Monday, October 5, 2009

Post AIA Conference Post

I wanted to write a brief reflection about my experience at the conference including some of the highlights as I think it would be relevant to the architecture community at large.

The three themes of the conference, Building Information Model (BIM), Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), and sustainability certainly resonated throughout the seminars. So much so that, in many cases, the content of several seminars overlapped.

What I really wanted to convey to you was the impact of the opening and closing keynote speakers. The first speaker, Larry Prusak, talked about knowledge for an hour and a half. And while that may seem like a boring speech to sit through, he delivered it with such wit and enthusiasm that we were all on the edges of our seats. I easily could have listened to another 2 hours.

He talked about knowledge as the new commodity but, paradoxically, we are unable to exchange it as a commodity. And, unlike the old standby commodities, land, labor and capital, we don't run out of knowledge when we use it. In fact, it tends to increase when we share it. Some memorable quotes:

Knowledge has the tendency to stick. It's sticky.

Cognitive Diversity.

We should be teaching children rhetoric instead of calculus.

He referred to many present-day and historical references, describing companies like Intel that scour the globe for personnel and a company in Norway that has 30 "idea makers" whose job it is to find new ideas by talking to researches, academics and scientists throughout the world and bring back those ideas to the company.

What does this mean for architects? In the last 100 we have become more of a private club rejecting outside ideas or even closing ourselves off completely as a result, in my opinion, of our huge, bloated egos. I’ve often heard architects complain about structural engineers or contractors. In my experience, the more successful projects have been those where there is more of a collaborative effort and the architect welcomes the advice from contractors and engineers rather than stifling them at the risk of being proven wrong.

The closing keynote speech by Dr. Daniel S. Friedman, Dean of the College of Built Environments at Washington University was equally compelling and an appropriate way to end the conference. He talked about the profession changing, or rather, not changing while the world around it does. He suggested it was leaving us exposed to the potential of deregulation and referenced the deregulation of architects in the U.K. With all the talk about BIM throughout the seminar, we have to realize that we are no longer representing buildings with lines but we are now building models with objects, in effect simulating construction. This has the potential of bridging a huge gap between professionals and lay-people or students of architecture that previously existed, potentially lessening the value of the architect.

He proposed changes in the way architecture students are educated as well as the need of seasoned practitioners to teach and criticized the current system of tenure, saying some of these professors have never practiced and will never retire reducing the chances for change to occur at the university level.

He likened his new profession of architecture to that of the scientific or medical community in which university education, and especially research are extremely important to their respective fields. I've often regretted the fact that we in the architecture community are so competitive that there is a lack of collaboration that I feel is sorely missing. Perhaps if we had some kind of governing body or publication, like the Journal of Medicine, architects would be more inclined to share their ideas as there would be a method of providing and tracking acknowledgment.

On academia, he had 10 principals that he has been proposing throughout universities and to the NAAB:

1 treat the entire curriculum like studio - all studio all the time
2 use research to drive design (design as skill, design as an epistemology)
- type drove 19th
- program drove 20th
- research drives 21st
3 teach more building science (NAAB criteria should be ~ 50/50 in technical knowledge)
4 mandate teamwork
5 replace the jury system with studio rounds (like medical rounds / grand rounds for final reviews)
6 dissect abandoned buildings (access to building pathology…)
7 use case method to teach professional practice and ethics (courage to face uncertainty)
8 interdigitate research and internship
9 require internship for accreditation
10 quality interns for licensure at graduation

One of my favorites is the Studio in the Round, as doctors have, in lieu of the current system of critiques and jurors. He criticizes the current system saying we teach our students how to fail rather than how to succeed.

I spoke to him afterward and suggested that he could tackle architectural education reform from two ends rather than from just the universities. If the AIA has been able to incorporate mandatory green Learning Units, why not mandatory research or teaching units?

If you ever have a chance to hear either of these two gentlemen speak, I highly recommend it. I also recommend following Dr. Freidman’s work. Change is inevitable and it remains to be seen whether we as architects will step up to the responsibly or whether we will continue to ride the wave while outside influences force us to change to accommodate them. Lets put the leader back in architect.


  1. Very good post. The comment about bloated egos is right on!

  2. " In my experience, the more successful projects have been those where there is more of a collaborative effort and the architect welcomes the advice from contractors and engineers rather than stifling them at the risk of being proven wrong."

    so key! despite conflict, everything works better when more brains collaborate to find a solution...we need to get comfortable working together.