There are admittedly many differences from architecture school and working in the profession. One major difference is that while in school, people are in a mode of exploration, and any and all tools to facilitate that exploration are welcome. By the time one reaches the stage of “doing the work,” the suite of tools becomes far more narrow: AutoCad, Revit, Ecotect (maybe), and the occasional 3D program like Rhino. And if a person decides to hang out their own shingle, the computer tools becomes even more limited because of cost issues, unless bootleg copies are something you want to risk.
The good thing about university research is that they are constantly developing tool suites that can help architects and designers for free. Take for example, a suite of tools offered by Northwestern University’s Center for Connected Learning, headed by a graduate of MIT’s Media Lab, Professor Uri Wilensky. It’s called NetLogo and it can help anyone model cities. In detail. From natural objects like plants to man-made objects, all these components can be realistically rendered to create an entire city. Or, if your project is more modest, perhaps just a block. Because that is one time-consuming issue, isn’t it? Drawing all the detail of a design’s surrounding environment? From streets to buildings, streetlights to easements, there is nothing more necessary and yet tedious than being the one who is designated to draw the physical context (i.e. the surrounding environs) of a design, regardless of whether that design itself is a single or a series of structures. Inherent in the NetLogo tool suite is a library of smaller components and landscapes that can be easily added to any model. This is especially useful in modeling urban environments, and in fact the researchers determined that a series of smaller “seed” components was best to allow for additional flexibility, rather than creating a larger, more comprehensive model that one might have to spend a lot of time personalizing. This is combined with the capability of generating components oneself. Ease and efficiency combined with flexibility are key here. So what are some of these components one can illustrate, as well as calculate using this software? It is pretty comprehensive, because the categories range from pollution, recycling, economic disparity and even sprawl, to name a few. In other words, one can “explore the connection between the micro-level behavior of individuals and the macro-level patterns that emerge from the interaction of many individuals.” Surely this will only aid architects and designers as they work with their clients. After all, clients are often motivated by a multitude of factors, not just that of creating a discrete space. But determining the impact of their needs on sprawl, pollution, or even of it’s impact on sustaining the local resources often seems too daunting and, frankly, too expensive. With this tool suite, some of those concerns can be allayed. What’s more, since it’s free, clients can also download it and explore all these factors for themselves in different configurations. And this can only facilitate communication. And don’t worry, they offer extensive tutorials.