design thinkers

Greener Tools for Better Designs

I grew up around handsaws and hammers, two-by-fours and plywood, saw dust and the fresh scent of clear pine.  Thirty years later, I am an architect and design thinker at SLAM advocating for mass timber structural solutions, in part, because my grandfather was a woodworker, lumberjack, and union carpenter.  He made children’s toys, built his own home, and framed out post-war skyscrapers all with wood. He taught me how to saw a straight line and how to sharpen that saw.

I now find myself recalling his generation’s tools to help frame a discussion of rapidly evolving wood construction technology.  An early and important lesson I learned from him was: Don’t blame your tools for the quality of your work.  Take ownership of your craft and you will quickly find that you are taking better ownership of your tools.  If we are architects of mass timber, a rapidly maturing construction technology, and we need to innovate mass timber design solutions, then the critical question becomes: What mass timber design tools do we need to innovate?

Such a question is not new to architects, who, I have found, continuously consider the tools at hand.  To even the casual observer, the continual and dramatic evolution of an architect’s toolkit provides an indication of the extent to which our built environment still relies on a physical and digital pencil.  More specifically, however, I think our built environment relies on the architects who care to sharpen those pencils. [see The Magic of Paper and Pen]

Artificial Intelligence, Virtual and Augmented Reality, Building Information Modeling (BIM), 3D printing, and tremors of the fourth industrial revolution are all examples of recent rompecabezas (head exploding puzzles) that have been happening in architecture offices internationally.  They have also begun to impact timber manufacturing technology, which has similarly expanded to include a wide variety of engineered, tested, and coded wood products (some being massive and others microscopic).

In short, the building sector just collectively developed a whole new set of tools for us all to use.  So, let’s start making a whole new type of architecture, right?  Yes and No.

Yes, priorities are quickly shifting in our industry toward the inconvenient measurement of the embodied carbon of every building element. And unfortunately, No, because this quantification of how much energy an architectural design will require over its material life cycle (with carbon release and embankment becoming a design consideration) is about as much fun as eating dry cereal.  Acknowledging the work that needs to be done, this is where SLAM enters the conversation and begins to address the limitations of our brand-new types of design technology.

The good news is that we aren’t blaming our tools, just checking them for sharpness. SLAM has been invited to become a market-side “beta tester” for a Mass Timber BIM (MT BIM) toolkit, for example.  While the development of this MT BIM toolkit is not happening in-house, we are collaborating with an industry leading mass timber manufacturer and an international timber trade organization, providing them critical market-side suggestions, requests, and feedback on this new BIM application. What does this mean for the inconvenient measurement of embodied carbon?

First, it means that SLAM will more easily and accurately model the amount of carbon that the mass timber in our designs has “banked,” or removed from the atmosphere.  Second, it means that we, as an office, are investing economic and intellectual capital in more sustainable structural materials than steel and concrete.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, the collaborative process of sharpening our tools does, in fact, fundamentally improve our ability to design in a whole new era of architecture.