S…p…e…e…d…

No, not the smack. I’m talkin’ a blazing fast, even blistering pace. I have learned that in school (and in an office) speed can be paramount. And it is in school that I’ve learned speed or lack thereof can mean a free weekend or an all-nighter.

The last project I worked on in an office was a Federal renovation of a building on a campus of buildings, all of which were on the National Register of Historic Places. Somehow we didn’t have HABS documents, though (they were not completed yet). Our schedule was approximately six months for final CDs and there was no SD or DD phases. AND we had to do it in Revit with an untrained staff. AND we had to do it in metric. The odds were against us, to say the least.

So we were without HABS documentation, but we had laser scanned drawings of the building. You might think: “laser scans, great! What’s the problem?” Lasers are great but they picked up, as they should, every millimetre (did I mention metric?) of settlement over the past 160 years. Not to mention wall angles that were no-so-90-degrees. Can you blame those masons from 1850? So my initial modeling attempt quickly posed the question of “straightened” plans or “realistic” plans–and there was a big difference.

Anyway, I learned many things from this experience including a crash course is preservation terminology and techniques. I learned such fancy concepts as efflorescence, step-crack analysis & solutions, and various reasons why brick did not look like brick. Readers in the building preservation world know what I mean.

But the thing I really learned was SPEED. Decisions were made ultra-fast. “On the fly” was more than a motto, it was a way of life! Oftentimes a principle would remind our large in-house meeting group that certain conversations, while relevant in a normal project, were moot on this one. Speed was more important. And in our fast-food world, I feel more and more projects are following this clip. “I don’t know any other way, these days,” an engineer quipped in a meeting.

But is there a price for speed? Are mistakes made because deadlines shortened the decision-making process? As an analogy, many appreciate the convenience of fast food, yet fail to realize the health costs associated with such decisions. Could such a thing happen in architecture? As schedules are shortened, it is no wonder we see AutoCAD creating a app for smartphones. But is this really a good thing? Are we saying it is okay to review drawings on a small screen, away from the office, while driving to a different meeting altogether, jetlagged after a four-hour flight? Okay, perhaps an extreme example. But I have no doubt this might actually happen in real life.

But just as in fast food, a  slow food counterculture has developed. In a similar way, could a slow architecture movement be forming? I have heard described that Zumthor’s Thermal Baths took six years in the design process. I believe it could be this slow process which helped him to win the Pritzker Prize. We should take a moment to reflect as we design. We should relish the time we have to design. Consider, dear reader, that it could mean the difference between a brilliant solution which took a week and a mediocre decision that took five minutes.

As to the project I mentioned at the beginning, we actually did meet the deadline. Then the client reevaluated the project and we had to start over to incorporate the full campus. 😉

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