute to knowledge. Their outputs unlike the design outputs are highly valued and easily counted in university systems.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this tribe and many of the people in it.

A few people might read their papers including other architects. Sometimes members of this tribe will produce books about architects and these are very often great. We all read the books and revere the authors. But in my experience few of these people, because of the enormous effort needed to develop an academic career, can design or even teach in the design studios. Some don’t even want to teach in the studios even though they have devoted their lives to the discourse canons and traditions of architecture. Sadly, a few have been so consumed by this struggle that they have forgotten about architecture; for these, the pedantic practices of textual research is all that matters.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

In the current university systems these are the people who have solid and enduring career paths. They are in many respects the model citizens who benefit from the institutions status and prestige. The good ones go up the food chain. Many of them made into first class when the earlier layers and regimes of metrics and KPIs were easier and softer; less brutal than they are now. It is probably too harsh for me to say that the Dunning Kruger Effect is at play here.

How to identify members of this tribe

So what do these people look like? There is no need to dehumanize them in the above paragraphs. So, what is this tribal first class actually like? I once made contribution to a short film on Boyd. I was a little overweight, stuttering and hardly able to make eye contact with the camera. Uncomfortably, spitting out the words about Boyd and his relationship to Japan with difficulty. The other academics, the first class tribal travellers, casually dressed, smooth talkers, patrician and relaxed as if they had just stepped out of the country club. Turtlenecks and Zegna jackets. It’s hilarious to see the comparison between myself and the others.

New Directions from Jacques Sheard on Vimeo.

Tribe 2: The Underclass 

There is however, in the graduate architecture schools and universities across the world, another tribe. These are the people who actually teach in the undergrad and post-grad design studios,  are a different class entirely . Mostly, they are sessional staff working on the run, part-timers, emerging practitioners or the handful of academics who can teach design and research.  Even these academics are on the run as they juggle design teaching with the traditional research outputs. In many universities these academics are thrashed because they are usually pretty good at teaching and they are constantly faced with working against diminishing resources, pointless organisational makeovers, increasing class sizes and all too lax entry requirements. Some of these people academics are, or were, practitioners, large and small, and many continue to practice and design and build.

Incentives and the Research Quantum

But what this tribe designs and builds or gets published is not often counted in the research quantum. It doesn’t necessarily really help your academic career, or as a sessional practitioner, to produce creative or design research outputs. Firstly, no one in the upper class tribe really knows how to measure creative and design outputs. Worse still I fear that the upper class tribe don’t have an incentive to help the underclass get the Research Quantum points based on design or creative outputs. Why should they? That would undervalue their position. Much easier to cast aspersions on the value of design knowledge because it is hard to quantify and is not technical or textual based research (Even I have been guilty of doing this).

One contradiction 

But as with the existence of all underclasses, in organisational contexts, there are contradictions.

One contradiction is that the first class tribe loves the second class tribe when when it comes to the impact metrics and surveys. In my country we have ERA, but this is an incredibly opaque process, which tries to capture impact. I have never been able to figure out the ERA process and how it works. I assume ERA is not that transparent. Conservative governments are always trying to put in place KPI measures of impact but they never quite get there.

These types of impact assessment exercises always help the university or school, but not the design orientated researcher on the ground.

Two tribes 

The under class are too busy trying to juggle everything, families, practices, projects and research that doesn’t fit into the neat categories of the upper class tribe.

Every design teacher whether they be in architecture, graphic design, industrial design, landscape or urban design has the dilemma of how to make their research count. How do we convince the first tribe that running a studio, doing competitions, or doing speculative projects designs or making a building contributes to knowledge? Broader research is harder to sell. Even research around industry structure of the profession, architectural innovation, or sociological studies of architectural practice. If its applied research then it’s somehow flakey.

But the first tribe love it when the citizens of the second tribe win awards and accolades. In fact when that happens the first tribe goes nuts and use these to bolster whatever institutional brand they need to bolster.

Consider the architecture school you know best and ask yourself how these two tribes relate. In some schools these two tribes are at war and in others they tolerate each other in a dysfunctional fashion. In some schools one tribe dominates over the other and this leads to all sorts of problems and research imbalances. Some schools are single tribes.

Guess who is making the money?

Oh and I forgot to mention another contradiction: The crazy thing is that it is the design studio teachers who are making the money for the universities and this money subsidises the research of the first tribal class. So at the end of the day it’s not about the knowledge or the discipline of architecture it’s all about the money. Unless resolved by the universities, and profession itself, notions of civility will be abandoned as these two tribes battle it out for resources.

In great architecture schools, it is not just about the money,  these two tribes collaborate, debate and have enough respect for each other by seeking to understand the other.

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. 

This is The End: Australian Architecture’s end game.

Like Martin Sheen in the above image most architects in Australia are barely surviving. Their heads are just barely above water. Like the Doors song “The End” one must question if the profession is heading down the gurgler as I noted in a previous blog. For those of you reading this in larger practices with lots of awards and institutional work or from the comfort of the large multi-disciplinary practices or consultancies spare a thought for the noble and small architectural firm. The tribal firm, protecting its own local territory and connecting to community, and yet struggling to survive. These firms exist in a highly competitive climate; most do housing , competing with every other wackadoodle price cutting, project manager, builder or huckster, and most are struggling to survive.

Tipping point. 

Without new industry wide strategies and approaches aligned with effective industry development the long term survival of these firms is not sustainable.  We are possibly about to reach a tipping point as baby boomer firm directors retire leading to even less critical mass in the profession. A tipping point and mass extinction.

Chart_Q7_170406Chart 1: Outsourcing is widespread 

Technology and Disaggregation

A few quotes from the architects who responded to our recent surveys will suffice:

“We see that conventional Architectural Services are not going to be sustainable in the future and are looking at other services and models of practice to survive.”


“Specialist Services, sadly, are a precursor to the the shame of the an industry being eroded by the increasingly acceptable practice of piecemeal delivery”

and this doosey from a practitioner working in the housing market:

That market is highly competitive and the fees were not sustainable and the liability was enormous. The role and respect for architects in those areas has dramatically reduced over the last 15 to 20 years.

In the practice class at MSD this week we had a Q&A panel on documentation. A practitioner who runs a documentation outsourcing company came and spoke. He is at the cutting edge of disaggregated services. He fills the gap for architects who can’t document or administer contracts. Some of the work of this practice is outsourced to documentation factories in South-East Asia. Increasingly technologies such as BIM are driving the commodification of architectural services. Design Development is almost non-existent these days. Ever tried explaining to a client what DD is? 

Chart_Q14_170406Chart 2: Competition is Intense 

Strategy and business plan education

Architectural education at large, alongside the accreditation standards, basically doesn’t give a fuck about anything outside of the box ticking. By this I mean any curriculum or syllabus, that might suggest that architects are more than just a profession of digital building technicians; more than a profession plying commoditized knowledge and processes. The univerisites simply want fee revenue, customer satisfaction and graduate employment outcomes. All of which conspires to corrode our discipline of architecture. Worse still, our own accreditation standards have been built around activities that, are not about analysis, entrepreneurship, strategic thinking or innovation but are about simply “doing it.” Doing the old SD, DD, CD, CA dance is what it’s all about.  Thank god those national competency standards still at least cover a knowledge of history and theory. It won’t be long before the university’s replace those aspects of our architectural education with CNC fabrication subjects. 

Business planning or strategy specifically tailored to architecture students is scant. Much easier to get the commerce faculty to give them a dose of generic marketing and branding. In response to our survey questions it is obvious many architects do not have business plans and I suspect this is because they are just struggling to get the work at hand done.

Chart_Q6_biz-plan_170406 (1)

                      Chart 3: Too few business plans 

Demographics and Diversity.

Yes, we still need more data and research into the demographics and underlying industry diversity. But the problem here I think is that architects think they are already diverse enough when they clearly are not. This is still a white Anglo-Celtic male dominated profession. This has hampered the profession at large from rejuvenating itself from within. It may be the efforts to rejuvenate the profession by correcting its misalignments with gender, race and class may now be too late.

Check out this great video and then think about the profession you know.


The architectural profession in Australia has had no research infrastructure for some time. As a result, architects have little knowledge about their own industry structure. Profitability, what segments of the market they dominate, various practice financial demographics, and the impact of technology. are all mostly mysteries. In the battle for survival it is always the larger firms that win out in driving industry policy, research and shaping industry structure. The problem is all of our current research on our industry, fostered by the peak bodies and associations, is catch-up research. Very little of it will add to the competitive standing of architects. It’s mostly about understanding how things stand. Not about how architects can get better at innovating. 

My own bitter experience suggests that the ARC research system, with few exceptions, has not served us well at all. As far as many architectural researchers are concerned it is a broken system. A few years back myself and two other middle career researchers joined with a small firm to submit an ARC Linkage proposal focused on small practices and BIM. We got excellent peer review reports back. The other researchers thought it was in the bag. One of them even had dream we had got it. But in that round the big money went to a project with eminent and credentialed researchers with a big practice partner focused on health. In the ARC system its much easier to get funding if you have been to an elite uni overseas and sometimes you don’t even need a PhD. Fair enough, that’s how the system works. It would be a better system if it was blind reveiwed. But it’s a system that is killing a profession that needs effective bottom up research as it struggles to survive.

The Perfect Storm 

It’s a perfect storm. Of course its easier to think that everything is ok. But everything is not ok. Architects in Australia may be at a tipping point. The profession is in a parlous state and even though I believe architects have much to offer our society and culture it is tragic many ordinary practices are stuck in the constant game of survival.

Getting Jiggy with Research: 6 ways for architects to create upstream knowledge.

Research is vital to architectural practice. So I thought I would rewrite, revise and update some of the practical comments from a previous post from December 2015. 

Research and Development is central to any relationship, engagement or linkage between architecture academia, practitioners and emerging businesses. Perhaps this goes without saying but too often it needs to be spelt out. Numerous architectural websites and brochures are full of statements about how research is valued and prioritised. But sometimes it all seems a little bit too “feel goody” and “mission statement” like for me. Architects need to be specific about their research aspirations.

Most architectural firms are keen to go upstream. By going upstream I mean creating distinct knowledge that helps a firm to get clients and charge more. There are however, I think a few things small firms and teams of architects can do to amplify their research capabilities. Even larger architectural firms would benefit from some of these suggested strategies about research.

1. Actually have a research strategy

Research involves developing knowledge or expertise in a particular area. But this knowledge needs to be integrated across the firm. For that reason it makes sense that an architectural practice would focus their research efforts in a way that aligns with their business strategy (if they have one). If the firm seeks to develop a competitive advantage in health, or facade design, or sustainable design or some aspect of urban design then its research efforts should align with this.

Whilst it is important, it may not be as effective to pursue research, or view research, as simply being about implementing new technologies in the office or figuring out what the next bit of funky software the firm should buy (see no. 2 below). Sometimes the line between these activities and strategic research is blurred. One office I worked for, in the earlier days of CAD, did spend a lot of time researching and understanding the expressive possibilities of CAD design and architectural representation. As CAD developed this gave them a large competitive advantage. Clearly the knowledge and research gained, as CAD systems themselves developed, had strategic benefit to the firm. In any case, I would always push for a line of research in the office that is at least aligned with its current strategies or with its intention to develop new areas of expertise.

Research is not simply about finding out about new materials, or the latest technical thingo, for your latest project and then filing the information into an electronic folder for later reference. Unless, of course you think that the knowledge you gain from the material and technical research process can be used elsewhere. But, I think that is what all architects think: That extra research or knowledge they gain on one project can be used on another. But I am a little sceptical about this as it seems too adhoc. Especially, if the firm does not have a research strategy or its projects are highly customised and different each time.

2. Wacky research is ok.

Of course sometimes architects might do research just for the hell of it (this kind of contradicts the first point above). There is a balancing act between conducting research to improve current capabilities versus working on seemingly new and radical innovations. Getting the balance right is important but sometimes research needs to be wacky. Research is about trial and error and indeed about making mistakes. That is in part what research is about. Buckminster Fuller is a pretty good example of this.

Politicians and shock jocks

Of course if you are a politician or a shock jock or a member of conservative think tank all research has to be somehow “practical” not “obscure” and have some demonstrable value to the tabloid reading public. I guess that’s how politicians and some journalists think. It’s a weird position to take. Because most of the people who espouse this view, especially the political class, have never have never really ever worked in the real world.

For those of us who have worked and struggled with their own business in the real world you understand that you have to undertake research, or take positions, that are risky or may not have an obvious or immediate benefit. But it’s the risky research that’s probably going to give a firm the real disruptive edge in business. Arguably, the obvious less risky thing is the thing everyone else is doing as well.

Firms, universities and individual researchers, gain competitive advantage when they pursue knowledge for its own sake.

3. Create a Research network

As one of my friend’s has done in his practice Architectural firms who prioritise research build an ecosystem of mentors, advisers and experts that they can interact with to debate and test new ideas. Almost all start-up companies will have advisory boards that advise them through the pitfalls and hazards of commercialising an idea and then growing. So why not architects? For architects, networking of course isn’t necessarily always about trying to find new jobs. It can also be about gaining knowledge of what is going on across the domains of knowledge where you practice. At least one person in any practice needs scan the horizon for new ideas or the latest research developments.

Although it is far removed form small architectural practices good example of creating a research network is the Google example. The Google platform is an ecosystem that includes consumers, software innovators, content providers and advertisers. It is a permeable system where outsiders can also become collaborators. Hence, it is not simply a matter of trucking in people or experts to help you solve a problem. It is about creating a network or ecosystem of collaborators who can help a firm to create new knowledge and to also understand what is happening within architectural and urban discourse.

4. Use your staff to create research knowledge.

Another dilemma for architects is how to organise a firm to do research. In the old days all wisdom in the office came from the Master. The so-called Master was not unlike Gary Cooper in the Fountainhead movie. He (sadly, always a he) was usually the architectural designer who by force of ego, class background, cachet of education, or through experience and perseverance.

When I worked for a “Master” in the 1980s as a young architecture student I could do nothing right and you can imagine what this did for my confidence as a designer. He was a truly good architect and in later years proved to be a designer of international note. But, he was also never wrong and always insistently right. Contending with the Master’s wisdom was really not a great career move. It was a little bit like being in a cult. Master’s love acolytes and they of course like acolytes who agree with them. The worst thing a firm can do is to create teams in its own image rather than diverse teams that I would argue are they key to creativity.

Ownership of new conceptual ideas or design processes more often than not is, and should be, shared. It never really resides in the mind of one person no matter how much symbolic capital they may have as a master. As they say at Pixar: “A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organisational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.”

This might be why my favourite model of Knowledge Management or is based on the Japanese management theoretician Nonaka whose work points the importance of knowledge as a vital source of competitive advantage, there is little understanding of how organisations actually create and manage knowledge dynamically.” Nonaka and his colleagues understand that knowledge creation in an architectural firm, or any firm for that matter, is a collaborative and iterative process.

5. Collaborate with academics.

Bring academics into your firm’s research ecosystem. The problem is academics are often time poor and hemmed in by teaching commitments and an overly regulated bureaucracy. On the other hand not all academics understand the dynamics of practice or business protocols. But, most academics in architecture schools love to do research. They also like to talk about it. Because of this it is a good idea to contact and foster the participation of academic researchers (like me!) into a practice’s work. Invite them in as critics. Invite them to the firm’s Christmas party. Get them drunk and see what they say. Allow them to participate in planning workshops or esquisses. This will help the academics understand the pressures and time frames of the practice. It will also get them thinking about what you do as a firm and what you can do better. It’s like having your very own free management consultant attached to your firm (sort of).  Before you know it you will become part of some useful collaborative research projects.

6. Teach a studio.

One good way to conduct research and create new knowledge is to teach a studio at an architecture school.

In setting up and running a studio the knowledge created can then help the studio leaders, as practitioners, to position and locate themselves in relation to various policy debates, and emerging programs, as they emerge in urban discourse. This enables a firm that teaches to gain an advantage over its competitors by actively being a part of an ongoing public and policy debates. After all isn’t that what it’s all about.

 I have been pretty sick this week with a cold I caught on the plane from the conference in Manchester that then turned into an excruciating sinus infection. But, this week at my great architecture school and faculty we are launching an entrepreneur’s breakfast. The basic idea is to get the disciplines within our faculty to engage and come into contact with entrepreneurs, founders of start up companies and for academics and higher degree students to have a greater appreciation of innovation systems, business entrepreneurship, the magical and mystical world of venture capital and perhaps more importantly how to manage small businesses so that they grow into more sustainable ones. 

Is BIM as good as it looks ? What Deleuze can teach us about BIM

In the Building Information Modelling (BIM) utopia representations of time are linear and easily progresses into a future where BIM enables seamless collaboration across the full gamut of design orientated disciplines. The viewpoint presented in the various BIM representations and advertising that litter the internet is often that of an eagle, or angel, freed of all earthly constraints and propelled towards a future BIM revolution. But unlike the critical theorist Walter Benjamin’s iconic image of an angel looking back on the wreckage of progress these images of BIM do not indicate a reflexivity that recognises that not every technical innovation succeeds or that technology has a social-technical dimension.

In theory, BIM project models paired with collaboration tools offer a number of significant improvements and benefits over traditional design, delivery and supply chain processes. Proponents of the BIM utopia claim that the BIM will change and be linked to augmented reality, enhance lean construction, scheduling, safety management, trade scheduling, progress measurement, design visualization and even architectural design studios.

But as some researchers have noted the BIM dream is not all it seems to be. For example the IFC’s, which are at the heart of BIM collaboration often “fails to provide complete interoperability.” 

BIM careerists, proponents and evangelicals claim that BIM is a new mode of visualization. Someone once said to me you can tell a BIM building because of the limitations of form that seem to be built into BIM software. Nonetheless, emerging from and circulating in BIM research discourse and the public domain the above claims are supported by a plethora of BIM representations. These often include strategic and operational diagrams, screenshot images and animations available in research papers, publications, reports, various how to do BIM manuals and numerous animations across the internet.

As the BIM industry has arisen as numerous, and in some ways glamorous, case studies and screenshot images are published and promoted as examples of successful BIM operation. The colours employed are seductive and colour is the key feature in numerous BIM screenshots. For example, a shimmering green is a often contrasted with yellows for services and purple. The viewpoint is often from a point looking above or below and is positioned to emphasise the layering of different systems and suggests a layered complexity constituted by the overlapping of many different small scale construction elements. With these highly seductive images it is argued that BIM can improve workflows through clash detection and management, better two dimensional drawing extraction, automated quantity take-offs, supply chain integration and facilities management integration.


The French Philosopher Gille Deleuze’s encounter with cinema is a useful, although to some it might seem surprising, critical framework in the BIM context. Deleuze wrote two philosophical books about cinema. Deleuze saw cinema as a “new practice of images and signs, whose theory philosophy must produce as conceptual practice.” Deleuze’s concern is not a philosophical investigation of cinema’s essential nature. Unlike the proponents of BIM Deleuze did not simply proclaim cinema as a technological revolution. Rather, he was interested in interrogating the cinema for its possibilities about what it might become. Deleuze argues that cinema establishes the problems of traditional subject orientated epistemologies. Deleuze cites Henri Bergson as a philosopher who opposed a view of the world that is predicated on a static and centred viewpoint or subject. Deleuze sees in Bergson a philosophy that accounts for the early technological advances of cinema as well as anticipating its later developments. But, Deleuze also saw the cinema as constituting a language of images. Deleuze’s conception of image is something which is neither representation, secondary copy, imitation or mimesis.

These perspectives suggest that BIM research R&D should oppose a concept of BIM that privilidges linear sequences, singular perspectives and robotic notions of construction that ignore the randomness of craft.

The above considerations suggest that new methodological approaches are needed in the area of architecture and BIM R&D. If BIM is to reach it’s full potential as a tool which saves resources and allows better architectural design outcomes. Future BIM research needs recognise the power of different representational modes, stochatsic and random events, social milieu and avoid seeing a building as a simplistic digital-technical object or diagram linked to a database.

Stochastic processes which are random and are capable of using agents and swarms to predict what will happen within BIM models may reveal more than the static and mechanical models which seem to plague BIM research today. Notions of time should be seen as being multi-layered and interdependent of sequential BIM animations and screenshots. BIM models should be seen as entities which develop over time from the beginning of the design process where there is a iterative transfer of information between designers, teams, and 3D representations of buildings built in computers.

In BIM research critical theory should be employed to ensure that the architects of the future do not relinquish their canon of knowledge regarding the craft of building to mindless databases.