Archive for June, 2007


Thursday, June 28th, 2007

I had a recent experience that’s left a funny taste in my mouth. I did an on-site study for a design class I’m taking. The assignment was to test a design theory by directly observing a design firm. I got permission to do my small study at a large firm in my locality.

I thought the somewhat unexpected results of the study would be of use to the organization I studied and of interest to the design field at large, since they involved a topic that is much discussed in current literature. Although the results presented an opportunity for learning and a great jumping off place for further research and discovery, I was asked not to reveal the results – not even to the firm’s own employees. My findings were, apparently, too close to a topic that was controversial within the firm, for reasons I don’t know and didn’t discover in the survey.

While I can respect that organization’s desire to avoid stirring up a controversial issue, the whole notion of suppressing information makes me uneasy. It always has. I used to be a litigator, but I hated the way everyone kept secrets just so their side could win – I believed in figuring out the truth. I used to have a marriage, but my husband kept himself secret – I believed in communication and working things out. I now have a notion that design, based on collaboration and sharing information, can make the world a better place – I don’t want this to become another “used to.”

The Summer 2007 issue of Perspective, the International Interior Design Association’s magazine, calls itself the “Power of Design issue.” Pamela Light, IIDA’s president, prefaces the issue with a challenge to designers to use design to “influence human behavior” by embracing the idea that “design has the power to change the world.” I believe this is possible, but it can only happen if information is shared and learning opportunities are embraced. Secrecy cannot be part of the equation.

I can’t tell at this point if my experience with this study was just a bit of insignificant political wrangling or if it’s an indication that the design field, like many, is just another field where politics trumps the truth. Is the notion that design can make a difference just another pipe dream, like justice and trust? I truly hope not, but this little taste of secrecy has made me wonder.

Bullpen vs pod

Saturday, June 23rd, 2007

I did a quick study for a class I’m taking this summer comparing the ease of collaboration in a bullpen work environment to a pod work environment and had some interesting and unexpected results.

A bullpen is an open area with a group of workstations that are not visually separated. A pod is a small group of workstations that are enclosed within walls that are high enough that occupants cannot see into the next pod.

The study asked pod and bullpen occupants how easy it was to collaborate in their current environments and asked bullpen occupants whether it was easier or harder to collaborate in the workstations than in the pods. Just over half of the people asked to complete the survey were housed in pods; the rest had moved within the last few months from pods to the bullpen.

I expected that it would be easier to collaborate in the open bullpen environment since other research has shown that open workplaces encourage collaboration, particularly if workers have visual and aural connection. The bullpen seemed to fit this description exactly – it was open, workers could see and hear each other readily over the low (12″) partitions that divided them from others, and were in closer proximity than in the pods.

However, my survey revealed that pod dwellers are much more likely to collaborate than people in bullpen environments. Here are some of the results. 76% of pod occupants on one floor of the study office and 86% of pod occupants on the other floor said they found it “very easy” to collaborate with people in their pods. On the bullpen floor, only 11% said collaboration with those in their immediate vicinity was “very easy”. None of the pod occupants said that collaboration was “very hard”, whereas 20% of the bullpen occupants did select “very hard”. When asked how easy or hard it was to collaborate with team members not in the pod or immediate vicinity, 19% of pod dwellers found it “very easy”, but none said it was “very hard.” Only 6% of bullpen dwellers, however, said that such collaboration was “very easy” and 14% said it was “very hard”. Everyone else rated their collaboration experience as “somewhat easy” or “somewhat hard”.

Finally, bullpen dwellers were asked to compare the ease of collaboration in the bullpen environment to the ease of collaboration in their previous pod environments. 11% said it was “much easier” to collaborate with proximate workers in the bullpens, but 43% said it was “much harder”. 9% said it was “much easier” to collaborate with non-proximate team members, but 40% reported this as “much harder”!

Other things besides the furniture configuration were undoubtedly in play and not reflected in the study. Privacy, resistance to change, noise, circulation patterns, etc. can play a big role in the ability to collaborate and may have been factors in the study results (I did not test for these).

My opinion, not based on the study results, is that the open bullpen has several faults. First, workers have no privacy. The space is too open and people get distracted by all that activity, suffering from sensory overload. Even the most collaborative of workers needs some quiet time and some privacy. Pulling back and lessening efforts to collaborate just might be a defensive reaction to lack of privacy and personal space.

Second, the bullpen’s circulation paths are indirect and somewhat invasive. To talk to people who are not in the immediate vicinity, bullpen workers have to travel behind everyone else in their row to the main path at the end, cross to the row of the person they’re trying to see, then move back up another narrow path behind the backs of the workers in that row. I’m sure this somewhat convoluted path seems longer than it really is and feels like an invasion of the other workers’ private space. In the pods, in contrast, the circulation path is direct and public – one takes 3 or 4 steps to exit the pod onto the public path and never has to walk directly behind someone’s back.

Third, the bullpen space isn’t set up for the kind of impromptu interaction opportunities that characterize collaboration. The pods are interspersed with tall “flat files” spaced along the common circulation path. People meet as they pass and can spontaneously congregate for a chat or to collaborate on a project. The bullpen appears to have no such nodes where a crowd of four or five can meet spontaneously. Although rows of workbenches are separated by low files, those files are too low to lean on and study documents. Meeting appears to be more deliberate and less spontaneous.

My conclusion is that bullpens don’t appear to be a great choice for businesses that want employees to collaborate, at least not without some careful additional thought into circulation and privacy. I’d love to do some more in-depth research with these participants to find out why they responded in the way they did.

10 things new designers should know

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

I’ve been a designer at a big architecture/design firm for four months now. Here’s a list of 10 things designers in their first job with a firm should know, in no particular order.

  1. People. Introduce yourself to everyone you encounter whose name you don’t know or don’t recall. Don’t be shy about saying you think you’ve met but have forgotten their names. Build relationships. Help people out when they are in a pinch with their projects. Be friendly and cheerful.
  2. Computer filing systems. Learn how your firm’s labyrinthian computer files are organized. A list of the computer drives and file name abbreviations is not enough. Make someone go through this in detail until you understand it from top to bottom. You don’t want to be the one who “loses” some file because you didn’t save it to the right location.
  3. Learning. Soak it up. Attend every vendor presentation and every learning opportunity your firm offers, even if it means you have to work late to make up the hours. Snoop around in the library. If you don’t know a computer program that the firm uses (Illustrator? Revit?), get the firm to train you or buy a manual and learn it on your own time. Get LEED certified as soon as you can. Plan on taking the NCDIQ exam.
  4. Activities. Get involved in firm activities. Join a group, help organize an event, participate in the firm’s community service activities, serve on a committee. Get involved in outside organizations that benefit the design profession or the community.
  5. Work hard. Know that you will have to work some long hours, hopefully not every day. Know that you can say you are already fully booked when someone asks you to do a task and you know you can’t get it done in time. Know that you will feel very satisfied when you’ve done a good job. Sometimes, no matter how busy everyone around you is, you won’t have enough to do. When this happens, go to every project manager you can find and ask for work. Keep at this until someone gives you something to do, something billable.
  6. Assert yourself. Ask the senior person who does what you like doing to help you get more of that kind of work and keep asking. If you are really good at something and the firm isn’t taking advantage of that skill, let people know you can do this and keep reminding them. Make sure the higher-ups know how hard you work – toot your own horn.
  7. Questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even about something you’ve already done or you should have learned in school. If something doesn’t seem right, speak up.
  8. Decisions. Pay attention to how decisions are made. What decisions can you make? What decisions can your project manager make? What decisions need to be made by a principal? It’s likely that no-one will really tell you this, even if you ask, so observe and keep asking.
  9. Clothes. Dress like the person who has the job you want to have in 10 years. You’re not in college any more.
  10. Money. Start saving for your retirement and keeping a budget from day one. Seriously, even if you are in your 20s. Take advantage of all the firm’s employee benefits, like 401(k) plans, “cafeteria plans”, etc. Learn how your firm reimburses you for taxi rides to clients’ offices.

Why BIM?

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

Computer-aided design (CAD) programs are widely used in the architecture/design industry to create drawings and details. But, like the hand drawings that preceded them, CAD drawings are discrete entities. With CAD, a designer creates a series of separate drawings to depict different views of a particular project – plans to show how the project appears from a horizontal viewpoint, elevations to show how it looks vertically, and perspectives to show the project from a particular angle in space. If some aspect of the design changes, the designer has to make that change in every drawing. For example, say you’re designing an addition to a house and the owner initially asked for a 24′ x 24′ addition. You draw a set of plans and elevations for your design, but the owner calls and says she can only afford an 18′ x 24′ addition. You have to re-draw the changed walls on each of your drawings. If the owner then decides she wants a larger window overlooking the back yard, you have to create yet another set of drawings to show the change. With each view contained in a separate drawing or file, every element has to be drawn many times even though it appears in the final building only once. Whether drawings are hand-rendered or created by a CAD program, this process is extremely time consuming and highly likely to result in errors or omissions.

Bulding Information Modeling (BIM) offers a radically new approach. BIM programs (Revit is one) are not drawing programs, but modeling and information programs. Projects are built from intelligent components that are located in a 3-D model and all information about that model resides in a single file. The model can be viewed from any angle, be it plan, elevation, or perspective. A component – a window for example – is placed into the model/file only once. If you put a window into the wall of a real house, it is there and you can see it no matter where you stand in the yard so long as it is within your line of sight. In BIM, once you place the window into the model, it is as if it were installed in the house and it appears in all views. Because components are “intelligent,” they adjust to changes automatically. For example, a stairway is not a series of risers and treads but is encoded as a staircase. If the floor levels to which it connects change, the staircase adjusts to fit. There is no need to update separate drawings. BIM also collects information about your model components and makes that information available in automatically-generated schedules. For example, it keeps track of the number of windows of each type that you add and includes them in the window schedule.

The differences between CAD and BIM are more complex than this. Paul F. Aubin, in his book Mastering Autodesk Revit Building (Thompson Delmar Learning, Clifton Woods, NY 2006) states that the BIM is not simply a 3D model of a building, but a “full description of a building” (41) – a data model rather than a geometric model. All elements within the model relate to each other and retain these relationships. He describes this in an example of a change made in a schedule:

If you go into a schedule view where [a] door is listed and change it from wood door to a glass door, not only will the calculations like quantities or costs for that door change in the schedule, but also the change will be reflected in all graphical views – for example, in shaded Views, the Door will now appear transparent. Likewise, if this data is linked to cost estimation or green building calculations, the change to a glass door Type will have other important impacts as well (43).

The BIM is not perfect. The first chapter of Aubin’s book summarizes some of the trade-offs between the two systems, but I need to explore Revit further to appreciate these fully. Regardless of how BIM programs shake out in the long run, it’s clear that the industry will be moving away from CAD toward a more sophisticated and efficient approach.

April & May ‘07 index

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007