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Why go slow when you can go so fast?
This is the second of five posts I'll share about various forms of architectural practice.
In my last post, I examined some potential impacts of generative artificial intelligence on architecture. AI may compress creative time and architectural labor into smaller and smaller intervals, making design, production, and project management faster.
But eliminating the necessary pauses and breaks that all creative people still need to evaluate and examine their work slowly may not benefit architects or their clients in the long run.
The benefits of deliberative design and physical collaboration outweigh the current tendency towards technologically driven speed and virtualized isolation.
Rather than offer a simplistic diatribe against any technology that advances— or even interestingly distorts— creativity, I will examine the value of slowness in architecture.
In future posts, I’ll tackle the differences and parallels between small studios and big offices and what may define and focus on the architectural practice “project” of the 2020s and 2030s.
Weirdly, after almost half a lifetime of working in the architectural profession, I am back where I started-- in Design-Build, working hand-in-hand with builders and craftspeople. Design-Build is a return to a way of working that I thought I had abandoned. It has been a revelation and a rediscovery of what excited me about construction almost thirty years ago.
In 1994 right after I graduated from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, I was hired by Andrew Snow, a restaurateur and the co-owner of the Lounge-- a legendary Melbourne 24-hour nightclub and music venue-- to convert an old warehouse that he bought in the inner city suburb of St. Kilda into a home and workshop. Andrew was a former roadie with construction experience. He learned most of his construction chops from building rock and roll stages and film sets. He was my first client and my first builder/collaborator. Andrew did a good chunk of the warehouse's framing, wiring, plumbing, and finish carpentry.
Parts of the warehouse design were stripped directly out of the undergraduate thesis project I had just finished at RMIT. Unwisely I agreed to file all the construction permits, which I needed much more experience executing before deciding to do the job. Like anything else, you learn by doing, and getting approvals for the conversion went somewhat smoother than I anticipated. I still have the construction drawings, which were hand-drawn, Rapidograph-inked, and Letraset-labeled on A3-size mylar sheets to make photocopying cheaper.
We ended up building the project with a carpenter friend of Andrew’s, his name escapes me now, but he was a great, if salty, bloke. For a laugh, you can see a 25-year-old version of myself below on the job site with them. Besides teaching first-year model making at RMIT, my first real job was as a builder's laborer. Down Under, that’s essentially an unskilled construction worker without a trade school certification. After five years of school, I jumped into the opportunity to work with my hands- mostly helping keep the job site clean, organize materials, and carry wood around. I loved it. I was given repetitive tasks like stapling plywood onto a wood frame, filling and patching drywall damage, priming, painting, and polishing the concrete floors.
After digging around, I discovered that Andrew's warehouse was sold a few years ago for a pretty penny. From my snooping via Google Street View, it seems like some tech bro with a Porsche lives there now. There have been some modifications-- notably, the ramp to the elevated bedroom designed for Andrew’s ailing German Shepherd was replaced with some steps, and some of the drop light-well elements were lopped off-- but other than that, it's aged well!
The project took us about six months from start to finish. I learned more about basic construction, job site maintenance, and trades sequencing by working with Andrew and his carpenter mate for half a year than I had bothered to learn in five years at architecture school.
Much of my learning had to do with Andrew’s roadie-like skills for improvisation.
For instance, Andrew had the brilliant idea to save money by raising the entire main bedroom and ensuite onto a wood-framed podium to avoid cutting and trenching the concrete slab for the plumbing traps. That led me to design a floating bedroom volume at the rear of the warehouse.
Andrew’s house was a kind of final matriculation from my undergraduate architectural education and a strange prediction of what I am doing now.
There are many ways to make architecture and many ways to practice architecture today.
Some people do it in massive international offices with hundreds of colleagues, while others practice alone or work in small to medium-sized local offices.
Some architects want to be fast. Ulrich Blum of Zaha Hadid Analytics + Insights is working with AI software that, in a little over a day, can generate "…100,000 designs for a building's interior; an architect would have to produce 40 drawings a day for a decade to deliver that many options."
For better or worse, AI will upend how most architecture is produced, speeding up the design process while collapsing project management into a series of semi-automated routines.
The question is, to what end?
And, is it even better to make architecture go faster?
For sure, an AI-enabled architect can already generate 26,500,000 building designs a year. But will they be any good? Who knows?
Some people may like fast, AI-made architecture just like they love fast food and cheap cars. I don’t, but I suppose it's better to sit calmly in front of your computer, sipping your kombucha latte while AI does its thing for you so you can head to the gym and rest well. After all, why would anyone ever want to stay up all night burning through several packs of cigarettes, not eating well, and getting little to no exercise to make a perfect drawing or painting? That seems like such a cliche, and far be it for me to tell you ZHA's AI-designed buildings won't be as good as Zaha Hadid's now vintage and perhaps quaint hand-drawn buildings.
In any case, I like my buildings designed slowly, ideally without late nights, cigarettes, and booze, but made with thought, love, and care. Whether this is done manually or digitally, with or without AI, drawn or coded, or via some hybrid of all these working methods matters little.
What I suspect matters most is that it is done with patience and grace and without rushing. That may seem sentimental or quaint, but it strikes me as a more humane way to do things than turning everything around us into a race with a robot.
Slowness is a gift
Some designers move slowly.
There are different reasons for being slow: A. because you don’t have enough work, or B. because you are deliberative. I am hoping to transition from the former to the latter.
Since 1994, I have only constructed an average of less than one project yearly. Most of my built work was executed from 2003 to 2010. Between 1994 and 2003 and from 2013 to 2019, I designed and built precisely zero buildings or spaces. During those nine and six-year fallow periods, I was either in graduate school, teaching, or working for others. From 2015 to 2019, I tried to start a new partnership that shuttered after winning attention and an award but making no money; I launched a tuition-free school that lasted two seasons, started painting, had a few exhibitions, and sold a hand full of paintings. For a summer, I was a campus architect for a fancy private school in the South Bay.
But recently, besides a green billboard designed for Netflix, I've been developing and building only one project over the last three years, a 3200-square-foot overgrown ADU that is part of a multi-generational, blended family compound. It will provide shared cooking, eating, exercise, and relaxation spaces as a hub for four other houses. As the second unit on a duplex lot, it anticipates aging in place.
Back to slowness.
Sometimes I moved too slowly because I tried on too many hats, meandering from one fascination to the next. Or I‘ve been slow because I am pretty dumb about making money, growing a business, and far too idealistic about what it takes to succeed financially.
Or I stopped being productive the minute I closed in my moment of micro-fame, so I freaked out and did my best to run away from recognition—more fodder for my therapist.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter why my career paused; at midlife, you will find yourself exactly where you should be. Any way I parse it, trying to go faster, be more famous or popular, or whatever I was chasing over a decade ago was a bad fit.
So now I go slow, and slowness in architecture is a gift and a luxury not to be squandered.
When architects move slowly, they mean to be intentional about their lives.
And that means that their slowness is about being thoughtful.
This right-sized kind of slowness has introduced me to exploring another, different form of architecture as a born-again Design-Builder.
Design-Build is a way of making buildings that simultaneously brings significant risks and great rewards.
A critical benefit of working slowly as a Design-Builder is getting close to the people who will realize your work by communicating with them directly instead of relying on drawings, words, and ideas to convey intent. This means taking responsibility for the physical actions and financial consequences of designing a building.
I have found that this way of working takes less time than the traditional Design-Bid-Build process because Design-Build is primarily about trust and collaboration, not distrust and competition.
Fast Slow vs. Slow Fast
Working closely with a team of craftspeople as a designer paradoxically slows design down by extending the design process throughout the project delivery schedule. It does not mean the entire construction schedule has to get longer; quite the opposite.
While there is more time to think and to design, strangely, this form of intense collaboration can speed up construction. We have nearly completed the project in a little over a year, which is relatively fast because we have only been working on one house, not 250,000 designs.
The net result of only taking on one project at a time is that while we have shaved about three to four months off a typical construction schedule, the design process was happily extended by another year. When an architect completes a project and hands the construction documents to a builder, the design phase is usually finished. Generally, most architects spend only 15% to 25% of their time on design. In comparison, up to 75% or even 85% of their time and fees are dedicated to construction documentation, project oversight, and risk management.
But during all Design-Build phases, design needs to continue as the team zooms in from the oversized trade packages (concrete, framing, cladding) to the minute details (millwork, handrails, finishes.) This is because fewer drawings and specifications can be worked out before construction, assuming the design-build team feels comfortable working towards a global budget without defining every price point or non-code-related solution before breaking ground. In that sense, the Design-Build approach is similar to project fast-tracking and IPD (or integrated project delivery,) two ways of working I’ll address in a future post.
So, as I've discovered, the design-build process extends the time dedicated to solving creative problems. It paradoxically accelerates the construction delivery process by integrating the designer(s) and the builder(s) into a partnership.
Slowness is a feature, not a flaw.
Like many architects, before trying Design-Build, I tended to overdraw and over-design my work, making adjustments in the field difficult and expensive. Much of this habit does not originate with the designer but often is made for fiscal and legal purposes to reduce exposure and liability. Some of it also relates to how I was trained and even how I teach. In many offices and schools, making multiple competing iterations rather than refining a single, strong concept is seen as a virtue.
This way of working was only sometimes typical. In 2004 or 2005, I visited the late Ray Kappe’s house in Rustic Canyon with my SCI-Arc students. Ray kindly agreed to spend an afternoon with us and broke out the construction documents for his complicated 4,000-square-foot house. There were, in total, six sheets, including the structural drawings and the millwork elevations. The rest was worked out on-site with the builder. Today such an approach is unheard of, especially for such a complex hillside home.
Many of the externalities driving how architects work may or may not support the end goal, which should be something good and lasting rather than something fast, typical, or expendable.
Slowness is an excellent feature of architecture, not a flaw.
Working through a project slowly can reset one’s thinking around what is essential to architecture. What I used to see as liabilities— not moving fast enough, not becoming famous enough soon enough, not building enough- can be virtues.
A more intentional architecture suggests a different way of working with others: collaborators, clients, neighbors, communities, and consultants. Although I have only applied Design Build to a relatively small project, I suspect it can be applied to larger projects.
Designer and Builder, not Designer vs. Builder
A Design-Build practice's fundamental goal is to eliminate the potentially adversarial relationship between the builder and the designer, replacing it with a partnership.
Like most things related to money and construction, conflict and competition are seen as good things. Jostling for the dollar is so naturalized in the building industry that it is hard-baked into the traditional, competitive Design-Bid-Build process. It inevitably opens all parties to legal risk, too often guarantees rushed and poor construction, and can lead to shitty, broken relationships.
The Design-Build process, on the other hand, is intended to give the client one point of contact for the entire project, and it usually allows the team to set a fixed price for all services, from entitlements and building permits through final finishes and even furniture and built-ins. This sets the stage for less conflict and more cooperation.
While it would be a stretch to imagine anything involving money and people can be totally harmonious, compared to working on job sites run through design-bid-build, generally speaking, the mood within the design-build team is often happier.
The usual stresses are still there, and things often don't go to plan.
But as conflicts or challenges arise, the way through them is via collaboration and conversation, not feuding and fighting. It is not utopic, but it doesn't devolve into the screaming matches and physical or legal fights I have witnessed on job sites.
Pragmatic utopianism has been bandied about elsewhere in architecture— mainly as a clever marketing scheme. But in Design-Build, the term is a good description of how things can go if managed well and less a fantasy to sell to the media.
The upside for the client is a unified team delivering a project for a fixed price. The benefits for the Designer-Builder are not only financial and practical but also artistic and, dare I say it, philosophical.
A slower design-build practice is more pliant, gymnastic, and less concerned with embellishing capital. It may be closer to romantic pragmatism because one of the real pleasures of the design-build process is the time to refine construction and finish details in the field while being able to think through their quality and meaning, artistically or compositionally, as you go— through loose improvisation and not rigid determination.
Frankly, for me promises a way to have my cake and eat it- meaning making a living by making architecture slowly without having to subsidize my clients’ projects with my free labor.
… and the Downsides
Design-Build is also a sharp, pointy double-edged sword; what makes it so alluring and how it allows you to cut away so much nonsense from the Design-Bid-Build process also puts the Designer-Builder at significant risk.
So, the downsides can multiply.
There are inevitable gaps between what is idealized conceptually and digitally versus what has to be negotiated with other humans (like incompetent utility companies, grumpy inspectors, and harried collaborators) and unforeseen conditions in the field.
You learn that offering people more money only sometimes means they'll return to fix some minor and inconsequential thing if they move on to another job. When there's too much work to go around, most subcontractors are counting on the fact you call them back eventually for another job if their performance is adequate or better.
Generally speaking, architects are only held legally or financially liable for poor execution if there is demonstrated malpractice or professional misconduct. Design-Build brings all sorts of new worries, headaches, and risks: maintaining workers’ safety is paramount, as is keeping track of faulty or damaged materials.
But Design-Build brings new headaches that most architects don’t have to account for in the field.
Theft, lying, and drug or alcohol abuse on job sites can happen. Our surveyor, unfortunately, showed up very late one day, three or four sails to the wind, and then forgot to email the survey we paid for. As capable as he usually was, I had to let him go. Early on, two construction managers, a framer, and a concrete person had to be fired for non-performance. Our formerly very professional structural engineer had to be removed under threat of a lawsuit after going AWOL during framing due to what appeared to be severe drug use.
So, the liabilities can multiply.
And, embarrassingly, as the designer, you also quickly learn the limits of your technical knowledge. Too often, the refrain during this first Design-Build project was, and not often jokingly, what idiot designed this??!! Usually, the chagrined and unavoidable answer was… well, me.
Leaning into one’s mistakes, both in terms of understanding the financial impacts and the human negotiations required to make things right, was difficult.
What architects think is theoretically possible holds very little water on a construction site, and people will quickly sniff out a poser. Most tradespeople neither care nor want to know why you don’t understand how things are typically assembled.
Therefore winning the trust of the teams one works with daily during Design-Build requires that Designer-Builders humble themselves, listen, and allow others the space to do their jobs— these are skills that we don’t teach in schools enough and things I am still struggling to integrate into my often overbearing architectural ego.
Equally, knowing that the best time to let go of a lousy subcontractor is when they walk onto your job site is a hard lesson. Construction will harden the spirit of the optimistic or naive designer. Becoming self-protective and a little hard-nosed seems inevitable.
Acting as a Designer-Builder has gotten me closer to working with craftspeople.
In the process, I have developed a better sense of how to detail materials like sheet metal, stone, and solid wood.
My understanding of materials, their limits, and their geometrical potential— for instance, how to double-fold and secure sheet metal around a tight corner— has deepened. I no longer think of detailing as a primarily two-dimensional line-drawing problem. I better see how materials combine in three dimensions according to the building’s physical material geometry, not my made-up digital and conceptual geometry.
Working with Miguel Garcia of MG Sheet Metal—above— we devised a self-supporting, continuous exterior duct enclosure. Because the entire section is almost thirty feet tall, nine feet wide, and cantilevers off of the rear elevation, Miguel invented an ingenious, interlocking rigid custom panel system hung from parallel galvanized metal boxed fins, his version of a single-shell or monocoque structure. Adjacent to the main volume, we added a smaller eyebrow over a window to conceal perpendicular duct feeding a mixing box on the interior.
To get there, initially, I drew out and modeled a bounding box based on his field dimensions— the first vignette above, top left. From there, Miguel built a metal mockup at 1”=1’-0.” After reviewing the mockup, Miguel and I sketched the profile matching how he intended to fold, crimp, and connect each C-shaped panel. Drawing together directly on construction materials became a shorthand way of communicating quickly; our job site is covered with hand sketches and notes.
Miguel then brought a full-scale metal crimped and folded panel for my review before making the entire assembly in his shop. All twenty-six panels were loaded onto Miguel’s truck. The panels were light enough and stiff enough to hand-carry up the scaffolds, and remarkably, he installed them in about seven hours with his cousin Julio using no hoists.
Working like this, blending design and construction, is both ancient or traditional and, at the same time, contemporary and innovative. It allows thinking about how to make something weave in and out reverie and practicability.
Although I would never claim to be a craftsperson, I am very interested in crafts both as a tradition of making and as a means to connect the feeling or sensual body to the thinking or calculating brain. There is an immediacy to working collaboratively through design problems slowly, in “real-time,” and with care.
And Design-Build doesn't demand a particular palette of design tools be consistently used or applied across a project. One can be agnostic about using digital and analog devices, hand drawing, or digitally solid 3d modeling, scripting, or sketching; whatever works well in the moment and feels right is best.
In a way, it does feel like the architectural equivalent of slow cuisine.
Meaning and understanding come from moving in and out of the digital and the physical, towards and away from simulations and actualizations, making the disconnection between the analog physical object and the digital design tools seem irrelevant.
Contemporary digitally enabled Design-Build returns architecture to its human origins in construction while pointing to new ways of making and doing with new tools.
An example shown above is the masterfully hand-built white oak stair risers, treads, and nosings executed by David Hernandez and Felipe Tzul, working from our 1:1 scaled, shared hand-sketched details and a digital model produced on-site on my IPad with the solid modeler Shapr3D.
As a designer, the opportunity to work on-site in close collaboration with David and Felipe has been rewarding and educational.
Working the feedback loop between physical splinters and digital bits was rewarding. Making minute adjustments (with 1/64” tolerances) was challenging, and working with the hardwood dulled several saw blades.
As perfect as the 3D model was, it was David and Felipe’s unwavering attention to detail that paid off. The whole assembly could have been robotically milled and cut to within an inch of its life. Yet it was the minute human decisions about which pieces of grain to match that, for me, makes it perfectly imperfect.
Even before filling and final sanding, the stairs are far crisper than I hoped for, close enough to the digitally perfect model. As a real thing, the stairs yet have enough imperfection to break the spell of the digital model’s inane flawlessness.
Many things architects and designers try to communicate through drawings and digital models are too abstract.
Until they are brought into the world and tested, they remain divorced from the physical pleasures and challenges of construction and the daily reality of a builder’s labor, measured in exacting material sizes, gravity, and sore muscles due to the unforgiving heft and weight of wood, stone, and steel.
Historically architects and builders worked very closely together or were the same person, but today architectural design “system” suggests several degrees of distance from the dirty business of making a building.
The word architect comes from the Greek architektōn or "chief carpenter." The term design has something to do with the verb to designate. Both designing and designating originate in the 16th-century Italian verb disegnare: to contrive, plot, or intend. On the other hand, builders engage in construction— from the Latin constructus, the past participle of construere or "to heap up."
The elitism and unspoken class system built into architecture and construction create divisions between those who designate and those who heap up, and this has something to do with how architects and designers wittingly or unwittingly direct workers’ bodies and movements by removing themselves from the construction process via the agency of their drawings and specifications.
Of course, in the end, the architect’s documents are “instructions,” and contractors and subcontractors are protected by laws and insurance policies and are paid for their time. That is not my point; what I am calling out here is the passive but caustic adversarial relationship between those who direct construction from a distance and those who must use their bodies to follow instructions, whether or not those abstract instructions were created with any understanding of their physical consequences.
Ethical and moral implications exist for how and why we work together as designers and builders. There are implications embedded in the system of construction that touch on issues of class and race, access to education and resources, and the value of art for art’s sake versus construction for the sake of utility and efficiency.
At least until the industrial revolution, most architects were builders, and most builders designed buildings.
There was little air between the roles even until the early 20th century. For instance, Ludwig Mies was raised in his family's stone-cutting shop, where he helped his father with construction. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies never received formal architectural training and only adopted the fancier sounding van der Rohe, his Mother's maiden name, once he became an architect.
Locally, from Greene and Greene to Irving Gill to Schindler to Lautner to Ray and Charles Eames, there has been an established tradition of hands-on architecture and Design-Build in Southern California.
However, the emergence of architecture as a profession in the mid-19th century, intended to provide clients with a way to authenticate their architects' legitimacy, seriousness, and professionalism, also led to a schism between those who design and those who build.
Today, at least on the single-family or small multi-family end of the North American construction industry, architects and builders find themselves in opposed roles, begrudgingly working alongside each other, usually suspiciously awaiting the moment things will sour. Because I have been bridging both the role of designer and builder, I have heard both sides of the story.
Builders and General Contractors complain that architects are unrealistic, don't understand the limits of construction and budgets, and are sometimes arrogant or condescending. Architects are also often unhappy. They lament how General Contractors manipulate and game their clients, exploit their tradespeople, or dissimulate to further their profits. And, I hear horror stories from Subs about being exploited by owners and Contractors who threaten them with unlawful termination, withhold wages, or demand unrealistic project execution on sub-par budgets.
Sadly, not only does the broken Design-Bid-Build system sometimes create misery and a genuine human divide between the designer and the builder, it inevitably leads to an unbridgeable gap between imagination and execution. It is why many contemporary buildings always look so different from the renderings. It is why many architects seem ok photoshopping out the mistakes they could not correct during construction.
One also suspects it is why many independent-minded architects are frustrated and financially struggling, earning a fixed percentage base fee. At the same time, builders can make two to three times the architect’s salary with far less involvement with the client and the freedom to profit from unforeseen changes.
But that is just the bad news.
Closing the gap
The good news is that beyond the value of closing the gap between creative ideas and realized construction; there are many creative and philosophical benefits to eliminating the testy relationship between designer and builder.
Additionally, many AI tools that may automate work and kill jobs in the big design production studios may supercharge smaller-scale thinker-makers to take on more significant or complex projects.
We should be hopeful about the changes coming.
To grow, architects and designers should try to accept the conditions within which they must work and adapt beyond them.
I take joy in the fact that by designing and building, I am modestly continuing a local Los Angeles tradition, working closely with craftspeople and creating in the field not just the office.
Emerging technologies like spatial computing will enable greater collaboration on the job site and deeper integration between human beings, robots, and semi-sentient AI systems.
To return to the problem of AI for a moment, there is nothing inherently wrong with using AI to improve architecture. However, there is something entirely wrong with using AI to make architecture go faster than it needs to go.
There is something else around the corner that might bring back the human and artistic rewards that come from working collaboratively within a team of builders and designers— and maybe this is all converging at the point at which what we can barely sense intuitively opens up a new space where we can exceed the limits of what we still only know intellectually.