Technology provides new opportunities for architecture and design. The pandemic has shown how flexible workflows are grounded in building connection across workstations and collaborative platforms, as well as newer ideas like implementing VR over Teams. For Dan Stine, Director of Design Technology at Lake|Flato Architects, theses changes are part of a larger drive to reimagine how technology can shape practice.
In an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, Dan describes how he implemented ongoing work from home platforms for his staff, as well as what the future holds for larger changes in how we use digital technology in design.
Why did you choose to study architecture?
I was influenced and encouraged to study architecture during high school. The public school I attended offered a series of architectural drafting courses. I knew things were starting to click for me when the teacher pinned up one of my drawings and said something like “you’re pretty good at this.” Subsequently, we had a guest speaker who brought in a computer to talk about CAD, and I was hooked. Fast forward, and I am now the Director of Design Technology at one of the top ranked architecture firms in the USA, and I have written the #1 Autodesk Revit textbook in North America within the academic market.
Lake|Flato’s work emphasizes tactile relationships, materials and craftsmanship. How does this combine with new technologies in the office and on site?
“The design team of Lake|Flato and Shepley Bulfinch led the integrated design workshop that brought together citizens, neighborhoods, and city leadership to dream about what a library of the future should be. The consensus commitment was that it be the country’s best daylit library and a model for the stewardship of resources: water, energy, and materials. No need to take the book to light here: daylighting is present in 80% of the occupied spaces.”
This completed project recently won the AIA COTE award in 2020, among others. Meeting our lofty building performance goals does not happen by accident. Lake|Flato, and our consultants, do a lot of analysis – e.g. daylighting, predictive energy use, photovoltaic potential and more. Performing this type of analysis in-house, for an architecture-only firm, allows us to continuously challenge our assumptions and validate results.
Using technology to perform analysis and drive computational design is essential if our industry is going to help move the needle on climate change. Lake|Flato is a signatory of the AIA 2030 commitment and has been submitting performance metrics for our entire portfolio of work for 10 years. This is also seen in the AIA 2030 Commitment by the numbers, 2019 update:
“In addition to codes, energy modeling is one of the best ways for the design industry to iteratively quantify the impact its design decisions have on energy use, compare design options, and determine potential savings.”
Using on-site sensors and utility bills, we can perform post-occupancy evaluations (POE) on completed projects. As a result, we can efficiently collect actual data to compare with what was predicted through analysis performed during the design phase. Our clients benefit greatly from discovering commissioning issues and developing new performance strategies, and we collect this data to continually improve on our future projects.
You’ve worked in both architecture and education. What do you believe is the relationship between academia and practice?
First, it is very rewarding to give back to the profession through teaching. And because architects are curious and always learning, an amazing outlet exists to engage with students and refine one’s own knowledge, improve presentation skills, and be immersed in the creativity and diverse perspective of our future practitioners. Students also benefit from a combination of seasoned full-time professors and design professionals who can provide timely anecdotal stories about things happening in the office. Thankfully, both professions are flexible, and I have enjoyed finding a healthy balance between my career in architecture and education. Additionally, while I teach graduate architecture students at NDSU, I also guest lecture at UTSA and the University of Minnesota.
Second, there is a more formal relationship when firms and academia work together on research. For example, Lake|Flato worked with the UTSA College of Architecture a few years ago to develop a strategy to implement sensors and collect post-occupancy data (POE) for some of our built projects.
Finally, academia continues to provide valuable contributions to architecture through research. For example, the University of Washington and University of Minnesota partnered with the AIA’s Architects’ Equity and the Future of Architecture Committee (EQFA) to develop the AIA Guides for Equitable Practice.
What are some recent projects you’ve been working on?
I have been working with Heather Holdridge, an Associate Partner and the Director of Design Performance at Lake|Flato, along with a team from Buro Happold, and the Sustainable Performance Institute on the AIA Climate Action Guide for Practice.
I support teams on their visualization, virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR) needs as well, facilitating compelling graphics to aid our clients in understanding our design solution more fully. For example, we use a sophisticated visualization tool, Enscape, to deliver real-time rendering and VR. This requires a lot of computing power, and our Dell Precision tower workstations with NVIDIA RTX Quadro graphics cards save invaluable time. During the pandemic we have mainly utilized portable VR headsets, such as the Oculus Quest II, to deliver interconnected panorama views to clients.
I have also been involved in beta-testing with Autodesk on their next-generation building performance tools. That video can be seen here: Next Generation of Sustainable Design.
Along with our design performance team, I have also been working on design analysis implementation, documentation, and staff training, which is an ongoing process given the speed in which software and technology changes.
Changes due to COVID-19 have been swift. How do you think the pandemic will shape design?
During this challenging time of COVID-19, we have found clients gravitating more to designs that fully integrate and utilize landscape and exterior covered spaces. Leveraging the natural environment has always been a hallmark of our work so we have been all too supportive of these requests from residential to institutional clients such as universities to urban developers. An understanding of and appreciation for the specific climate where a project is located: how to capture breezes or protect against strong winds or intense sun, is critical to the success of these blended or hybrid spaces so that they are comfortable, and people truly enjoy using them.
How has Lake|Flato made the pivot to a work-from-home platform? Can you tell us more about this transition?
As our team members quickly moved to work from home, we provided all staff with a full technology package including Dell PCs, dual monitors, docks, peripherals, and more. The goal was to get it as close to the office setup as possible.
Most of our team members are used to working on high-powered Dell Precision tower workstations to support different stages in the design workflow. Since all our designs are modeled three-dimensionally as well as visualized and analyzed using sophisticated software, we require a high-quality CPU, GPU, RAM and solid-state drives to support our workflows. With all this computing power initially centralized in the office, we decided to remote into these systems. Using VMWare Horizons, we could turn a single desktop into a virtual machine accessible anywhere. VMware’s Blast technology provides access to a desktop’s graphics card, unleashing tools like real-time rendering. We are even able to use remote input devices such as 3D Connexion’s 3D mouse.
So, as you can see, technology played a big part in enabling us to be productive and balance work/life no matter where we are. We now see opportunities to support a hybrid work week, with team members alternating the days they work from home or the studio.
As you look to the future, are there any ideas you think should be front and center in the minds of architects and designers?
Equity, climate action, adaptation, resiliency, and efficiency. We all need to work together, share knowledge, and develop and utilize technology to move the needle in a positive direction on these topics. Anything is possible when we put our minds to it… who would have thought so many could work from home just a year ago!