November 1, 2009
The New Tools
Can emerging technologies change the culture of building or end the adversarial relationship between contractors and architects? When it came time to become a building owner, Autodesk decided to run a few plays from its own digital playbook.
It started with Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Latrobe, the petulant 19th-century Brit whose blueprints for the U.S. Capitol and the stately, neoclassical Baltimore Basilica earned him the distinction of being the father of American architecture, had little patience for contractors. He accused the building superintendent of his first Stateside commission of being a control freak who tried to “direct everything from the first shovelful of earth to the position of the last brick.” He belittled the Basilica’s contractors, after they fortified its foundation walls without his permission, as amateurs with a “knack of guessing improved by experience.” In one letter to a friend, he lamented that architecture wasn’t yet suited for “one who has the education and feelings of a Gentleman.” With builders like these, he wrote, “the struggle will be long and harassing.” Out of this emerged an ethic of American building as the compromise between two sides—architects and contractors—constantly on the verge of taking each other to court.
Two hundred years on, in a spec office building off Interstate 95 in Waltham, Massachusetts, near Boston, the world’s largest design-software company is solving the problem that vexed Latrobe and countless later generations of architects. “The building industry is so hidebound by cur-rent methodologies,” says Phil Bernstein, Autodesk’s architecture guru (officially, the division’s vice president of industry strategy and relations). “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again. So when we had a chance to be an owner, I said, ‘OK, we have to do this.’” Here at the new Trapelo Road headquarters for Autodesk’s architecture, engineering, and construction arm, the company is making the profession safe for gentlemen.
The building is the first project on the East Coast to employ a stringent version of “integrated project delivery,” a buzzy term for an intensely collaborative (and, in this case, contractually obligatory) design and construction process between architects, contractors, and Autodesk itself—the antithesis of what Latrobe described. It’s one of three strands of contemporary architectural thought that merge in the headquarters, the others being sustainable design and digital savvy. The office, which was designed by KlingStubbins, stands as a billboard for efficiency and an advertisement for the future of the building industry. It came together in just eight and a half months from the first sketch to the last lightbulb, exactly on budget, its environmental target—LEED Platinum certification pending—precisely met. Had the building missed the mark, no one would have made any money. The struggle, one might say, was neither long nor harassing.
Efficiency, it turns out, looks a lot like an Internet start-up. The building’s exterior is nothing fancy: a dreary box thrown up by a local spec developer. And the cars gasping along the neighboring highway don’t exactly make for a pleasant (or environmentally friendly) atmosphere. But inside, the office is studious fun. Step into the lobby, and a screen made of wooden boomerangs crawls along the ceiling and down the reception desk—a geometric flourish for the company’s resident quant nerds. Cantilevered over a small atrium are a couple of yellow-tinted, glass-box conference rooms vaguely reminiscent of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde tanks, and upstairs, where the quant nerds slouch over laptops and the corporate suits sit erect in their Herman Miller Mirra chairs, razzle-dazzle colors cut boldly through a sea of gray. Somewhere in the middle, on a communal whiteboard, a random puzzle is penned (and solved) daily. All that’s missing is a foosball table and some beanbag chairs.
The whimsy of the place belies its dense backstory. In the go-go days before the economy soured, Autodesk began casting about for a new headquarters to house most of its architecture, engineering, and construction division, then expected to balloon by 50 percent to 300 employees. At the outset, it was to be a fun house of fresh ideas in the building industry. Bernstein, an architect who spent 20 years in Cesar Pelli’s office and now teaches architectural practice at Yale, was the chief steward. “We decided that we would make the conceptual leap here with three fundamental characteristics: building-information modeling, integrated project delivery”—IPD— “and sustainability,” Bernstein says. “We wanted to show that the things we were advocating were in fact useful, to put the theory into practice… . And we didn’t want it to look like an insurance company.”
The biggest revolution here is IPD. Latrobe’s legacy looms large in every scrum over dimensioning lights, every change order, every lawsuit filed over a leaky roof. Architects and contractors are perennially at loggerheads, which is a symptom of the time-honored, yet completely pathological, method of producing buildings: architects design in gallant solitude, then toss their sketches at contractors, daring them to build it. So begins a nasty battle of wills, with architects playing Athens to contractors’ Sparta. “The industry is steeped in a tradition of adversarial relationships,” says Markku Allison, the American Institute of Architects’ resource architect. He notes that more than 30 percent of the nation’s projects are past schedule or over budget. (Latrobe himself was investigated by a congressional committee, after the Capitol logged some $51,000 in unauthorized spending.) And yet, Allison continues, “the highest and best sustainable outcomes are only achievable through collaborative design.”
The AIA formally adopted IPD as a platform in 2005, defining it loosely (and vaguely) as shared information and responsibilities, from design conception to construction, among a building project’s various shepherds. Four years later, touches of IPD have made inroads in the profession. But a truly integrated method, in which architects, owners, and construction managers sign their comity into a contract? The books register just two completed projects: Trapelo Road and a gallery in San Francisco, also for Autodesk.
Trapelo Road’s two other themes have gained a firmer foothold. Sustainability is practically second nature to most designers. Building-information modeling is growing in pop-ularity too. BIM—shorthand for a process that can map in 3-D all aspects of design and construction, from how a building looks to how much lighting it will need—is transforming archi-tecture into a spectacularly predictable science, an obvious asset in our environmentally enlightened era. As a result, BIM has become Autodesk’s cause célèbre. (The idea has actually been around in various forms since the 1970s, but Autodesk’s purchase of a small BIM software brand in 2002 jump-started it.) It has conscripts in Renzo Piano (the California Academy of Sciences) and Arup (the Freedom Tower). BIM usage has risen 75 percent since 2007 alone. “This is faster adoption than CAD drafting,” says Chuck Eastman, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor who has written extensively about BIM. Five years from now, it’ll be nearly ubiquitous.
Collaborative design and digital technology both have crucial implications for sustainability. Combine the three and you have an entirely new business model. As Scott Simpson, of Kling-Stubbins tells it, “It’s a different sociology. All the bad habits that have been learned have to be unlearned. But it has proven metrics, and if you can prove a method works, it will catch on, because two things owners are always interested in are time and money.”
Autodesk names all its conference rooms for architects and engineers: Michelangelo, Kurokawa, Barragán, Loos, Palladio. Simpson is seated in the Vitruvius room on a recent afternoon along with Chris Leary, also an architect at KlingStubbins, and Laura Handler, a construction manager for Tocci Building Com-panies, the project’s general contractor. Headquartered in Philadelphia, KlingStubbins has turned its hand to everything from a clandestine lab for the Drug Enforcement Agency to the Venetian hotel and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, both in Las Vegas. They’ve never done a project like this. “It’s the difference between a jazz quartet and a string quartet,” Simpson says. “A string quartet is beautiful stuff, takes a lot of effort, practice, and skill. A jazz quartet is, ‘Give me a note, give me a chord, let’s go!’ It’s different music. It’s a bit of a surprise. They’re both great in their own way. But this is the jazz age.”
Even jazz needs a little structure. Trapelo Road’s centerpiece is a single contract signed by Autodesk, KlingStubbins, and Tocci that basically forces everyone to get along. Absent any precedents, Bernstein drafted it himself with lawyers. It stipulates that all decisions, down to accent colors, be reached by consensus among representatives from each of the three companies. Architects and contractors split profits and assume equal risks. (Traditionally, architects take the fall for things like fire-safety omissions, and contractors pay fines for running over schedule. In this case, everyone shouldered the blame.) What’s more, the contract has a no-suit clause, effectively locking the lawyers out of the room. It’s enough to send most companies into a tizzy. In fact, it did. KlingStubbins wasn’t Autodesk’s first choice for the project. The favored architect was attached to a construction manager whose national office got hold of the contract, read its terms, and said, “No, thanks.” Why sign on to a project whose payoff relies on the other guy’s not screwing up?
Legal anchor in place, everyone was exceptionally motivated not to fluff it. KlingStubbins had a regular presence on the construction site, and Tocci’s people sat in on—and contributed to—design meetings. With most building projects, architects first finalize their sketches; then contractors arrive and spend months playing catch-up. “It’s a very different experience to be part of the design creation rather than to just receive a design and know you have to build it,” Handler says. “We were able to make suggestions that were very practical—‘We can’t afford this’ or ‘Would you mind looking at this picture?’ Which we’d like to do normally, but you don’t know how the architect is going to take a suggestion. This enabled us to own the design throughout the entire process.”
For instance? Tocci dimensioned the office’s overhead lighting, a job that typically falls to architects (even though subcontractors wind up changing everything anyway). Using the Autodesk BIM software Revit, KlingStubbins mapped out a general concept composed of sensor-controlled fluorescent tubes arranged at seemingly random angles that actually riff off the space’s daylight exposure. Then they turned to their colleagues. “One of the big problems with lighting is that the products change constantly, and if we specify, six months later different products are available,” Leary says. “Rather than that, we were able to involve our subcontractors from day one and say, ‘On our very aggressive schedule, what can we realistically get? What will it cost, and where can we get it? We’ll design around that rather than design around something we don’t even know will exist by the time we build.’” This approach has real benefits: Trapelo Road had exactly zero contractor-related change orders.
Later, Simpson and Handler, on a tour of the office, stop at the desk of Trey Klein, an Autodesk analyst who helmed an employee design-advisory group on Trapelo Road. Hovering over some gypsum models fresh from the in-house 3-D printer—one looks like an obelisk, another like the Death Star—which are test runs for a new digital-modeling tool, Klein recounts a tale of BIM heroics.
In June 2008, a month into the design process, the building’s grand architectural gesture was nearly scrapped. The atrium, a dramatic skylighted void, visually unites the three floors; without it, the place is just a spec office in bows. With early input from Tocci’s senior cost estimator, everyone agreed to junk some of the more complex (and pricey) proposals for the atrium. That left a smaller option. Massed into the Kahn room at the old office, Bernstein, the design team, and several employees anatomized stills of the atrium, ultimately ruling that its humble size didn’t justify additional outlay. They broke for lunch. Dining with another Autodesk executive, Bernstein complained that the project was about to lose its marquee feature. Meanwhile, Klein uploaded one of the atrium’s 80-plus-megabyte Revit files to his laptop, which included a virtual-walk-through tool. When Bernstein returned to the meeting, Klein was projecting a 3-D view of the building onto a white screen. He led his audience through the main entrance, into the lobby, behind the first-floor reception counter, where they peered up into the void, and onto the third floor, where they gazed at the lobby below. Live in 3-D, the atrium looked plenty generous. “It showed what we really would see as opposed to what we might see,” Klein says. “That sealed it.” The atrium, everyone concurred, was worth saving. It was a triumph of technology, and the mutual decision-making it helped make possible.
Architects followed Autodesk into the first digital revolution, when the company released AutoCAD 27 years ago. Will they follow it down Trapelo Road? “I don’t know,” Bernstein says, when asked if IPD will appeal to the Rem Koolhaases of the world. “As someone who worked as a design manager for a starchitect”—Pelli—“I wonder whether pride of authorship will let this work. Architects, whether starchitects or not, need to understand what IPD means. Under this construct, they can work together. It does change the design process, and if you take it to a logical extreme, it’s not in the best interest of the profession. There’s a need for architects and a need for construction managers. But there are opportunities where collaboration gives you a much better result.”
Even for Trapelo Road, some of the old complications arose. A dispute over money was kicked over to higher-ups, after project managers failed to settle the issue unanimously. Kling-Stubbins is obviously somewhat uncomfortable talking about the issue. “I don’t know how much I should go into,” Leary says uneasily, before presenting a self-described “sanitized version.” One is left to wonder if, for all the feel-good talk about collaboration, IPD is enough to overcome human nature.
These are provisional times for architects. Autodesk certainly isn’t immune. (It has whittled down its architecture, engineering, and construction headquarters to 175 employees, and in this sense, the new office has one gaping inefficiency: the place isn’t anywhere near capacity.) The economy, of course, will rebound. Bernstein has a pet theory—call it a knack for guessing, improved by experience—that major developments in architectural practice follow recessions. Through the 1970s, most buildings sprung from the traditional design-bid-build model, but high interest rates at the tag end of the decade spawned an entire industry around quick-fire construction projects; thus was born the construction manager. Soaring liability insurance in the mid-’80s panicked the market, popularizing design-build, which centralizes accountability in a single person or company. Bernstein believes that the current recession, coupled with freshly available digital tools, provides the necessary backdrop for yet another transformation in the process of designing and constructing buildings. The dust is still settling on Wall Street, and it’s only a matter of time before it buries the ghost of Latrobe. “This is a harbinger of things to come,” Simpson says. “Five years from now, people will look back and say, ‘Remember that thing Autodesk did in Waltham?’ We’re making it safe to take risks.”