Architects build business case for IT in design

TORONTO — The Internet and digital media offer tremendous efficiencies for building design, but architects must use the right tool at the right time to maximize the benefits of technology, according to speakers at Construct Canada 2001’s IT Summit Wednesday.

“It allows a higher level of access, organization and dissemination,” said Douglas Birkenshaw, senior associate at Bregman & Hamann Architects in Toronto. “The Web allows non-specialist clients access to images on a timely basis.”

But during his presentation on digital media and design principles, Birkenshaw said there was a flip side to the promised efficiency.

“FTP sites are great, but when they’re badly managed they’re a disaster,” he said. “E-mail’s absolutely fabulous, but you have to have rigid rules in the office to govern how e-mail is managed.”

Wayne Austin, a corporate sector architect with Montgomery Sisam Associates Inc. Architects, said architects need to identify their needs and choose technology accordingly.

“It’s not so much if the tools are available; it’s about selecting which one is for you,” he said during a panel discussion earlier Wednesday morning.

Birkenshaw, who designed the Metro Toronto Convention Centre housing the conference eight years ago, said the cost of using highly sophisticated technology must at times be justified by the project itself.

“It makes sense for $300 million buildings,” he said. “But for $10 million buildings, it’s hard enough to make a profit as it is.”

Along with e-mail and FTP, architects are employing extranets, supplier Web sites and general Web sites. The supplier sites are built by suppliers, like blueprinters, for specific jobs. General Web sites are those like Autodesk Inc.’s Buzzsaw, that allow for collaboration in a secure environment.

Birkenshaw said Buzzsaw also keeps track of who accesses projects, giving firms a paper trail that can become crucial.

“Architecture, like everything these days, has a lot of litigation,” he said. “You’re always trying to limit your liability.”

Though it allows for faster collaboration than Web sites, Birkenshaw said FTP doesn’t come with such accurate tracking.

“One of the downsides of an FTP site is you don’t know who’s accessing it when,” he said.

Birkenshaw said tools like FTP and Web sites are speeding up and enhancing the collaboration that are at the root of architecture.

But during the morning panel discussion Luigi Ferrara, president of DXNet Inc. said the different players in building design – designers, engineers – are used to working on their own and it can be a challenge to get them to embrace collaboration, encouraged further by new technology. “It’s not easy to make people work together who are used to working alone,” he said.

An audience member during the panel discussion also questioned whether greater collaboration through Web sites and other technology would endanger intellectual property as architects expose more eyes to their work.

Though he admitted architects do need to be selective about how much of their work they reveal and to whom they reveal it to, he said technology is a tool to bring back together the sub-areas of architecture referred to by Ferrara. And he stressed collaboration is necessary for survival in architecture.

“If you don’t collaborate, you don’t do business,” he said. “And if you don’t want to be in business, then IP is not an issue.”

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