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Winds of wisdom – A survival kit for a modern architect

The kite bulges, and the string tightens. Adrenaline stirs the senses. The board begins to plow the waves, and the pace accelerates. It's just this moment – and freedom!

Kitesurfing is a breather for architect Aaro Martikainen. Indeed, extreme sports sound like an ideal variation for a knowledge worker. On the other hand, architecture nowadays also offers quite a bit of extreme: when it comes to creative work, you have to watch the horizon because the attack of change can sweep the board. So how does a modern architect get ashore? Aaro Martikainen knows the technique.

Aaro Martikainen. Picture: Pauli Haanpää

Martikainen got fascinated by technology at an early age. When choosing a profession, he felt that architecture offered the right combination of creativity and technology. In Otaniemi, tech-geekiness started to pay off: the workload drastically reduced, and life got easier as you knew how to model. In 2001, he opened a software called ARCHICAD 7, which caught him up. Aaro spent his nights coding GDL.

Easier and Better

Although laziness is not one of the Finns' favorite words, it has leverage. As sci-fi master Robert Heinlein aptly said, development comes from lazy people who are looking for easier ways to do things. Also, Martikainen has turned this natural human behavior into favor by redefining work processes. Nowadays, he works for Anttinen Oiva Architects as a BIM manager.

"There are many repetitive steps in the workflow that technology can automate. The aim is to free up time for design and problem solving," Aaro opens.

Modeling is the kickoff

Aaro says the first step in automation is modeling itself. Knowledge-based design reduces errors, speeds up cost estimation, unifies teamwork, facilitates scheduling, and more. For all this to succeed, the data chain must be contiguous. Therefore, the design team must have an agreed way to build the data structure. Simplicity is the key because the amount of project data can be stunning.

"Pay attention to naming, for example. After a year, anyone has to figure out what everything means, so avoid odd codes. Contemporary design is a mental burden, so let's not make communication any more difficult," Aaro explains.

However, since humans are not robots, the data structure tends to break down in a hurry. Once in a while, this BIM Manager holds separate project cleaning days.

Learn the habits

In his fifteen professional years, Aaro has aided numerous offices to rationalize their work. While digitalization touches our skin and enslaves our neurons, we should see the forest for the trees: in the end, BIM is here to simplify things.

"When I joined AOA a few years back, they had just chosen ARCHICAD. However, the routine wasn't there yet, so I took on the task," Aaro recalls.

Thanks to his practical background, Aaro was able to speak the personnel's language. When everyone agreed on both the goals and the route, things started to happen.

"The Wood City project was kind of a countdown. I audited the whole team and refined the best practices list. We began to build up the template systematically as well as test the workflow and documentation," says Aaro.

Wood City's wood architecture is AOA's tour de force. The project also taught the office healthy BIM techniques and punctual project management. Picture: Anttinen Oiva Architects Ltd

However, we aren't done yet, nor will ever be, but the process keeps on evolving. What's most important, we have to prepare our people to change direction quickly – like kiteboarders.

ARCHICAD robot

When the team has created a strategy and a road map, it may proceed. ARCHICAD works as AOA's quality assurance line. It's not rocket science: you just need to find out what information counts for the project and how to pass it on. Aaro has some rules of thumb for that:

"ARCHICAD classification must be adjusted for high-quality IFC. Construction companies usually want the information in the national standard, and ARCHICAD classification should match it. Of course, the geometry must also be correct."

To ward off classification flaws, AOA has its minesweeper: ARCHICAD schedules and conditional representations. The element lists match the ARCHICAD classification to the Finnish Talo 2000 standard, and with Conditional Representations, the data flaws glow red in 3D. The snag list also pops up in the model report. The system works because the clients have praised AOA's production quality.

"We take these two steps weekly before every data banking. Little things can get you surprisingly far," Aaro admits.

Simplicity also dominates AOA's ARCHICAD template that eliminates exceptions in the model. After all, only relevant information matters, so all the trash is broomed away. The file size reduces, and you don't have to clutter the model unnecessarily.

"For example, each team member's sketch layer is cleared once a month. Besides, there is a layer for potential solutions. We use a lot of supporting 2D cross-sections, which are easy to locate and delete," Aaro reveals.

Know-how makes happy

The multitasking trend died because our brains don't support it. When it comes to creative problem-solving and especially adapting to change, our human carbon-core still outperforms the computer's silicon-based processor. But remember to upgrade your head hardware, so it doesn't get dusty. Learn always and avoid comfort.

Aaro admits that work has become more and more complex, and the clock rate keeps rising. Nevertheless, he doesn't show any anxiety but hope instead. The attitude must be right.

"The most exciting thing is continuous improvement. I want to learn new every day. Expertise will get you forward. First, of course, you need to know what's achievable and how," Aaro points out.

On the lee side

Knowledge can escape like a kite. You can't be lulled into technical know-how even for a moment if you still want to surf the wave for the next decade. No hero architect builds the world on his own, but development demands knowledge from the entire value chain. Fortunately, Martikainen has made positive observations: Construction companies already know that information can revolutionize the whole project. Calculators and suppliers have awakened, too. There is more to model.

"The client is already wondering if we could model this or that. Usually, we tend to say yes. It may be, for example, paneling or even painting treatment. In Wood City, I modeled glass facades for the first time, which gave accurate coordinates and dimensions for the next planning phases," Aaro concretizes.

The Wood City office lobby's CLT-structured ceiling has a playful geometry. Image captured from Enscape, ARCHICAD's real-time rendering plug-in. Picture Anttinen Oiva Architects Ltd

Individual skills and emerging knowledge in the field still require in-office and team-specific training. The needs are also more and more project-specific, which asks for a new kind of nimbleness.

"I train our people and give them ad hoc support. M.A.D. gives us basic ARCHICAD skills – and why not project-specific quick training in the future, too. ArchiCAD is the backbone of our process, and we want to invest in it. We have come to the point where technology does free up time for human strengths such as creativity, interaction, and self-direction," he says.

The windy top

Because the benefits are clear, AOA model almost every project. When you have the skills to do even a small task ten times faster, the benefits accumulate along with the project. The more things and the earlier the response, the better.

Although BIM has come a long way since the 1980s, the mountain stage is still to come. Aaro believes that digitalization in the industry has not yet resulted in significant productivity leaps – and the slope may even be negative. How did that happen? The reason is evident to Aaro: we're not yet able to unleash the power of BIM.

Compared to the previous industrial conquests of humankind, we are talking about a much taller mountain. Climbing is hard, but the reward awaits at the top – or at least you can see the next summit.

"If we can change the main processes, the productivity shoots up. As the routines become automated, our work becomes more fun and focuses more on the core competence," Aaro envisions.

Practically this means, for example, accurate information on the building element level which constructors crave. However, the assembly line is twitching because the digital twin is still in the prototype phase: not all building parts are encoded into smart objects yet. Maybe someday!

"In Wood City, we already modeled Stora Enso's panel cladding with product-specific accuracy, and the information was valid for production," Aaro points out.

By hand – but handier

It's not smart to nail with a saw, and a knife is crappy for planing. Although BIM still needs manual effort, the right tools make work more comfortable. Aaro tells how they created Wood City's geometrically complex steel spiral staircase in Rhino. Then the surface model visited ARCHICAD's IFC refinery and continued straight to the workshop.

"Nobody looked at the staircase drawings. The production model was forged directly from IFC," Aaro describes.

Aaro is aware and impressed by the new Rhino–ARCHICAD live link, but in AOA's team projects so far, there hasn't been any need for real-time updating geometry. Instead, the Rhino model adapts nicely to the XYZ coordinates when imported into ARCHICAD as a GSM object.

The jellyfish-like Grasshopper algorithm generates the geometry of Wood City's suspended ceiling. Picture: Anttinen Oiva Architects Ltd

Put machines to work

If you want to automate your creative handicraft, you should study generative design. Aaro explains how they coded Wood City's wavy wood ceiling algorithmically in Grasshopper, and the model churned out the diagrams for the cutting robot. Did someone already mention 10x speed?

Architect's relentless harassers, doors and windows, also cause manual work. In Wood City, we tackled these with ARCHICAD's Properties and the flexible objects of the Finnish Basic Library, which Aaro would not miss.

"I remember someone smiling that we managed to do a few months' tasks in two weeks! Even small things can have a huge impact."

Digital defense

Architecture is sheer humanism, with social needs at its core. That's what digitalization is all about – no matter how inhuman concepts like a virtual model, artificial intelligence, IFC, and algorithm may feel. Some think that with the help of some digitality, even a small renaissance of humanity can spring to life, emphasizing interaction and empathy. So does the well-known brain researcher Katri Saarikivi, who once got also Aaro as her guinea pig.

Undoubtedly, Katri's thoughts on future work are eye-opening. She sees that machine may never wholly replace man, but acts as a helper with its strengths. Anyway, the rebellion of the machines does fit better in movies, doesn't it?

Direct discussion

The communication breakdown isn't the machines' fault alone. We should look in the mirror. Aaro thinks that the communication culture of the whole construction sector is still weak. Silage and subcontracting are deceasing.

"If we activated the links through the value chain, the data transfer between people would flow. An architect should also ask the construction company how they want the information. We often assume we do it in the best possible way. Errors should also be accepted and embraced. They are our best teachers," Aaro explains.

Especially in the early project stages, when the main guidelines shape, transparency would benefit tremendously. We choose radio silence, even if one single question could lead to a revolutionary solution.

"Technical data transfer is simple, but relevancy requires discussion between people – at least for now," Aaro says.

By this, Aaro refers to the creative destruction that is reshaping established businesses from banks to the music industry. Occupations disappear in terms of productivity. How about the construction industry?

"It threatens architectural firms, too – the bigger the office, the more significant the change. No one is a fortune teller, but you can still keep up," Aaro encourages.

However, the architect's role as the link mast for the whole project does not seem to diminish. Balancing the goals of the parties requires creativity and multi-talent. Architect's shoulders bear the entire culture, not just the concept.

Close competition

The Nordic countries are BIM pioneers – even though the digitalization of the most significant industry sector is painful up here, too. Undoubtedly, new technologies find their home easier in a small, relatively prosperous market like Finland. Plus, our backward character may be more enthusiastic about communication aids than the communication itself. Anyway, Aaro sees concerns in the situation:

"The world is globalizing, and Finland must follow. Otherwise, we'll be left behind. Information needs to get through, and it's harder to protect. Bunkers damage the whole industry. The whole field must work and develop processes together. Experts in different fields should talk more," Aaro lists.

Wood City is a noble hundred-million-euro project. Its rugged yet lightweight architecture dominates the island of Jätkäsaari, Helsinki. Picture: Anttinen Oiva Architects Ltd

Aaro, who is interested in economics, seeks support from the modern growth theory developed by Paul Romer and Robert Lucas: Knowledge and know-how can increase productivity without the need to raise funds or labor. Knowledge is the new gold in today's market economy. Who would like to spill the beans then? Aaro doesn't want to believe that architects are so self-interested.

"Art itself is eternal, and only technology changes. Offices compete in architecture, not in working methods. I would like to see such complementary, technical knowledge and expertise to be openly shared across the industry. Everyone can benefit from the improved productivity," Aaro explains.

Above all, we cannot store knowledge in some vault, but it's in the people. Software wizards are a great example.

"It's worth learning the tools already at school. Training programs should somehow manage to keep up with the rapid change so that the content stays relevant."

Software science

Competition is escalating in the software field, too, which shows in development efforts. Aaro believes that ARCHICAD has refined exemplarily in recent years. It is more user-oriented and connected to the architect's desk. Aaro's dreams like Properties and Expression-defined Properties have also come true.

"Those freed us from the shackles, and we made huge progress. ARCHICAD enables process change, and the benefits are easily tenfold."

While digitalization brings new tools, the long-standing duo still dominates the BIM market. Can an architect survive with one single tool? Yes and no, according to Aaro.

"ARCHICAD can do everything. For generative design and free-form modeling, I use Grasshopper and Rhino."

Aaro thinks that especially ARCHICAD's project management sets it apart from others.

"If I ended up to a deserted island, I'd take ARCHICAD with me – for designing a shelter," Aaro adds, tongue in cheek.

Honing the hardware

Software development and expanding data take us to the next obstacle: hardware. Data has increased faster than computing power. Large files jam processors if data management stumbles. Aaro wouldn't skimp on devices, because the lagging of workflow costs more.

Fortunately, GRAPHISOFT has paid more attention to computing power than its competitors. Multi-core threading, for example, is still on the wish list of Revit users.

AOA tries to keep the information in one file for as long as possible, which helps in project management. They have never cut up a file. Learning to model sparingly helps, too: all information should be relevant and in order. However, if chopping is inevitable, Aaro would separate the drawings from the model.

"Of course, you can't always avoid the rotating 'beach ball' icon – but hey, every designer sometimes needs a coffee break, doesn't he?" Aaro pulls his leg.

Searching the life cycle

BIM continues its evolution. For a totally free data flow, many bottlenecks must still widen. For example, life cycle management is still broken, and a finished building does not match its digital twin.

Creating an implementation model remains challenging because not all the information ends up in one database. In some design fields, modeling is not a commercial necessity yet, and it stays out of the contract. The game of Chinese whispers ends only by spreading knowledge and know-how.

A kind of Trojan horse of BIM is interdisciplinary training: BIM coordinators and managers spread all over the construction industry. On the other hand, maintenance modeling could become a new service business for architectural firms. Would it be updating the model itself or just manual red-penning? Aaro thinks it should first be determined if additional work benefited maintenance enough.

The journey goes on

As we can see, the world is not complete. To top it off, an individual has less and less control of its exponentially increasing information mass. From campfire stories to hieroglyphs, from typewriter to computer, from the internet to AI – what's coming next? The most obvious answer is the symbiosis of human knowledge and technology. Will the whirlwind of change daze us? At the front door, Aaro calms the panicking interviewer:

"If we come back to reality, to everyday life, the most important thing is having great people around you. After all, it's all about us humans – amongst a few machines!"

Hold on! Picture: Antti Appelgrén

BIM Surfer's Checklist

  • Automation begins with modeling – next, create a starting template.
  • ARCHICAD is enough – Rhino and Grasshopper may assist.
  • Remember clear naming and structure – the model stays intact.
  • Don't be shy about the latest technology – utilize its potential.
  • Explore algorithmics – generativity is the next big thing.
  • Set office standards together – it engages and enhances teamwork.
  • Contribute to open interaction – it catalyzes development.
  • Automate model quality assurance – you get off surprisingly quickly.
  • Don't fear mistakes – they are the best way to learn.
  • Learn how to model sparingly – avoid fragmenting the information.
  • Seek healthy work-life balance – and keep work away from home.
  • Take advantage of the latest ARCHICAD – your productivity can boost tenfold.
  • Pledged information has no value – dare to share your knowledge.
  • Learn software already at school – the deadlines won't haunt you.
  • Keep your eyes open and prepare for change – you will be more successful.
  • Invest in hardware and software – it will save you a lot.
  • Doubt your routines – the are more natural ways.
  • Match the ARCHICAD classification with local standards – IFC will be high-class.
  • Keep BIM simple – it can be a pain, too.
  • Data can be a burden – only relevant information is valuable.
  • Don't assume, but dare to ask – the answer can save the whole project.
  • Don't be left alone – ask for help with your workflow.
  • The real change comes from the process – avoid temporary patches.
  • Pay attention to model quality – exceed your customer's expectations.
  • Improve your skills continuously – it's your best investment.
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About Ville Nikunen

Ville Nikunen is a Communication Designer & Educational Relations Manager at M.A.D. He is a creative mind and passionate about writing, architecture, graphic design and making music. For a decade, Ville's job at M.A.D. has been to create appealing visuals and interesting stories within the AEC industry and the BIM world.
  • Finland