The Speed of Life  

by Grant A. Simpson, FAIA and James B. Atkins, FAIA

We're holdin' on tight (holdin' on tight)
(We're) travelin' at twice the speed of life.

We are in a time of prosperity seldom equaled in our profession. For most of us, work is abundant, and working hours have been expanded to accommodate the demand. There is much less time available to practice architecture as we once did, always thought we would, and hoped that we could. Passing ourselves coming and going, we worry with recruiting new employees while hoping to keep the ones we have. We struggle to believe we are providing top notch services to reliable repeat clients, while we worry that we may not be able to accept that new commission we have worked so hard to earn. We are awash in emerging technology that promises to change our profession in many ways. We have too many e-mails to answer and constantly fidget with our PDAs and cell phones. We risk burning out ourselves and our coworkers with each passing day.

By the mid-1900s, architecture, in terms of managing design delivery, had changed very little for more than a century. The modern firm of the 1970s, struggling to recover from the devastating recession of the early 1970s that almost decimated many old-line firms, attempted to adapt to new ideas designed to speed up the metabolism of architecture practice. This included learning to incorporate new technologies in a rapidly changing world of architecture. The need to study productivity and various methods for producing work faster and more efficiently became a priority.

The world is a rose; smell it and pass it to your friends.—Persian Proverb

Newer technologies took the pencil from our hands and replaced it with a keyboard. Electronic innovations allowed us to work faster and accomplish more, but the spaces of time between routine business activities began to compress, and the time for leisurely interaction in our work became harder to find. Work time as we know it today no longer offers us time to smell the roses.

This article will examine the significant change that has developed in architecture over the past generation and its impact on our personal lives. We will look at the facets of our business that have put us in overdrive, increasing the speed of life and robbing us of much of our time once allocated for observing, pondering, discussing and, yes, listening.

As soon as possible
Time, time, time is on my side, yes it is.—The Rolling Stones

The time-honored methods of delivering architectural information before the 1970s were land-line rotary dial telephones, hand deliveries direct from the blueprint shop, and the United States Postal Service. An architect could always call the client and discuss the project, but transmission or shipping of drawings and images was a slow process. In a dire emergency, an architect could get on an airplane and deliver promised drawings in person. The exchange of information was much slower, as were the expectations of those participating.

When facsimile machines and overnight deliveries entered the picture, the speed of life began to gain a faster pace.

Just the fax
Facsimile transmission technology was introduced in the 1970s, but it was not widely used until the early 1980s. By the time the 1990s rolled around, it was routine to send a fax of 30–40 pages or even larger. The first commercially viable fax machines were cumbersome and designed to send only a few pages. Telephone transmission technology at the time consisted of land lines communicating through analog switches. It was common to experience dropped calls resulting in incomplete faxes. A typical fax session involving the transmission of 10 pages could go something like this:

You pick up the receiver and dial the fax number, hoping that someone is at the other end to answer. If they answer, you hurriedly jam the receiver into the rubber fax receptacle, while the person on the other end does the same. You listen to the high pitched sounds until they stop, hold your breath while the sheets begin to feed, curse when the telephone company drops the call, and start the infernal process all over again . . . This endeavor could often absorb an hour. The great benefit of this exhausting effort was that the client or consultant received information that would otherwise have required two days or more for delivery.

These spaces of time between tasks, imposed by technical limitations, gave us more time for contemplation and creativity. We were able to give more time to our work, and obligated deadlines were more forgiving. As technical advances began to encroach upon our sacred spaces, the speed of life began to erode the luxurious time between tasks, robbing us of this once-respected commodity.

Overnight deliveries
Although it is the abbreviated name and trademark of a well known package delivery company, Fed-Ex® became a part of the architect’s lexicon as the generic name for overnight shipping. Overnight delivery was one of the innovations, along with computers and e-mail, that has made the most dramatic difference in the speed of an architect’s life. The regular mail expectation of four days to the east or west coast and two days from Chicago to New York or Dallas to Houston became one day. Waiting time for review of printed material and the intervals waiting for critical reviews or decisions were slashed. An architect could work until the day before a drawing package was due and ship it overnight to the recipient with the assurance that it would be received on time. We discovered it was often faster to send an overnight package across town than to use the mail.

The development of faster communications and deliveries had a systemic effect on our phases of service. With overnight deliveries came overnight responses. This caused us to push on the competitive edge by promising accelerated services. The roses, waiting to be smelled, became red blurs along the way.

Personal communications
The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.—Joseph Priestley

The telephone was a necessary fixture in business commerce almost from the day it was invented. There is no one living today who did not grow up with this remarkable device. Nonetheless, its early use had significant limitations compared to today’s technology.

Once upon a time, a phone could not be answered while it was in use, and the six to eight messages received while you were out of the office were handwritten on pink memo pads by your secretary. You returned the calls and talked to your clients and business associates about the tasks and questions at hand. It could take a day or two to get in touch with each other, and when you did, you conversed in detail, exchanging as much information as possible, knowing that future communications would be just as cumbersome.

Eventually, rotary lines were developed and your “secretary” could actually take a message for you while you were talking on another line. Now, only one phone call was necessary to leave the message. The development of cellular technology and improved electronics has brought efficiency and the speed of life to new heights. When voice mail arrived on the scene, a new form of telephone etiquette emerged. Social interaction no longer required a live conversation. Business could now be transacted through the exchange of messages without the human component of warm spontaneous interaction.

E-mail, although it existed long before it achieved its current market penetration, served to speed up life dramatically, but it also significantly reduced the culture of personal communications. Replacing to a great extent the role of the telephone in business, it is now common to receive 50 or 60 e-mails a day, compared with 8 or 10 telephone calls of 20 years ago. The use of e-mail as a substitute for personal communications is now so pervasive that it is common to send an e-mail to a person sitting 20 feet away rather than walk over to his or her desk and have a conversation. The preference for and reliance upon e-mail as a substitute for personal communications is more poignant when observing an office when their e-mail server is down . . . employees become restless and angry and vent their helpless feelings brought about by those “idiots” in IT.

As a result of voice mail and e-mail, we have all become accustomed to communicating without personal contact. Human interaction is now a second priority. In fact, many people prefer this approach. Many find it tempting to put off returning a phone call until lunchtime or after work, leaving a message rather than actually talking to a person. Some prefer leaving a message to voice mail rather than talking to the person. This has become all the easier since the development of caller ID. The culture of people speaking real time to other people has greatly diminished.

Now that e-mail has been coupled with PDF technology, fax machines and overnight deliveries have been pushed aside by the ability to e-mail large documents around the world in a matter of seconds. Not just an enemy of personal communications, e-mail is now serving to reduce even more the space between tasks, and the roses are almost rendered unseen.

The path of artistry
God is in the details—Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

When computer-assisted drafting emerged as a usable technology, the great fear was that creativity would vanish. There was great concern that artistic sketches and flowing thoughts capable of becoming unique designs would give way to electronic libraries of static details that would yield only monotonous design regurgitations. Fortunately, great designs continue to come forth, but they often still begin with blank paper and pencil. Etch-A-Sketch® technology has not completely taken the pencil from our hands. Not yet.

The Building Information Model anticipates more interaction among all industry players. Design teams are already obtaining 3D data from manufacturers and vendors. Rather than draft medical casework from scratch, the supplier can e-mail you their equipment already drawn. A laboratory interior can be completed in minutes.

This practice offers the supplier a leg up on the competition because of proprietary nuances, and it is being adapted by all building-component manufacturers. It is possible that the entire building exterior could become an accumulation of components supplied, already drafted in 3D, for the architect to drag into place. Could this spell the end of learning how walls weep and flashing channels water? What about the artistry? Will artistry be forced to compete with what manufacturers have available?

While these practices may improve quality control overall, they could possibly dumb us down even more. The spaces of time required for researching products and understanding how they perform may be deemed unnecessary. When was the last time you flipped through a volume of Sweets® just to study the details and learn about products? Or the last time you did it was it done on the Web with a search of unemotional but surgical precision? Balancing the thick book and marking all those pages was once a part of the process. It took more time, which allowed more thought and deliberation. As we flipped the pages we tended to learn unexpected things along the way.

Yet BIM is in all likelihood the next great catalyst of change for the profession of architecture. It is a catalyst that offers the promise of moving us closer to a practice integrated with all of the participants in the design and construction process. It may also be a tool that allows great advances in the way architects view and accomplish design. That is, if we do not allow it to compress and eliminate further our precious spaces of time.

The speed of life—conclusion
Be aware of wonder. Live a balanced life—learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.—Robert Fulghum

Architecture was a little more fun when the speed of practice allowed for a little more contemplation of the tasks at hand. Many times we have risen from the drafting table confident that a good night’s sleep would help reveal the solution to a gnarly design problem. Contemplation, introspection, and discussion among comrades often has revealed the path to a solution. The way we do architecture today, with CAD and e-mail and cell phones and PDFs . . . well, it has infused us and our clients with the expectation that “fast and furious with great precision” is just a day’s work.

We seem no longer to think of the possibility that a significant measure of the craft and artistry that has been so much a part of architecture has in many ways taken a back seat to technology and speed. Is the message that the introspection quotient has turned upside down? Or is the message that the speed of life is leaving the artistry of architecture behind? We believe these important messages should be considered as one approaches daily tasks and ponders the future.

As you zip through all those e-mails, deleting some before reading and pecking out your response in terse, abbreviated replies, take a moment to think about what that framed diploma or license hanging on your wall really means to you. If you have been around awhile, think back and ask: Has your speed of life evolved as you hoped? Is it giving you the time you really want and need? You can adjust the speed, you know. Or, if you are just starting out, think about what you want your speed of life to be and be conscious of trying to make it so.

It is never too late to become what you might have been.—George Elliot

Everyone needs to reflect upon what we want to accomplish in the architecture of the future in this promising time of great change. We need to think about our spaces of time and how we want to live them. It is never too late to follow a road of our own making.

Do we have an answer for how the speed of life is impacting our love for architecture? We can answer only for ourselves. How we deal with the speed of life is ultimately up to us as individuals. But we can offer that it is an awe-inspiring thing, smelling the roses. And, lest we forget, as you ponder your plans and contemplate your speed of life . . . try to be careful out there.

Copyright 2006 The American Institute of Architects. All rights reserved. Home Page


Jim and Grant will return to splashing in the shark tank next month in AIArchitect when the subject will be “Absolute, or Absolution.”

If you would like to ask Jim and Grant a risk or project management question, or request them to address a particular topic, contact them through AIArchitect.

James B. Atkins, FAIA, is a principal with HKS Architects. He serves on the AIA Documents Committee and he is the 2006 Chair of the AIA Risk Management Committee.

Grant A. Simpson, FAIA, manages project delivery for RTKL Associates. He is the 2006 Chair of the AIA Practice Management Advisory Group.

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