Takes on Technology

Top architects talk tech topics at dynamic ARCHI-TECH roundtable


By Maureen Patterson

At Archi-TechXchange in Carefree, AZ, last November (See About Archi-TechXchange, page 31), a group of architects participated in a roundtable discussion, conducted by ARCHI-TECH staff, about the role of technology in building designs. The discussion was interesting and informative, and is excerpted here. For a complete list of participants, review the Roundtable Participants box below and right.

ARCHI-TECH: What are the critical issues regarding technology? What’s out there that you are most concerned about right now?

STEPHEN NEWBOLD: [The] technology ... is at a point where you don’t need to show it off as much. It should be integrated into the space. We all know it’s there and we anticipate it, but it shouldn’t necessarily be seen as much. We use it is a balancing act of getting it designed in so it works, it’s integrated, and yet it is still able to be changed out as the technology improves.

HENRY CHAO: That is quite interesting because ... I think it was the Fast Company magazine where they actually talked about technology and they kept saying you need to make the technology simpler. And they have a quote where they said the MIT professors said, “I only know about 15 percent of what’s inside my laptop.” And so they basically said that the key words - actually the technology will not get simpler because it deals with a complex function, but we want technology to do more and more and more. How can it get simpler?

However, I think you are right. We, as designers, we are designing the interface of the technology, and that’s something where holistic appearance becomes very important because you cannot be a, you know, stand-out item. We are dealing with interface technology; therefore, we want interface to be friendly. We want the integration to be integrated and easy to use and easy to absorb and learn. And that was very, very interesting.

ARCHI-TECH: Does all this technology need to go behind the walls?

SANDY SMITH: It has to be simple and have only three buttons to push, not 10. If you have ever taken a mouse and counted how many clicks it took you to get somewhere sometimes, it’s amazing. When you walk in your office, all you hear is click, click, click, click, click. Everybody is clicking their mouses. ... The end-user wants something where they have the infrastructure to support whatever they want to do now, in the future, or whether they don’t even have it now or they are going to have it in the future. And they want it simple.

The first thing a client may show me is they will take me into a conference room and say, “Look at all these wires. I can’t stand all these wires. This is antiquated. I want simplicity. I want it behind the scenes,” and we want the architecture integrated into it so it doesn’t stick out like that picture on the wall.

NEWBOLD: The interface could just be wireless. I don’t need to see any of the wires anywhere. If I have a remote control in a room and as long as I can understand its functions, I don’t need to be physically connected to anything. It can sit at the conference table or sit on my desk. ... I don’t need to see devices on the wall. It’s not necessary anymore. ... It should be that clean, and then I don’t have to worry about architecturally integrating it because it doesn’t stick into anything. ... It should be that simple.

ARCHI-TECH: So you have new construction, that’s fine. If you are going into a project for renovation, how do you do it?

NEWBOLD: I only need the receivers and output. I’m going to have a discreet wireless receiver on the ceiling someplace that’s got a power connection and that’s all I need. If I need to control the lights, great. Maybe I have taken out the wall switch and I have put a little interface in there, or I have blanked that off. You can have a traditional switch but it’s an intelligent switch because it will receive infrared or wireless as well. For audio, I’m going to put the speakers in like I normally would. ... I can blend those things in without dragging and ripping open the walls for new wires. If I want to see video - do I necessarily want a plasma screen on the wall or do I want a discreet projection on that wall without a display device? There’s an elegant way of doing it without it becoming so physically prominent.

The point is the interface needs to be there for the user. All the kit doesn’t need to be anywhere near. It can be in the closet or in the basement or across town for that matter, as long as the interface is there.

MICHAEL THOMAS: Being in IT and supporting 40 users, it has to be very user friendly, somewhat customizable, but user friendly and unobtrusive. And it just has to work. That’s the biggest thing. It just has to work. I don’t care how you make it work. It just has to work. I get that every day.

NEWBOLD: It has to be scalable. You want to be able to buy just what you want to buy. Say I want to buy a car. Do I need a Cadillac or a Jeep? The interface of a car has been pretty much standardized, and I know how to operate a car if I sit down in it. And I need to be able to then buy exactly what I want. So if I need to have an AV interface plus a lighting interface plus a shade interface in the room, it should have the same interface device, and it should give me the options of adding shade control or whatever so that I don’t have to go and buy another device. I should have just the one that travels with me in every environment and it has a thousand features of which I’m only going to use, say, five. I buy those five and knowing I can add or change later.

ARCHI-TECH: But how do you know that? You are building a building today that’s going to be around 50, 100 years. You don’t know what technology is going to happen.

DON ARCHIABLE: Our thing for all of our clients, one thing they know for sure is their technology is going to change in 2 to 3 years. So everything is building the whole structure as a platform for change, having the bandwidth assigned in the walls that can take the infrastructure swing to whatever bandwidth it’s going to be. We know what the bandwidth components are. It’s how I align them to be snapped up and installed. A little box in and plug and play, or plug and pray in some cases. But the idea would be you could have it. It would be robust. It’s going to be - it would fit with almost any kind of protocol or cross connect at this time. You have all these different proprietary issues, and what we are doing for the most part - and I think it’s going more for medical as well - is there is so much interfit with all the different things now which had to do that because none of it was clicking before.

NEWBOLD: Whether it’s shades or light control, if I already have a computer with a configurable interface software platform, I just add them to it. It’s all IT anyway. Maintenance is going through the IT department, so get on with it.

THOMAS: AMX is doing sort of a really interesting configuration. They are really making it very open platform to where they could interchange different things. You don’t have to worry about it, which is revolutionary. That’s unheard of. To be able to plug in your Mac and your Windows. It doesn’t do that to a server; you are going to kill it.

RON BAKER: I guess what we can be sure of in our business, doing a $250 million hospital, that the technology is going to change at least once before it’s built.

ARCHI-TECH: How do you handle that?

BAKER: You design, put the infrastructure into the facility that will handle not only what’s currently available, but you try to “future cast” what might be available through dialogues like we have had today with vendors. You can just about bet that the radiology technology is going to change at least once before you get the facility built.

ARCHIABLE: Diagnostic technology is going to change. It’s incredible.

BAKER: The health care market is expanding and growing so rapidly that it’s impossible to know what you are going to have when you’re done.

THOMAS: Every time you go to the doctor, there’s something different.

BAKER: Or they just saw the newest thing from Siemens or they have just been wined and dined by GE, and this is the next generation of what’s out there. And it becomes at least two change orders to the project by the time you’re done.

SMITH: More than that. And research facilities, too, and the types of equipment that they use. The first cost. It’s not over until the fat lady sings, and even then when they move their equipment in, it’s not a given. So guess what? I’ve got this one, it takes a different plug, and we will have to change that out.

ARCHI-TECH: Sandy, you said something about first cost. It’s all about first cost.

SMITH: On a commercial project yes. It’s not all about first cost when you get into research facilities or hospitals. The quality has to be there.

ARCHI-TECH: Because I was wondering how you temper that with life-cycle costing.


THOMAS: You can look at it all you want.

BAKER: There is no such thing as life-cycle costing.

SMITH: Then there’s all the unpredictability of energy costs as well that are wreaking havoc.

LABASKUS: A lot of times in the commercial sector the person paying the first cost is not the person paying the life-cycle cost. So ownership and benefit will change hands after the building is completed or shortly thereafter, so that’s why there’s a focus on first cost and not life-cycle cost. Because I, as first cost, am looking to maximize my profit from that facility in a year to 2 years and then I’m out. I’m flipping it because I’m going to build another one, because that’s what I like to do. I don’t like to own it. I like to develop it. I like to build it and then I want to move on.

CHAO: One thing that could be interesting, though, and it’s amazing after that many years with technology is that technology still remains an over budgeted category as capital cost. The technology should really be considered operation cost. As it remains a capital cost, it’s over the points of when you are going to depreciate that. It’s always an issue. They will never get over that. And once it - we are all architects. When we buy a computer, is that operational cost or capital cost? We have many of the firm owners here. Well, you know the answer. And so we are actually doing that ourself in a way when you look at purchasing equipment and things. We are not seeing it that way, and I think that’s a mistake.

LABASKUS: We ... talked about the ubiquitous nature of technology and where it’s everywhere and try to make it as invisible as possible and make it a part of that. But from the execution of a project, the other part I think is changing is ... how buildings get designed and how they get built. The fact that architects are meeting with AMX is an unheard-of experience probably.

Secondly, as you move to the new MasterFormat, if the MasterFormat causes general contractors to become more educated about technology where they are less resistant of having technology be in the contract, you will find contracts having more and you will end up with a more integrated delivery of technology and space. Right now it’s contracted separately and it’s done differently. It’s purchased and procured separately and so intrinsic. There is a systemic divide between the technology that gets overlaid onto the building and the architecture that gets designed into the building.

ARCHI-TECH: So MasterFormat unifies the whole process?

LABASKUS: I think it has the opportunity to do it, but I think -

NEWBOLD: It has the promise. Technology can drive the architect’s program. Technology can become so mission critical within a building that it defines the performance of your building. If so, you are going to go hire a technology person, who is going to hire an architect to make a wrapper for his technology. We are going to answer to a building program created by somebody else. And if we don’t become smart about technology, we as architects, are going to end up taking a back seat or no seat. Because the use of technology is where the people are making the money, and that’s their base. It’s their factory. If you continue the factory example and say, “OK, this is the machinery that makes our product,” you are going to build a wrapper around that machinery. ... The same thing with technology. Technology in a typical office building may not be as critical, but for a health care center, you are being hired by the equipment vendors to put a wrapper around their equipment for their program.

BAKER: It depends on the department.

CHAO: Some people think so.

NEWBOLD: To go to the other extreme, to think of an architect doing systems design and integration, nothing personal, it’s really scary because the technology is moving too fast. The architect can’t do his job on a day-to-day basis and keep up with the change in available technology.

ARCHIABLE: Unless that’s all you do. We are a niche architect and we ask the question first: What do you want to be when you grow up? And we give them a wrapper based on what they are going to be. And then nobody is arguing with anyone, because that’s what they are going to get, and it’s changeable 10 times in the next 20 years because it’s all built in the walls. The bandwidth is there. The size of the equipment is getting smaller, not larger, and we give them in our case five major parts to this thing. These things are defined areas. We do know that it’s likely the television as we know it is going to change drastically and is going to a different distribution.

About Archi-TechXchange, held in mid-November 2005 in Carefree, AZ, offered top-level architects and senior manufacturing executives the chance to meet one-on-one in private meetings to discuss both original and off-the-shelf solutions to designers’ most pressing technological challenges. Over the course of 3 days, the informal environment also allowed architects and manufacturers the chance to network and build long-lasting relationships.

The ARCHI-TECH staff participated in the program, conducting in-depth interviews of the architects before the event and sharing the information with manufacturers, who tailored their presentations to the needs of each architect. Each meeting, therefore, was specific and detailed, and the feedback proved the event was time well spent.

Plans are under way for
Archi-TechXchange 2006, which will take place in Park City, UT, October 15-18. For attendee and vendor information, contact Jennifer Birkholz at
(952) 224-7616 or jbirkholz@architechxchange.com. More information is also available on www.architechxchange.com.