I recently uploaded a video to YouTube, based on my Luzern studies.
It started with a painting, acrylic on canvas. I am trying to find balance in my life which for many years has leaned heavily towards the digital sphere. I love BIM and fully embrace digital tools, but sitting staring at a screen all day has its downside. Freehand sketching and painting on stretched canvas are physical activities that I have always enjoyed. So I’m trying to integrate them into my work.
That work focuses on “the way we build”. This phrase captures an obsession that began in my late teens and has expanded and diversified for more than 50 years. During my twenties it led me to work in the building trades, primarily as a bricklayer. I became fascinated with the different materials and methods that had evolved in different times and places. Slate roofs with wooden gutters in Sheffield. Clay pantiles with cast iron gutters in rural Lincolnshire. Even then these regional differences were being eroded by questionable “modern standards” (interlocking concrete tiles and plastic gutters)
The images below are taken from my digital scrapbook of visits to UK over the past couple of decades.
- pantiles with no gutter (Winchelsea, date unknown, note the occasional glass tile)
- cast iron hopper heads draining lead gutters concealed behind parapets (18th century Sheffield)
- modern attempt at traditional look (Sussex: plastic gutters + interlocking tiles)
- welsh slate & wooden gutters from the street I grew up in (Barnsley, early 20th century)
I fell in love with sliding sash windows which could so easily have been refurbished, but were being replaced by modern “quick fix” solutions. Far too often these were fixed “picture windows” with minimal ventilation provisions. It was already clear that these would have short life-spans. Condensation and rot already evident. I’m happy to see some companies now offering timber sash windows in the UK, upgraded with insulated glazing.
In my thirties, my obsession took me into education in Zimbabwe, writing and illustrating small text books, teaching at various levels. Still actively building with my hands at every opportunity. Oh to be young again. Around 1985 I had my first encounter with computers (the BBC micro) editing and revising text for the “Let’s Build Zimbabwe” booklets. We also did some basic database work to track the tool kits that were delivered to rural schools under a US-AID scheme. Those were inspiring times, so many experiences that will live with me forever.
I’m so glad that I pursued an active, hands-on approach to the building trades while I was still young enough. But by the age of 40 I had a growing family and in the context of Southern Africa I felt that I could make a useful contribution to the world as an architect. The skills were rare in that context and the needs great. As a student in “the West” I had felt like a small cog in a system that already had too many architects and where success meant helping rich people to display their wealth. Reality is more complicated than that of course, but no regrets.
I returned to architecture, completed my studies with a 2-year stint in Joburg at Wits, and made the shift to AutoCAD. It’s interesting to return to university as a mature student. I had a much clearer focus and relished the opportunity to frequent a well-stocked library. I studied history of architecture at school as part of my “O” level and “A” level art courses. As a bricklayer and then a building teacher, I continued to dip my feet in those waters. Then as a mature student I proceeded to dive in headfirst.
Here is an extract from one of my history projects at the University of Witwatersrand.
Construction Technology was a subject that failed to catch my interest as a young student in London. I was only interested in design projects and in exploring life beyond the confines of the university. But a couple of years later, when I started actually doing building work with my own hands, I suddenly wanted to know all about different technologies, processes, sequences of work, how it was done in the past, new materials, whatever. I used to go to the central public library in Sheffield and scour the shelves.
15 years later in Joburg I tried to apply my practical experience to detailing challenges from the perspective of an architect. The next image is from a project I did for the Construction Technology course: an in-depth study of “Eaves and Gutters”.
Back in Zimbabwe, as I began my belated career as a commercial architect, I held on to the idea of continuing the work I had begun with the Let’s Build Zimbabwe text books, but integrating the perspectives of an active design architect, and the potential of computer drafting. Gradually this crystalized into a personal study-project that I call “the way we build.” For long enough I imagined this as a series of books. I wanted to look at buildings in a holistic way: architectural style, functional organization, structural system, climatic performance, use of materials, detailing, sequence of trades.
At first I was focused on relatively simple buildings in the context of southern Africa, but I was also building up a computer database of drawings. photos and text covering a wide range of architectural styles and geographic locations. I experimented with laying out sheets in AutoCAD and discovered that I could learn a lot, just by the operation of trying to draw plans and elevations of buildings from the partial information I was able to find in those early days of the internet.
In the mid 90s I was able to travel further afield, to Mauritius, Hong Kong, Singapore and back to the UK a couple of times. I bought books on vernacular architecture styles, bought a digital camera, started flying regularly to Malawi for work. I started to use a digital camera and my database expanded.
There are various notes and sketches for a book that would take 4 simple building projects to reflect a range of building types, tender methods and construction methods. I envisaged a mix of freehand drawing, cad plans and Sketchup models
This all seems so long ago. I had made Africa my home, raised a family there and had every intention to remain. I had established myself as an architect, (nothing special but a respectable living}, and I was hopeful that "the way we build" could make its way to fruition in some form or other.
but then the economy of Zimbabwe went into free fall. I hung on for a couple of years but when I got the chance to try out in Dubai it was a no brainer.
Within a couple of years, I was using Revit and far too immersed in my day job to consider a book project on the side. Instead I started a blog. Before long I was applying a BIM approach to “the way we build” and sharing these experiments to my blog
I could go on and on, but there’s a whole back catalogue available here. I’ll just mention one final development. In 2015 I got involved in a competition called Project Soane. Although it was a competition (with prizes), there was also a collaborative element, which continued afterwards for a couple of years and pops up again from time to time.
This experience took me deep into understanding the life and times of Sir John Soane, the Bank of England and the Industrial Revolution. This was a wonderful vindication of the “way we build” concept: using buildings as an entry point into better understanding human societies. Along the way there were collaborations with several other people around the world and the model found it’s way into the cloud, where it still resides.
In recent months I have been working on the “rapid sketching” approach to BIM, and trying to integrate my interest in physical drawing and painting into the process of exploring “the way we build” This brings me back to the beginning of the post and the painting I did one weekend of St Leodegar, Luzern.
I decided to follow up that experience with some digital modeling, in Revit, but working rapidly and not getting hung up on details. Call it a “broad brush” approach. This model is not intended for any commercial or practical purpose beyond the learning experience of delving into the history of a fascinating old town and the way its buildings have developed over the centuries.
I am reliving the experience of taking a train journey from Zurich on a whim, and walking around a place that I knew almost nothing about before that day. And I am extending that experience in multiple directions using a variety of tools to probe more deeply and to follow my thoughts wherever they might lead.
This is a very long way from the intended use of a software tool like Revit, but in the end, all these tools are standing on the shoulders of a giant called “the pencil”. As a species we have made marks on flat surfaces for tens of thousands of years in our attempts to make sense of the world we inhabit. Leonardo used a pencil to explore human anatomy. Shakespeare used one to imagine performances that explore the human condition. You might use pencil and paper to scribble down a shopping list.
Let’s not box ourselves in to narrow visions of how our digital tools might be used. Open your heart to learning by doing in a flexible and fluid way. The journey continues.