Posts tagged with "phil bernstein":

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How mass timber can help architects rethink “basic services”

This is the fifth column of “Practice Values,” a bi-monthly series by architect and technologist Phil Bernstein. The column focuses on the evolving role of the architect at the intersection of design and construction, including subjects such as alternative delivery systems and value generation. Bernstein was formerly vice president at Autodesk and now teaches at the Yale School of Architecture. The topic this week in my practice class is “Scope of Services,” where we examine the architect’s relationship to the client’s work, to wit: What, exactly, does she have to do to deliver the project? The idea of “Basic Services” is central to explaining traditional practice, in that it’s the way we routinize our efforts through standard stages of effort (schematic design, design development, and so forth), structure decision-making, and, almost as important, create a basis for protecting our limited fees and invoicing the client. The idea of basic services or even “phases of design” has been under pressure for some time, mostly under the delaminating influence of technology. Long gone are the hand-drawn, single-line diagrams that once comprised the end product of schematics, just as transferring design intent to a builder may include BIM data or digital geometry in addition to traditional two-dimensional construction documents. The fluidity of digital data, and the purported insight that accompanies it, has blurred and expanded the system boundaries of services themselves. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the latest thinking about the use of mass timber as a fundamental building material for cities, work pioneered by my faculty colleague Alan Organschi of Gray Organschi Architecture. Alan argues persuasively that there is an opportunity to rethink the systems of carbon, energy, material production, design, and construction by the thoughtful and systematic use of engineered lumber—a renewable resource—in urban construction, where the forest is not just another source of raw material but also a place to store carbon. His thinking is not unlike Kiel Moe’s at Harvard, who posits that buildings aren’t independent objects that merely coexist with the systems that produce and sustain them, but rather are integral parts of those systems. Architects should ignore the resulting system boundaries created by constructs like, for example, the idea that our work be something called “Basic Services.” Both Organschi and Moe believe that architects must change the scale of their influence beyond the materialization of form by understanding, incorporating, and (dare I say it) controlling the flows of capital, energy, materials, and production. We need to replace our understanding of the supply chain with an overt ability to create and optimize it. This idea is immediately appealing, harkening back to the original assertions of modernism and its putative benefits for production and society, but equally daunting and intractable. This is precisely why Organschi’s claims about mass timber are so important: They represent a clear “through-line” from the means of making to the creation of form that is at the heart of the architect’s design proposition. Architects have always been part of a systems-design problem, and today’s digital tools that allow the representation, analysis, and optimization of systems fit perfectly into these new responsibilities. The digitization of design has blurred the traditional boundaries of our “systems of service,” but there are new opportunities emerging as design is informed by new technologies like systems engineering, big data analysis, and optimization, machine learning, and integrated network design. These tools will wend their way into innovative practices like Organschi’s, necessary to increase the architect’s understanding of and span of control over the supply chain. Organschi’s work thus challenges the entire idea of “Basic Services” as it currently drives practice—calling into question the roles of technology, research, professional certification, even the compensation to the architect for taking on such responsibilities. A “net zero” building means nothing if the systems that delivered it generates huge amounts of unaccounted carbon. We’ll need to reconsider and remediate all the systems boundaries of design—our internal protocols and processes and our relationship to the supply chain—to have true influence on the implications of our buildings. The efforts around mass timber described in this issue are some of the best thinking on this front so far.
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How can architects adapt to the coming age of AI?

This is the fourth column of “Practice Values,” a bi-monthly series by architect and technologist Phil Bernstein. The column focuses on the evolving role of the architect at the intersection of design and construction, including subjects such as alternative delivery systems and value generation. Bernstein was formerly vice president at Autodesk and now teaches at the Yale School of Architecture. In my last column I explored the potential impacts of next-generation technology—particularly machine intelligence (also known as artificial intelligence or AI) and crowd-sourced knowledge—on the hegemony of professionalism for architects. This question was recently explored further by Daniel Susskind, one of the authors of an Oxford study published in a RIBA journal article entitled “The Way We’ll Work Tomorrow”—which suggested that modern knowledge work, like much of that performed by architects today, should be considered not so much as “by job” as “by task,” and that many of those tasks are likely to be automated in the future. Professions exist to systematize expertise and, by extension, control access to it. Computation democratizes access to that expertise by digitizing and distributing it, but does this lead to an inevitable decline for the need for professionals themselves? Like manufacturing workers in the 20th century, knowledge workers are likely to be “de-skilled” in the 21st, as routine, transactional, and analytical tasks are performed by machine-learning algorithms referencing big data sources, and the need for human abilities for those same chores is eliminated. Just as CAD rendered my once-fearsome hand-drafting skills mostly irrelevant, expert systems may do the same with today’s expertise in, say, cost estimating or construction documentation. Even though architectural design writ large is a profoundly creative act, the more prosaic components—preparing schedules, measuring and calculating, even evaluating performance characteristics like safety or zoning conformance—comprise a sizable portion of the architect’s fee. Production tasks connected to technical documentation alone (think CD phase work) can be as much as 40 percent of compensation on a project. Once this stuff gets automated, will there be much less work, and will we need far fewer architects? Perhaps—unless we find alternate strategies for demonstrating the value of our efforts. Oxford’s Susskind suggests that while the “job of an architect” may be profoundly transformed with technology, the profession should reconsider some of our critical tasks in response. If design processes will inevitably be augmented by computation, we might control our destiny by taking on the problem of creating the resulting computational platforms: engineering knowledge systems and structures, developing workflow protocols for analysis and evaluation, and designing new systems from which design itself can spring. In some sense, this is meta-design—not unlike the work we’ve seen since the advent of BIM that required technology-implementation plans, data standards, and integrated multidisciplinary information flows. Cutting-edge design firms rely heavily on scripts and so-called “generative design” techniques, and what Susskind recommends here is a logical extension of that strategy that augments (rather than replaces) the capabilities of designers. Of course, the same technologies that might appear to be threats to our autonomy as architects could, jujitsu-style, be turned into opportunities. Susskind suggests that automation offers the immediate benefit of making routine activities more efficient; perhaps repurposing those newly found hours means more time to improve design. He further recommends that our knowledge and influence could be magnified via consortia of digitally connected professionals, what he calls “communities of expertise” where the sum is far greater than the individual parts. Author and Harvard architecture professor Peter Rowe once described the design process as dependent upon heuristic reasoning, since all design challenges are complex and somewhat open-ended with ambiguous definitions and indeterminate endpoints, borrowing from sociologist Horst Rittel who characterized these as “wicked problems.” Computers themselves aren’t, at least today, particularly good at heuristics or solving wicked problems, but they are increasingly capable of attacking the “tame” ones, especially those that require the management of complex, interconnected quantitative variables like sustainable performance, construction logistics, and cost estimations. And since clients have a strong interest in seeing those things done well, why not lean into the chance to complement heuristics with some help with the tame, and leverage the resulting value as a result? That architects are so well-suited to the challenges of the wicked problem bodes well for us in the so-called "Second Machine Age," when machines don’t just do things we program them to do, but can learn how to do new things themselves. The essential value of architects as professionals who can understand and evaluate a problem and synthesize unique and insightful solutions will likely remain unchallenged by our computer counterparts in the near future, an argument supported by a 2013 study of job computerization (again, at Oxford) that suggested that “occupations that involve complex perception and manipulation tasks, creative intelligence tasks, and social intelligence tasks are unlikely to be substituted by computer capital over the next decade or two.” Rather than rely upon this vaguely comforting conclusion, our profession must embrace and attack the wicked problem of the future of architecture and computational design and control the future of our profession accordingly. We’ll face far more opportunities than threats from computation if we can.
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Architects must redesign their profession before technology does

This is the third column of “Practice Values,” a bi-monthly series by architect and technologist Phil Bernstein. The column focuses on the evolving role of the architect at the intersection of design and construction, including subjects such as alternative delivery systems and value generation. Bernstein was formerly vice president at Autodesk and now teaches at the Yale School of Architecture.

Disabling (Professional) Expertise

In 1977, social critic Ivan Illich argued that the mid-20th century should be named “The Age of Disabling Professions,” asking whether “if this age, when needs were shaped by professional design, will be remembered with a smile or with a curse.” Illich’s skepticism about the importance and role of doctors, lawyers, and architects was an inflection point in the ascendance of the professional class that began with the industrialization of America. What followed for architects—who, at just about the same time as Illich’s query, were subjected to the emergence of alternative forms of project delivery (like design-build), new incumbents treading on our turf (like construction managers), and influence from extrinsic forces (like lawyers and insurance companies)—was several decades of existential angst with which we are all familiar.

Forty years later, there are more architects, and more work for us, than ever—yet the existential angst remains: If recessions, construction managers, and liability insurance underwriters didn’t manage to dismantle the profession, now what? Answering that question comes the Oxford duo of Richard and Daniel Susskind and their 2015 tome The Future of the Professions, an exhaustive examination of how the broad influences of digital technology may be the end-of-times challenge to the professional class so desired by Illich. The Susskinds argue that it will not be a loss of faith in architects, lawyers, and accountants, but rather the broad democratization of expertise through big data and data sharing, expert systems, and automation that will “transform the work of human experts.” As knowledge work begins the same transfiguration in the world of computation that manufacturing experienced with machine automation, the bespoke relationships curated by architects with clients will be circumvented by widely accessible knowledge systems, architects will no longer be the anointed “gatekeepers” of professional knowledge or judgment, and the increasing complexity of building problems will face economic pressures demanding that architects provide even more service for less money. Large swaths of professional services will be routinized by computers, further decomposing those services into discrete automated tasks. New systems of design and construction delivery will reconstitute from traditional professional scopes disintermediated by algorithms and big data.

But if the essential value of architects is our ability to design—see the world creatively, synthesize disparate information, generate new and innovative ideas—aren’t we safe from this digital onslaught? Not so fast, according to the Susskinds, who ask, “To what problem is judgment the solution?” They cite the 60 million disputes on eBay resolved with automated mediation (and no lawyers), medical advice dispensed by WebMD on smart phones around the world, or the online tax-preparation software used by millions of taxpayers each year; many of these folks would have never dreamt of hiring a lawyer or an accountant. And this is the core of their argument: Technology will democratize expertise, making it available to many more recipients than could ever by curated by 1:1 professional relationships.

Since society created the professional class to codify and distribute professional expertise, shouldn’t this trend to democratization be embraced? And since architects design a small percentage of the built environment, isn’t this trend, in theory, all for the good? Should architects cede our authority to algorithms, it’s likely we’ll lose all control and influence over the forces that often reduce great design aspirations to mediocre results. It is difficult to argue, however, that the changes that automation and the resulting process innovation that the Susskinds predict will put great pressure on the role of our profession while simultaneously eliminating the need for broad swaths of production work like working drawings.

How to respond? As far back as Illich’s original provocation, architects have decried our diminishing influence while embracing new technologies and their opportunities with at best mild enthusiasm and at worst outright hostility. This wave of automation-innovation will be much more profound than CAD or even BIM. Perhaps it offers a chance to deeply examine the value proposition of architecture and architects, and, using our skills, to design our roles in the future supported and accelerated by new technology rather than, once again, threatened by it.

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Phil Bernstein pens inaugural column on technology, value, and architects’ evolving role

This is the inaugural column “Practice Values,” a new bi-monthly series by architect and technologist Phil Bernstein. The column will focus on the evolving role of the architect at the intersection of design and construction, including subjects such as alternative delivery systems and value generation. Bernstein was formerly vice president at Autodesk and now teaches at the Yale School of Architecture.

False Binaries

This semester, I’m teaching a course called “Exploring New Value Propositions for Practice” that’s based on the premise that the changing role of architects in the building industry requires us to think critically about our value as designers in that system. After studying the structure and dynamics of practice business models, the supply chain, and other examples of innovative design enterprises, they’ll be asked to create a business plan for a “next generation” architectural practice. I’m agnostic as to what this practice does per se, as long as it operates somewhere in the constellation of things that architects can do, but there is one constraint—your proposed firm can’t be paid fixed or hourly rate fees. It has to create value (and profit) through some other strategy.

I want our students to think critically about this question of value propositions: Where do architects contribute to the making of buildings and how is the resulting value realized, and to whose benefit? Technology has begun to change those value equations. Increasing reliance on design information created as a result of the architect’s process—the “big data” of design representations, geometry that drives computer-controlled fabrication equipment, “smart building” telemetry—is but one opportunity to argue that architects are the lynchpin of the building delivery system. But we must both design the methods and protocols that demonstrate our value, and as an important result, reap the financial benefits accordingly. This, it seems to me, is a much more direct route to assuring the relevance of architects to architecture, various television marketing campaigns insisting that clients “look up” to really appreciate their architects notwithstanding.

In discussing these ideas with my architectural colleagues I’m often faced with skepticism that puts this perspective in opposition with two perceived realities of practice. First is the assertion that architecture is in essence an artistic, expressive endeavor that will be sullied by considerations of money, business, or even the implications of digital instrumentation on the design process itself. I agree with the first part of this conclusion, but—as you can imagine—I take exception to the second. That design is the core value of the profession isn’t arguable, but also isn’t the point: The more interesting question is how we best empower clients to understand that value, architects to enable it, and other members of the delivery systems of building to rally behind it. And since architects operate in a supply chain (of building purveyors and consumers) that is a complex web of exchanges of money, information, and risk (and therefore value), how does design make us more valued participants?

I recently spoke on a panel with two other architects to a large group of architecture students. When asked what I thought was a critical issue that would face them in their careers, I answered along the lines of the argument above. In response, a panelist declared to the students that architects don’t enter the profession because they’re interested in money, but rather because of their passion for design—and that he never made much money practicing but was far happier in his career than his very well-paid lawyer sister. The message here was clear: An interest in the business of architecture, or, worse, the resulting financial opportunities, is beneath our dignity as passionate designers.

Both of these assertions are false binaries at best, and potentially harmful conclusions to the profession at worst. Every architect wants clients, collaborators, even builders to realize the value of our design work. That’s wishful thinking, however, until we can position ourselves in the systems of delivery—the financial and technical protocols by which the architect’s ideas are built—and make that case. In subsequent columns I’ll explore how we might do so, and design a profession that might better satisfy our passions and, as a result, our pocketbooks.

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Phil Bernstein to step down as Autodesk vice president

Phil Bernstein, vice president of strategic industry relations at Autodesk, has announced in a statement that he will step down from this position after nearly two decades as a leader in the AEC technology sector. "It’s with markedly mixed emotions that I write to announce that I am stepping down from my role as vice president for strategic industry relations at Autodesk. Having left my comfortable role as a practicing architect sixteen years ago next month, I’ve decided it’s time to refocus on architecture, turn my attention to teaching, writing and lecturing, and seeing what might come next. These years have given me a once-in-a-lifetime chance to think deeply about how design, construction, and technology have evolved in concert, and I hope some of the resulting insights have been useful to the building and technology industries that are increasingly inter-dependent. I will be transitioning my responsibilities to my very capable colleagues at the company over the next several weeks. Starting in November I’ll assume a consulting role with Autodesk as a Fellow, supporting selected thought leadership and strategic endeavors. So I’m confident we will once again cross paths in our efforts to improve design and construction with digital tools." Bernstein—as of this time—will still be teaching at Yale Univeristy. No details yet on what he will be designing or writing, but we are looking forward to it.