Using Tech to Enhance the Client Experience…
Our practice has been around since the mid-eighties and like any professional service, we have had to move with the times. I am told that we were early adopters of CAD, over the traditional drawing board and certainly since 1997, when I joined the business, I have only ever produced information in digital form, leaving aside the odd sketch or card model.
However, these earlier forays into computer-aided design were not really about improving the client experience. The information was still largely output in 2D form and printed onto ‘traditional’ drawing sheets to be sent out in the post. This was more about speeding up the process of both revising information and providing multiple options. It also allowed the design team as a whole to share digital information, from initial survey to coordinated construction drawings, albeit by way of floppy disc at that time. Generally, 3D information was still a sketch or physical model. However, this approach retains a degree of ambiguity and requires the client to possess the spatial awareness skills of the architect in order to fully appreciate the implications of a design, something that is rare and frankly unfair to expect of the layperson.
With the advent of more complex 3D CAD software it became more commonplace for designers to work on their designs in three dimensions from the outset of a project. Again, we were relatively early adopters of these modelling systems in the 1990’s and which were the early ancestors of what we now call BIM – Building Information Modelling. This allowed the designer to export accurate 3D views of their proposals and, with some additional photoshop processing, provide printed visuals to their clients.
From the beginning of this millennium we have had access to more user-friendly software that allowed for ‘real time’ editing of built forms, sunlight analysis, colours and textures. These are useful tools when sitting with a client to discuss preferred options but can also produce movie ‘fly-throughs’ as well as being suitable for output to third party rendering through standalone software. This approach coincided with the widespread use of the internet and digital transfer of information, which really has allowed designer and client to converse in a much more fluid manner, allowing multiple variants on a design to be reviewed in a short timeframe.
Today the acknowledged CAD system for producing project information is BIM, Building Information Modelling. Various options exist but central to this thinking is a single model file constructed, added to and amended by the members of the design team. Think of this as building a detailed 3D CAD version of the finished building and then choosing how to view it in order to generate the drawings. The programs used are termed ‘parametric’, which essentially means that changing an instance in one view automatically changes the nature of that information in all related views.
The output from this design process can be very quickly turned into good quality imagery or 360degree views, allowing the client to virtually stand in a space and look all around. Product library information now exists for a multitude of real items, such as furniture, fixtures, fittings, and lighting, all of which can be imported into a model to ensure that a space functions exactly how the client intends. Add to this daylight modelling and energy use analysis and one can see what a powerful tool this is. And when it comes to providing the client with the all-important cost information, the BIM model can provide a tool for Quantity Surveyors and Contractors to more accurately analyse quantities and specifications.
Virtual Reality can be readily used in conjunction with BIM, allowing the client to ‘virtually’ walk around a building and even obtain pop-up information on the proposed equipment, furniture and fittings, this is a whole new sector of business in itself. From our experience this is more likely to be a marketing tool than a design one, but things are moving more in this direction with the adoption of computer game engines to efficiently run the process of visualisation.
For many a ‘traditional’ physical model still provides the most accessible way of understanding form and space. The process of exporting 3D CAD data for 3D printing is now quick, efficient and cost effective, so detailed and professional-looking 3D printed models are now very affordable. This can be an economical way of conversing with a client, especially at early project stages when various form options can be slotted into a contextual site model. For public consultation events a physical model is often a very powerful tool.
Another area where technology is aiding the process of design and communication is in 3D surveying. For all projects, the accuracy and quality of survey information is paramount. We work with local surveyors who have moved on from simple tape measures and clipboards, and instead now utilise hand-held laser scanners and aerial drone photography to completely capture the building and its surroundings digitally in 3D. The BIM building model can then be ‘inserted’ into the 3D replica environment, allowing for the communication of highly representative information to client, planner or third parties, reducing ambiguity and hence misunderstanding. Understanding how a built form will sit in the landscape is key when working in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – AONBs.
The use of this technology is not restricted to site topography, historic buildings present major complexities to the designer when it comes to inserting and replacing structure, services and internal divisions. Laser scanner information can be acquired to accurately map internal and external spaces and surfaces, allowing the designer to fully understand how new elements of construction may be coordinated with old and allowing both clients and Historic Buildings Officers to assess the resultant impact.
Is there a catch to all this technical wizardry? This comes down to how it is used, there is something to be said for retaining a degree of ambiguity when communicating ideas. Unless something has been truly fully ‘worked-out’ designers are reticent to offer up too much detail, in case that detail is incorrect. The ‘artist’s impression’, in both nature and name, is still a handy tool when communicating intent, an idea. Here the output from any technology is vital, the software will often allow the designer to ‘dial-down’ the detail, or simply provide the underpinnings to an impressionistic sketch.
Clients are becoming more aware, and interested, in how designs can be communicated, Generally, we have the ability to produce high quality information for any project as it progresses, simply as part of that process. However, as I often hear, it’s not simply a case of “…pressing a button…” And with the ability to provide options quickly comes increasing demand for this to be carried out. Without management the client, and other third parties, can be swamped with ideas, whilst introducing many others of their own that are not necessarily part of the designer’s original concept. We are talking about personalities here as well of course, but a good design can only be achieved under guidance from the designer. With increased amounts of representative pre-construction information comes a reduced requirement on the client to simply trust their designer. Faith is effectively swapped for qualitative information. When it comes to actually providing a client with the scheme that they signed-off this can only be a good thing.
The designer has a dazzling array of technology at their fingertips in order to converse with their clients. The skill required of the them today is how and when to use that technology to best effect so as to truly assist the design process by conveying useful information to the client whilst maintaining control of the process and being able to deliver their interpretation of the client’s aspirations.