Dynamic Decision-Making

August 10, 2006 · by James P. Cramer and Scott Simpson

Design is like chess in that for every given position, there are literally thousands of possible moves. More than one might be potentially brilliant, but only one move can be made at a time.

Design is like chess in that for every given position, there are literally thousands of possible moves. More than one might be potentially brilliant, but only one move can be made at a time. In chess, it's making the moves, not pondering the options, that advances the game. Each time a move is made, it precludes all others. Great chess players always think ahead - they have the ability to visualize the board in many different states. From this jumble of possibilities, which shifts constantly with each succeeding move, those who can visualize the path to success emerge as winners.

So it is in design - every design problem offers almost infinite possibilities, but only one option among many will actually get built. Every time a decision is made, countless others must be put aside. Which one will it be? Given all the variables, how does the designer know how (and when) to make the right call? Even more difficult, how does the designer convince others on the project team (especially the client) that this is the right way to go? A good decision poorly explained is unlikely to gain support and can easily fall by the wayside, yet a bad decision can be sold if it's convincingly presented, particularly if the client is not used to reading drawings.

The important point is that the process requires two steps. First, there is the creative aspect of devising different alternatives for consideration; this is like pondering all the possible chess moves. Secondly, there is the act of choosing, which is akin to moving the chess piece. Unfortunately, many architects tend to overvalue the first step and undervalue the second.

It's relatively easy for a trained designer to come up with multiple design options for any given problem, but it's devilishly difficult to make the final choice. It's like asking a mother which of her many children she likes best ...they are all different, and each one has special appeal. Yet to advance the project, choices must be made, and all the other intriguing alternatives must be put aside. Essentially, it's decision-making which is the essential act of design.

The trouble with decision-making is that architects have yet to develop a language that is truly accessible to their clients. Traditionally, buildings are delineated primarily by means of plans, sections, and elevations, all of which are two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional objects ("lines on paper"). But there are many important aspects and implications of the design that are not evident anywhere in the drawings. For example, what will the building actually cost? How long will it take to build? How much energy will it consume? How much will it maintained over time? These questions are as much a part of good design as determining form, shape, color, texture, and material.

The Next Architect understands this dilemma, and realizes that a different sort of language is needed to truly communicate design intent. Help is on the way in the form of advanced technology. We start with the realization that clients think much more easily in three dimensions than two, which is why physical models are so compelling. In any design presentation that includes both models and drawings, the models will consume 90 percent of the attention because they are innately more accessible. The problem with physical models is that they are slow and expensive to produce, they take a long time to build, and are difficult to modify. However, computer technology enables architects to create electronic models that, while not fully three-dimensional, are extremely realistic. The computer can create static models (axonometrics and perspectives) as well as animated models ("fly-throughs") that can be easily manipulated. This is especially important since many complex projects include user groups which are not trained to read traditional documentation.

But design is about much more than appearances. It must also address constructability, which is how the many parts and pieces fit together. Here again, technology is a great help, as software exists to facilitate coordination drawings, helping to make sure that the pipes, wires, and ducts can be threaded through the structure without conflict. There are also programs that track the amount of materials used. Scheduling software enables contractors to display in visual form when the various phases of work must be completed to keep things on track. Computers can also create shadow studies for any time of day during the year, and air dispersion models to make sure that there is no entrainment between the intake louvers and the exhaust fans. There are programs to track construction cost, including factors for geographic location and projected inflation rates.

The current buzz in design software is "BIM" or "building information modeling," which combines many of these aspects in a single computer program. BIM is much more advanced than CAD (computer-aided design) software, to be sure, which in turn replaced what was known as pin-bar drafting (high-tech at the time!). As sophisticated as BIM might seem today - it is clearly state-of-the-art - it's inevitable that tomorrow something even sexier will be invented. The point of all this technology is to make decisions visible and understandable to the people who need to know: clients, contractors, and consultants, and of course architects. Knowing what's going on and truly understanding the implications is the best way to take full advantage of the collective wisdom of the team.

Technology holds the promise to re-shape the entire design and construction industry. It doesn't take much of a leap to imagine that traditional construction documents will soon be obsolete, that essential design information will be conveyed via CDs or wireless broadcasts to construction sites (in 3-D and in full color); that shop drawings will be eliminated entirely; that each worker in the field will have a miniature camera attached to his or her hard hat so that problems can be instantly analyzed and resolved on the spot; that computer tracking will manage the delivery of material to the site and the removal of construction waste; that pricing will be handled by means of reverse auctions to get the best possible value at any given time; and that debit-card technology will be used to speed up invoicing and payment, and so forth. If the design and construction process could be made merely 10 percent more efficient (a very modest goal indeed), this represents annual savings of well over $100 billion, which is four times the aggregate fees paid to architects. That savings potential is more than enough to pay for process improvement. The technology to accomplish all this already exists today. All that's required to take full advantage is dynamic decision-making.

"Your Inner Architect" and "Dynamic Decision-Making" are excerpts of Simpson and Cramer's latest book The Next Architect: A New Twist on the Future of Design, available from the Ă–stberg Library of Design Management and the DI Bookstore.

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