Site visits are critical to the architectural process. Years ago I talked with a stranger on an airplane about architecture. He told me a story about a house designed for him near San Francisco by Christopher Alexander.
I heard about a particular interaction where Professor Alexander visited the site as the roof was nearly framed. He spent hours at the project. This was not unusual, I was told. It seems that he believed that an architect had to "feel" the site, learn the building, in detail, over time, to produce architecture.
As it turns out architecture is hard. Imagining what could be and then weighing the possibilities takes aptitude, training and occasional failure. That just gets you into the game. Success requires much more than the ability to translate a program in to a functioning "machine for living". One must battle the client's preconceptions, budget, civic authorities, neighbors and more to deliver great work.
Many Architects design projects located far from their office
The process begins with truly understanding the problem. When the project is a renovation, it is essential to internalize the building's context and details. In undergraduate architecture studio we were taught this. The school arranged field trips for us to spend hours visiting project sites. Too often architectural practice precludes frequent, deep site visits. Projects are not local. There is too much work or too little budget. This is a shame.
The last thing architects need is another barrier to good design.
It is against this backdrop that I want to share a message we received from an architect. HELIX sells software and occasionally services to digitize buildings. Frequently we are used to produce accurate existing conditions documentation. We are are a relatively new company so we send email to lists of architects to generate awareness. A few days ago an architect from the type of firm where I would have been thrilled to work after college responded. She was polite, but firm. Her message suggested that we were taking away a key part of the architectural process. By digitizing buildings we obviate the need for site visits. We remove the experience and education provided by the process of studying, measuring and reproducing buildings on paper or on a computer. I understand her point and feel her frustration. The very last thing that architects need is another barrier to good design.
It seems that we have not done a good enough job communicating what we do. HELIX is a tool. It is true that we have a team that laser scans and photographs buildings. But our business is software. We teach college interns to operate laser scanners. We train them to plan and shoot 100s of 360º photos to capture a building in sufficient detail. It only takes a day or two and they are self sufficient.
HELIX allows buildings to be thoroughly "visited" from a computer. I suppose that if our critic is reading this so far, she is not comforted. Let me continue. Our singular objective is to reduce the time and cost to provide accurate and comprehensive inputs to the design process. If I had a genie one of my wishes would be to have 100% of the field work executed by architects. I believe that this will happen.
I am told that Mr. Alexander camped out on the site before designing. He "felt" the space. Wind, noise, views and intangibles were all internalized and informed his design. When I was a young architecture student I was responsible for producing existing conditions drawings. It was a good part of the job. I loved site visits. The senior architect on my project also visited the site. She took photos, sketched and took notes. She wore work boots so that she could trudge through the muck and experience the site, and later the project from any vantage point. My work and her work were complementary. As our critic contends, the act of measuring and reproducing the building was educational. More than that it was one of the best parts of the job. Architects should still do this work. But instead of using measurements, iPhone photos and notes, they might use the new tools.
Documenting a building with a laser scanner provides 3D data. Difficult to measure and locate features are captured. 360º photos capture the intended subject. They also capture everything else in all directions. By combining these the building can be reviewed from the office, from a phone, from the dining table. Multiple people can look together even when they cannot be together. The architect in Kansas City can communicate with an interior designer in Dallas, the client in DC and the contractor in Denver. They can review elements that were on the agenda. They can also review elements of the building, or the design, that were not anticipated. This may help produce better architecture.
Site visits should happen when desired, not when required.
It is wonderful to visit a site when it is planned and desired. It is not wonderful to be required to return to the site to gather missing information. It is a drain on project resources to have to go to the site to meet a contractor. When we can substitute digital visits we might avoid miscommunication, mistakes and disappointment. While HELIX is currently used by the technical vanguard it may also be a competitive advantage in winning new commissions for any firm. I am fortunate to have engaged architects. If I were considering two candidate firms who were in other ways equally attractive, I would select the one that shared ideas and progress with with a tool like HELIX.
At the end of the visit Mr. Alexander announced to his client that the roof pitch was wrong and had to be corrected. The client went (understandably) ballistic. The process of design requires struggle. Architecture, when real creativity is desired, is an exercise in high-stakes experimentation and prototyping. Experiments and prototypes do not always work perfectly on the first attempt. Perhaps with better data, coupled with simpler and more thorough communication, more, better architecture will follow.