People Profile: Davis Chauviere AECbytes Profile (January 15, 2015)

Davis Chauviere, Principal and Senior Vice President at HKS, shares his perspective on AEC technology in this Profile.
"I would suggest that digital design allows for far more creativity, flexibility, efficiency, collaboration, coordination, and enhanced communication, to say nothing of accuracy and embedded intelligence, than the very limited manual tools that were available when I started my career."
What is your educational and professional background?

After graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Texas A&M University in 1968, I enlisted in the Army and, after six months of training, spent the next year in the infantry in Vietnam.  I started my architectural career working for two small firms interrupted with a fourteen week trip to Europe.  In 1973, I joined HKS (then Harwood K. Smith & Partners) as Director of Quality Control, migrated to Director of Code Research, and then entered the design department.   After several years, I was leading a design studio, had designed a fifty story office tower, and was made a principal in the firm in 1981.  Heady things for a young professional in his mid 30s.

For several years in the early 80s, I was part of an internal team that was evaluating the practicality of using computers in architecture.  In 1983, HKS made the decision to commit $887,000 to purchase six workstations and the necessary supporting peripherals.  I found myself leading the implementation, training the users (in the end, over 1000 employees with classes averaging fewer than four), writing custom code, repairing workstations, laying networking cable, and being internal evangelist for the transformation to a digital practice.  As we migrated through three primary generations of computing platforms, I assumed the role of CIO with more comprehensive responsibilities.  I retired from that position in 2010 when I turned 65 and sold my shares back to the company in accordance with our bylaws. 

External to HKS, I was a member of the Professional Advisory Committee to Texas A&M School of Architecture in the early 1970s, was an active member of the AIA Large Firm Roundtable CIO Group since its founding in 1998, a member of the national AIA Integrated Practice Strategy Working Group in 2005, worked actively with the AGC BIMForum since its inception in 2005, and now am a member of the Texas A&M Visualization Industry Partners.

What is your current role? What are the main projects you are involved with?

My current title is Principal Emeritus, which is vague enough to allow me to do whatever I think is best for the firm.  I continue with research, training, implementation, along with application and project support for the office.  It is a curious position to be in, answering technical questions from employees younger than my youngest child. And I have reverted to my initial education being designer for multiple Catholic high school projects in the Dallas area over the last several years.

When and how did you get interested in AEC technology?

That goes back to the initial research team in the early 1980s.  I was more drafted than enlisted into the group as, quite frankly, there was no other principal that was interested in heading the effort.  The prevailing sentiment at that time (I have quotes available) was that computers were for technicians and that architects, and I assumed real men, used pencils.  Today I fear that mindset has not changed that much, with the politically correct update of “real men and real women” use pencils.

Abandoning a career in design to lead the firm's technology was obviously a major personal decision for me.  I had never thought about being a technologist in school, never had any formal technical training, and yet it was clear that computers would inevitably change the profession.  However, to paraphrase an old military truism, if war is too important to be left to the generals, computers were too important to be left to the techies. For years, we had nothing but licensed architects on our technical staff.

As I immersed myself in technology, I found it gratifying to be actively learning a new field, enjoyed helping young professionals advance in their careers, and realized that I was in a unique position in guiding the firm through a transformation that would never be repeated.  Probably the only downside was the look in my oldest daughter's eyes when I told her I was no longer designing buildings.   She did not understand how I could still be an architect.

How much of what you do today is related to AEC technology in some form?

Essentially everything.  The direct design work that I do and the support of other design teams always involves pushing the envelope of what is technically possible, while at the same time, remaining compelling and relevant to our clients.  With a high school client, I recently finished my 75th digital presentation having never generated any printed design deliverables.  On one project, the only deliverable was an animation (no plans, no elevations ... ever) until we started developing construction documents.

From your vantage point, what do you see as some of the main technological challenges facing the AEC industry today?

Two words: chip frequency or perhaps clock speed.  There has been almost no significant increase in single processor or core speed in years.  No matter how many cores we have in modern workstations, they are of little use in most of our primary applications.  You cannot plow a field with a thousand chickens, so what we need is a digital ox.  Software vendors incrementally nibble at parallelism edges, but it is hard to make a dramatic breakthrough without compromising legacy data and professional skill sets.  There is no question that far too much effort is required to manage large projects in a way that allows teams to be reasonably efficient.

How do you see AEC technology evolving in the future?

It is easy to project what technology will be capable of in the future.  The challenge is how to get there with today's tools without going bankrupt in the interim.  Ultimately, the very real problems of performance will be solved.  How many remember back to when spreadsheets had a manual update switch, so that you did not have to wait 20 seconds for overall recalculation after entering a single number?

One of the most insightful comments I remember from perhaps 20 years ago was from a senior designer who said he wanted a computer to be as fluid and transparent a design tool as a pencil.  He did not want to have to think about how to accomplish something.  He wanted to focus exclusively on what he was designing.  For those who believe that is impossible with a computer, I would suggest thinking about the fact that those of my generation write fluidly in cursive without ever having to think about how to form the letters.  We can focus on what we are writing.  Many children no longer learn cursive well enough to read it, much less write it.  Nevertheless they are quite skilled at using a keyboard with either all their digits or just their thumbs.

Is it unreasonable to project a future where young professionals are so fluid and facile with keyboards, styli, and touch screens that they find using pencils as limiting and frustrating as we would find clay tablets or quill pens (and perhaps computers) today?

If you had a wish list for AEC technology, what would it be?

Hardware is easy ... faster.  But even there, those who work on relatively small projects probably only want cheaper. But software is problematic because things are so fragmented today. It requires such an investment in time to learn all of the tools necessary to complete a complex modern building that, even if interoperability were perfect and seamless, teams seem to be breaking into an inherently inefficient aggregation of specialists.  Just as it is possible to write and format a book with a single piece of software, I would look forward to a single program working with a single data structure that allows the exposure of only those tools necessary for each phase and discipline of the project development with a single and consistent interface.  That suggests the classic dichotomy of simpler with more features.

Any additional information/observations/insights on AEC technology that you would like to share?

Clearly we are struggling to understand the proper role of AEC technology in our profession.  For those who lack technical skills in the world of design, there is the tendency to portray interactive digital design as inferior to manual sketching.  By analogy, it is as though cursive writing is somehow inherently superior to word processing.  Most would agree that is patent nonsense, and yet somehow the proposition is made that an immovable line drawn on a two dimensions plane provides more creative freedom than the infinitely flexible three-dimensional digital clay of computers.  My sense is that there is a bit of John Henry denial in play.  No, a manual hammer is not superior to a steam-driven one.

The question is not if it takes a great deal of time to develop the skills necessary to conceive and communicate architectural solutions.  It is extremely difficult and realistically not even possible for those without inherent artistic gifts.  But just as it takes years to master sketching, it also takes years to master digital tools.  The question is whether you want to learn to walk, ride a bicycle, or drive a car.

Unfortunately those who have invested the time to gain mastery of design software can feel so compelled to use their hard-earned skills that they can fall into many computer-related maladies:

  • Blobitis - No, organic geometry is not the appropriate solution to all design problems.

  • Randomitis - It is not necessary to include an arbitrarily randomized pattern (usually a form of slats) on every project.

  • Parameteritis - Shakespeare is actually superior to an infinite number of monkeys just as controlled exploration of meaningful alternatives is superior to thousands of irrelevant iterations developed thorough software.

  • Presentationitis - Investing the time to mimic the look of images that win peer awards does not necessarily provide the highest value for the client and frequently results in abstract renderings that confuse rather than communicate.

  • Detailitis - Excessive detail at any stage in the design process can be a waste of time and overwhelm the most robust computer resources.

  • Accuratitis - Whereas a manually drawn line can never be completely accurate as is possible with computers, it is not necessary for every digital line and form to be precisely controlled during design gestation.

What is needed is an understanding that using a pencil during design conception and presentation no more assures freedom or quality than using a computer necessarily limits imagination and inspiration.  I would suggest that digital design allows for far more creativity, flexibility, efficiency, collaboration, coordination, and enhanced communication, to say nothing of accuracy and embedded intelligence, than the very limited manual tools that were available when I started my career. 

When I studied architecture in the 1960s, there was the thought that once you developed sketching, drafting, and presentation skills in college, you had acquired all of the technical expertise you would need for your entire career.  Today, unless you continue learn new technologies, you will soon find yourself in a position where your only capability is to manage a team for the simple reason that you no longer have the skills necessary to actually produce the work.  To drive that point home, years ago I asked my peers at a principal retreat if there was anyone who would want anyone else in the room to actually work on their projects.  There were no replies.

I look forward to a time when all hands will be raised and when managers will have superior technical skills to those they manage as was the case when I started in architecture. But mostly I look forward to a time when there is no more discussion about technology in our industry than there is discussion about word processing among writers, a time when we focus on what we are doing rather than how we are doing it,  and when a profile such as this would seem … quaint.

AECbytes content should not be reproduced on any other website, blog, print publication, or newsletter without permission.

Related Archive Articles

  • Notes on the Synthesis of BIM
  • In this Viewpoint article, architect and educator Randy Deutsch assesses the design and construction industry's current efforts to produce and analyze vast amounts of information and proposes a call for a synthesis of its technology and collaborative work processes.
  • Measuring BIM's Disruption: Understanding Value Networks of BIM/VDC
  • In this article, John Tobin, Director of Architecture at EYP, shares his insights on how the two contrasting types of innovation, "sustaining" and "disruptive" — as popularized in the book, The Innovator's Dilemma — can be applied to the AEC technology industry.