Macro vs. Micro

Where do we focus our design efforts? Why is it that Architecture seems to so often exist only at the Macro?

We spend an awful lot of time working out and worrying over what are little more than massing studies in the design process. Weeks, even months, may be spent on tweaks that most people outside of the design process would likely consider to be pretty darn subtle. I have to wonder if the effort really matches the results…

I know I didn’t always think this way. At my last firm we teamed with a local designer on a community center for Maryvale, Arizona. First time I saw the project on paper I was unimpressed… two shiny metal boxes sitting on top of glass walls. I didn’t get it. And then I did. I went there with a friend of mine, Jenell Bass, who worked on the interiors and my eyes where opened. The attention to detail and subtlety of the design at the human scale was really impressive. My favorite move was how the exterior walls around the basketball court leaned out slightly in order to prevent glare from interrupting your view into the space. Brilliant!

What I now believe was that the decision to simplify the Macro allowed them to focus on the Micro.

I have seen some of this level of thinking in the traditional Macro-focused designs of course. The Designers I’ve worked with typically bring this level of thinking late in the design process. I guess this is okay… if you’re talented enough to have been considering these issues during the earlier phases of the design. And if you’re working under a traditional Design-Bid-Build contract then, as long as it’s in the documents at the end of the bid, you’re fine.

It’s in this newer Construction Manager at Risk (CMaR) contracting type we’re seeing a lot of lately where the problems with this late entry method start to show up.

If the CMaR is working with you as the contract method intends they are providing you with pricing and construction alternates during the design phase… and they can only price what they can see in the documents (or possibly read in a design narrative). If we don’t have something in the project specifically described the CMaR can only assume that we’re not concerned about its design or construction and will price whatever method they think is appropriate. And when we don’t describe and document the Micro of our designs until the end of the project the CMaR, caught off guard and unaware, has no choice but to add cost to the project (likely on the edge of being over-budget anyway) and then we’re left with a big mess and a lot of redesign to get the project back in budget.

The move towards Revit and BIM only seems to shed more light on this problem… though it could and should just as easily be the solution.

Instead of seeing Revit and BIM as an opportunity to play at the Macro level more, confident in the ability to produce the bulk of the documentation in short order, we should use the extra time to start focusing on the Micro sooner and more thoroughly. The shape of the building is not nearly as important as we Architects would like it to be… at least not to our clients and ultimate users of the project. They’re more concerned about that finer level of coordination and detailing that we routinely push off until later.

If we can trust our initial design impulses at the Macro we can use Revit and BIM to allow us more time to focus on the Micro.

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One Response to Macro vs. Micro

  1. L4 says:

    maybe I don’t understand the pitfall you describe… wouldn’t CMaR maintain an assumed “details’ cost? even when a designer begins with tentative specific details in mind, those will certainly change.

    Instead of seeing Revit and BIM as an opportunity to play at the Macro level more, confident in the ability to produce the bulk of the documentation in short order, we should use the extra time to start focusing on the Micro sooner and more thoroughly.
    suggesting that… bim/cad is not a design tool.

    also, revit/bim will save CD time. but… that cost saving may be shifted into lower design fee (lower costs are good, of course), not into more design.

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