Architecture 2.0
November 9, 2007 9:06 AM   Subscribe

Calling all architects! How to revolutionize the field of architecture?

Quick background. I'm an architect -- I design coffee shops and houses (new or remodel) for wealthy clients. More accurately, I'm at a designer/project manager level, not licensed, working for about three years. I'm in the United States.

I had a discussion with my friend about why revolutions in architecture have been slow or non-existent. I don't mean revolutions in building materials or construction practices or even green building techniques, I mean revolutions in the day-to-day practice of architecture, as compared to, say, software programming. The Internet championed a rapid spread of information around the world and gave birth to a new generation of young programmers or entrepreneurs who created new services from scratch and took over the world: Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Facebook...

Programming, to me, seems easier. In my previous life as a web designer if I got lost on a particular CSS attribute or needed to know how to get this tricky layout to work in IE all I had to do was click around on the Internet, and it wasn't long before I found the answer I was looking for. Support for PHP and mySQL were excellent. This is the kind of thing the Internet was designed for.

But now I'm an architect. And if I have a very real question about what kind of wall construction would be soundproofed for private conversations, or what a typical knock-down door frame detail looks like, or how thick a stud has to be so a wall is stable at 15'-0" -- for instance-- these are questions that are not always easily answerable by Google. Sometimes they are, but the quality and breadth of information that's readily available online for programmers doesn't exist for architecture. Instead we rely on calling vendors, consultants, engineers, architects with more experience. There's no central place on the Internet for shared information to answer a quick question. Why isn't there an architecture wiki?

I'm thinking of starting one. Here's the big question: if you're an architect, or work in a field related to architecture (whether that's as an engineer, or interior designer, or a contractor, or even a tile reseller) is there anything you've always wished you could find the answer to on the Internet but couldn't? Give me some examples of things you'd like to see. Would you use or contribute to an architecture wiki?

Bonus question: why is it, only now, that someone (Autodesk) has figured how to automatically link door and window schedules to doors and windows you draw? This is a trivial software problem, isn't it? And is there any open-source architecture CAD program?
posted by lou to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This is a trivial software problem, isn't it?

I am extremely bitter, personally, about the state of software in the construction industry. However, they do have reasons for it: every project is basically a one-off deal so you can't optimize for a particular case, software has to be used by wildly diverging people on wildly diverging projects, margins are thin, and every project involves coordinating among multiple organizations so once you get something that works you're highly motivated to just leave it alone.

As far as the spread of information goes, never underestimate the power of lawsuits -- in the construction industry the standard practice if something goes wrong is to sue everyone. Not just people who might reasonably be involved, but everyone you can get your hands on.

This impedes the flow of information because it makes people unwilling to say anything that might conceivably get them sucked into a legal case. It doesn't matter that I wasn't to blame -- I still have to pay a lawyer to respond to the suit and get me removed. That costs money, money that I didn't earn when I gave free advice.

People ask me things all the time that I damn well know the answer to, and the only answer I'm allowed to give them is "That falls within the professional judgment of the design professional involved, subject to the approval of the local building authority having jurisdiction"

...take a wild guess how popular that answer is.

So, if you undertake an architecture wiki, be goddamn sure you've tied up all the legal loose ends. Because someone will come along and sue you some day after they've fallen off a roof on a jobsite.
posted by aramaic at 9:55 AM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Autodesk has had the drawing-schedule linky thing for a few years, so it's not *brand* new, although it might work much better now than it used to. I don't know from experience, as I haven't actually gotten into Revit yet.

What it sounds like you're basically trying to do is put Architectural Graphic Standards online, which would be awesome. That book is invaluable for information on clearances, anthropomorphic data, standard dimensions for just about anything, finishes, etc. I could go listing stuff info that I'd like to see on a site such as what you're describing, but it would take a year and it's pretty much all in that book already. Francis Ching's Building Construction Illustrated is kind of a Cliff's Notes version of the book.

I think there are a couple reasons that what you're proposing hasn't happened yet. One, standards differ from area to area and country to country, so what works in one place might not work someplace else. This is especially so with things related to building codes, where different areas will have different concerns--like Michigan would be really worried about providing for snow loads, while Los Angeles wouldn't care about that at all but would be very concerned about your lateral load design in case of earthquakes. Two, people like to be able to make money off of all this stuff they know, so Graphic Standards costs $170, the building code costs over $200, and joining the AIA so you can get contract forms and all sorts of other stuff runs over $500 annually. Three, a lot of contruction factors and ratings depend on what products, materials, and construction methods you use, and the products and materials side of things is changing constantly. New or revised products, new ways of using things (i.e. EIFS wasn't originally supposed to be used in exposed exterior applications...but...oh well), and responses to lawsuits coming from improper uses of products (i.e. EIFS wasn't originally supposed to be...hmm) change specifications constantly. Different firms and different branches of construction or design all have different standards that they follow. Listing pro

I think your best approach might be to start with what's in Graphic Standards, and branch out from there, adding the most universal information that you're able to. Otherwise, you're just putting in a bunch of stuff that could potentially be misinformative.
posted by LionIndex at 10:00 AM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have no experience in architecture specifically, but I would guess that part of the problem is that people in the field don't necessarily want all the information out there. As you know, architects are able to bill very well for their services.

Second, I don't think that there can be a single resource for a lot of the questions you present. My father-in-law is a contractor for high-end custom homes and he regularly comments about how he continuously learns new techniques, materials, and products every day - after 30 years of building. You ask two framers how they would set up that 15' wall, and you may get two different answers - and if an architect doesn't know how to make that wall stable, they should really go back to school or apprentice some more (I realize its just an example).

Basically, I think your comparison to programming falls apart in reality. Programming languages are meant to be open and taught, consistent from one person to the next. While there may be several ways to approach a problem it's always based on the same structure. On the other hand, everything in building relies on other parts - windows aren't made the same from company to company, doors vary, tiles are not exact, etc. If you want to have some fun, go out as a structure you designed is being built, and listen to what the the framers have to say out loud about parts of the plan, usually broken up with curses.

You're also dealing with a technically savvy user base versus an industry largely based in manual labor. My father-in-law knows a ton about building, and uses his computer for basic business tasks, but he would have no desire to sit down and fill out sections of a wiki for hours.

I think your biggest stumbling block will be on the contribution side. Vendors want you to talk to them, not rely on a third-party website. Some shitty framer will tell you what that 15' wall should be, without taking into account any load it might bear. An inexperienced architect will read that suggestion, put it in a plan - and another shitty framer will build the wall accordingly. Fun for all involved.
posted by shinynewnick at 10:05 AM on November 9, 2007

Because like most industries yours is protectionist. Whats the incentive to publish this information? Pay for hosting? Keep it up to date? Legal liability? etc?

When it comes to programing languages and software, well, its not as protectionist, developers and users are very outspoken, vendors can inexpensively build a web presence, are very open, etc. Computer hardware, by comparision, is much more closed and protected. I think both approaches make sense on an survival level. No developers will jump to your platform unless its easy to access and somewhat open. The incentive for remaining closed means only the experts will be able to monetize it.

I also dont think this is a big revolution with computer programming. You still compile stuff. Sure you have nicer IDEs and newer languages, fancier scripting, but its still the same. You could say that socializing has been revolutionized because of social sites or that dating has been revolutionized because of dating sites. I would say those activities simply have more options than before and have not be revolutionized.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:25 AM on November 9, 2007

I have no experience in architecture specifically, but I would guess that part of the problem is that people in the field don't necessarily want all the information out there. As you know, architects are able to bill very well for their services.

Sure, but the things I was talking about were more charges within the industry--architects charging other architects to use their stuff. It's more of a competition thing.

Charging clients is completely different. You could have completely accurate, perfect information and drawings on a website that you can go download stuff off of, but unless you're just building really simple residential stuff, you won't be able to get a permit without an architect's stamp on it.
posted by LionIndex at 10:28 AM on November 9, 2007

I've seen that Wikis often spring from existing knowledge bases and communities rather than sprouting spontaneously. If my ultimate goal was to start an architecture Wiki, I would start by first creating an architecture internet forum. To avoid the issue of dumping architectural practices out into the public, perhaps have a "professionals only" section that requires some verification of credentials before being able to access that section.

The first thought that comes to mind is, the urban planning website. Yeah, it's not architecture, but there is some overlap there; I think the two fields of urban planning and architecture, at the very least, butt up against one another. I am member there even though I rarely post, just because I find the subject interesting. You may want to join there and see if they can either provide you with what you need or at least provide an example using a similar field.

As far as the legal aspect goes, I know law/lawyers forums have been discussed on MeFi before; you may want to check some of them out since they probably have the same issues and they are better equipped to deal with the legal ends.
posted by Doohickie at 10:38 AM on November 9, 2007

As someone that works for a professional association, my first thought is this is what associations are for. The benefit to the public that occurs when professionals are allowed to get together and share knowledge is part of why associations are given a special non-profit (501-c-6) status by the federal government.

A quick glance at the AIA website shows they have something called knowledge communities that may be similar to what you are talking about. This kind of thing is all the rage in association management these days, although associations tend to be about 2-5 years behind the private sector in technology related stuff. Many associations are now doing message boards, wikis, online communities of interest, knowledge sharing, etc. And if you think they can do more or better, join and start participating.
posted by misskaz at 10:39 AM on November 9, 2007

architects charging other architects to use their stuff. It's more of a competition thing.

Sorry if my initial point didn't come across, but this is basically what I meant. Why would a professional choose to spend his time giving away information he could otherwise charge for? If you're talking about individual consultation, I can understand the occasional professional suggestion - but not putting it out there for everyone to see (not to mention the liability).

You work in an industry where specific knowledge is valued and not that easy to acquire. As stated by another user, codes and practices vary so wildly from location to location, the best bet seems to be consulting experienced architects in the same area.
posted by shinynewnick at 10:56 AM on November 9, 2007

Do you mean an detail bank? If so, check out AEC Cad exchange.
posted by mightshould at 10:57 AM on November 9, 2007

- architects make less than any other professional with a similar education and level of responsibility / liability exposure.

- there may not be a single answer in every case, but a well-designed site could present sample cases and rules-of-thumb, while listing caveats and adjustments for geography, code, and so on. Or each factoid could be tagged and searchable by geography.

- Your programming world isn't cut and dry, either. What about big-endian vs. little-endian architectures, finicky compilers, incompatible device drivers, etc.? Heck, just try to list all of the different computer languages in use today -- do they really all use a consistent structure?? Thank your lucky stars that you DO have the kinds of resources that lou is wishing for, when you need questions answered. I don't see a compelling reason why designers couldn't have the same kinds of resources, except that ours would necessarily be more complex.

- information benefits contractors as well as designers. If a framer thinks that designers are so stupid, he'd be welcome to contribute his knowledge to the collective good.

- the construction industry is just as technically advanced as any other industry you can name. Rocket scientists? We design and build their clean rooms, ventilation systems, fire protection. Computer programmers? We design and build their server farms, engineer the cooling loads, spec every nut, bolt, and wire. We don't just build stick-frame houses -- surprise!

- ideally, vendors would contribute to a resource like this. In fact, virtually all of them already do contribute to sweets, but the problem with sweets is that the website kinda sucks and it's a PITA to get relevant information quickly.

- the point of open collaboration is peer review. See wikipedia. It's not the ultimate reference, but neither would lou's site be the final word: that's what building codes and municipal building safety departments are for.

I think it's a good idea. In fact, there are existing sites, books, etc. that sorta go in this direction, but I'd love a searchable wiki-like database that's tagged for applicability by code or geography, and offers information / specs / CAD / 3D files according to relevant standards. If you could get the various standards bodies & agencies to buy in, you wouldn't even have to worry about getting sued; each agency could audit the info to ensure accuracy. You'd just need some kind of financial incentive to get them involved.
posted by Chris4d at 11:00 AM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks mightshould, that site is quite cool.
posted by shinynewnick at 11:00 AM on November 9, 2007

I agree this would be great. If you do it, include some urban design standards, too. (Eg, examples of narrow street dimensions that work.)
posted by salvia at 11:12 AM on November 9, 2007

Chris4d - Apologies if you took offense to my post, it wasn't my intent to belittle any part of the industry. I'm in it - real estate sales, quite possibly the most overvalued part of the entire process.

-I know architects aren't raking it in, trust me.

-My comment about the framers is that everyone has their own perspective on the project from various experiences. Not to say that the framer is right, by any means. The guy who framed my house was a fast, hard-working know-it-all, and we had to go back and make a few "adjustments" after he was finished.

-I certainly wasn't talking about engineering clean rooms for NASA. I specifically mentioned by background was custom built homes, so I really was just talking about stick built. Of course engineers and designers will tend to be technically savvy. My comment to that was about the hands-on workers in the process - the guys with the day to day construction experience.
posted by shinynewnick at 11:16 AM on November 9, 2007

sorry for the rant, I'm grumpy.

I think what excites me about this idea is taking all of the information that out there and actually making it more usable. It's a great idea, because the resources available now are pretty lame.
posted by Chris4d at 11:17 AM on November 9, 2007

I hear there is a group called the American Institute of Architects to which you can belong as a professional. They even have a 2.0 website!! Sure it will set you back a few hundred buckaroonees but they have all the info you need? I'm surprised Google hasn't turned you on to them yet?
posted by JJ86 at 11:20 AM on November 9, 2007

Just to underline that point: I just skimmed through my, and there are no fewer than 50 sites that I've had to wade through for information (not to mention the bookcases of building codes and standards here in the office) just in the year since I graduated. You're talking about a massive undertaking, but that's what would make it worthwhile. Besides, wikipedia started out small too.

And whoever developed the special brand of legalese used to define construction standards ought to be shot.
posted by Chris4d at 11:24 AM on November 9, 2007

And whoever developed the special brand of legalese used to define construction standards ought to be shot.

Heh, wait until you delve into the exciting world of ISO standards. It gives me a headache just thinking about it. I cannot imagine serving on one of their committees without going completely insane.

...are we in stage 60:60, or 90:93? 90:92 perhaps? What's our ICS? Is it 25.80.01, or 01.080.20? Am I on TC207/SC5, or just TC207?

Christ. No wonder standards updates take so damn long; these people must spend half their life trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
posted by aramaic at 11:34 AM on November 9, 2007

Response by poster: Guys-- I'm blown away by the discussion here and I know it's going to be challenging on several fronts, what with potential legal challenges, plus trying to juggle the vast amounts of varying information that exists. I wish I'd be able to have time to respond to a lot of these points individually but I just don't have time. But you guys have given me a lot of encouragement and a lot of things to think about, and I'll be diving in with a wiki setup once my web server upgrades to PHP5 (mid December, which is forever, I know). I'll update on Projects once it gets started. I do want to include a discussion forum so people can discuss more in-depth or specific problems, but that will come after the basics information in the wiki.

A word on the AIA and such associations-- while they do serve a purpose, I'm a little soured on the level of bureaucracy that exists in the field of architecture. That discussion isn't really germane to this particular endeavor, other than to say I think they're not going to be easy to mobilize to do what I'm thinking of. The money, too, is another major factor. The internet is powerful because it allows free flow of information, and that's what I want to encourage. Right now, there's free information that sucks, and excellent information that's expensive, and if I can hit the magic target in the middle where free information is actually pretty good, within, say, a year, then perhaps I can make life a little easier for the students and younger architects like myself who have spent half a day trying to find information their firm didn't have the money to pay for.
posted by lou at 2:33 PM on November 9, 2007

You don't need to start it big with all the boxes and all the data.

You could just make a blog about it, which would resolve several problems at once: you could quote sources available on the web, like MeFi and Boing Boing and countless others are doing; other people could contribute; a good tag system would make it searchable; you wouldn't be legally responsible for the content: it's available elsewhere, you just point to it.

If it snowballs fast, you'll have a good problem: too many contributors, too many readers, too much information to store. Maybe then the AIA or the CCA, or Bechtel or SNC Lavalin will be delighted to sponsor your upgrade.

On preview: eh.
posted by bru at 3:40 PM on November 9, 2007

lou mentioned: A word on the AIA and such associations-- while they do serve a purpose, I'm a little soured on the level of bureaucracy that exists in the field of architecture. That discussion isn't really germane to this particular endeavor, other than to say I think they're not going to be easy to mobilize to do what I'm thinking of.

The point I was trying to make, albeit indirectly was that they are already doing what you want to do. The Knowledge Communities sound nearly 100% the same as your Wiki idea. By directly competing with AIA, I think you would be dooming your venture. The experts are already part of AIA and I think they would be less inclined to devote additional superfluous effort to a lesser project. Good luck though.
posted by JJ86 at 7:03 PM on November 10, 2007

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