Amid this data overload, let’s start talking again

Architect and BIM novice Cathy Stewart asks whether technology is leading designers to lose their common sense.

Technology is evolving at an extraordinary rate both in physical and virtual terms. The evolution of computers and the internet has drastically altered the industry’s approach to design.

In the beginning, when CAD first graced our architectural doors, it was suggested that this innovation would herald the end of quantity surveying as computer programmes would be competent enough to measure and cost appropriately.

CAD, and latterly BIM, has not usurped the QS, what has occurred is the advancement of physical technology in parallel, allowing architects to be more creative with their designs. This has cultivated more specialist professions within the construction industry to manage the complexities of 21st century building design.

There is now a plethora of electronic tools and support available online. With the advent of mass data growing exponentially, the reliance on the internet has stifled verbal dialogue between designer and specific product expert.

In my early career I remember my design tutor, Tom Hargreaves (founder partner of BDP) saying that the architect is not expected to know everything but he or she needs to have the skill to know where to look to find the answer. Today, Google is the default for finding the solution to everything.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) said: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” It is as true today as it was in his day. As more information is readily available are we getting the best from the big data? Are we using it wisely?

The volume of information available at the touch of a keyboard is phenomenal – too much, some would say, for the average human brain to adequately analyse. In construction the danger is we do not fully understand the subtleties of the specific solution we are viewing as there is no meaningful discussion to be had with a website.

Without this dialogue I fear that the industry is missing some key benefits of engaging with the traditional expert to discuss important details in context. The temptation of “cutting and pasting” has inherent problems associated with lack of appreciation of the content – it can be mis-used and thus contribute to inappropriate detailing and potentially building failure.

My concern is that with information overload we naturally gravitate to information which reaffirms what we think we already know. The more I search the more information appears on my screen: how do I know which is accurate and which is the most relevant solution to my problem if I cannot discuss it with a knowledgeable person?

If we do not have the opportunity to challenge what is suitable for the application how do we know we have the right answer? Sitting in isolation in front of a computer screen does not have the same benefits as collaborating around a table. I advocate a “shout out” for the resurgence for conversations with the technical rep.

Cathy Stewart is an architect with Cathy Stewart Associates

Main image: Michal Bednarek/Dreamstime

In construction the danger is we do not fully understand the subtleties of the specific solution we are viewing as there is no meaningful discussion to be had with a website.– Cathy Stewart

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  1. Excellent article, and something that every architect and engineer needs to be asking themselves every day. One other question that I think needs to be asked and answered is – Where do the “computer technology” end and the “designing” begin?

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