February 20, 2009

Terry Beaubois, AIA

by Heather Livingston
Contributing Editor

Summary: Terry Beaubois, AIA, is the director of the Creative Research Lab at Montana State University. Beaubois teaches an architecture course in the virtual environment of Second Life® that combines students from the schools of architecture and design, art, music, and film and photography. Beaubois also is the sole practitioner at Terry A. Beaubois, AIA and Associates in the San Francisco Bay area.

I’m a graduate of the University of Michigan from the College of Architecture and Design. I have a master’s degree from there. It was a six-year program.

Traveling, photography, reading. I used to do more rollerblading than I do now.

Current read
The Nature of Order: An essay on the art of building and the nature of the universe, Book One: The phenomenon of life, by Christopher Alexander.

Career path
I still practice. I just had a residential project in California completed recently and I’m going down there in two weeks to take a look at it. I’m a sole practitioner. From 1980-85, I was one of four partners in a 40-person architecture firm that specialized in hotel and resort design in San Francisco. Before that, I was part of a firm in Palo Alto. It was Edward Durrell Stone’s firm.

Why did you begin teaching in Second Life?
Two parts: I was invited as a guest teacher to Montana State University for a number of years. When I came up, I taught the more advanced Silicon Valley aspects of computers and architecture. When they asked me to guest teach for a semester, I’d recently read an article in Life magazine about Second Life and I was looking for a tool that would allow me teach for two weeks in Montana and then two weeks in California, going back and forth for 16 weeks. That way I was able to keep my practice and do a full semester of teaching. That’s the original reason that I began teaching in Second Life. In addition to that, Second Life does have 3D building capabilities in the program, so those are the two reasons.

How does the class work?
The class has evolved. This is the fourth year I’ve been teaching it. The first class was Digital Collaboration in a Virtual Environment. It was exclusively architecture students—most of them fifth-year graduate students—and its purpose was to see how it could be used. We were looking at other software programs as well, but it turned out that the students in the class did want to experiment with Second Life since it was new to them and it seemed the most exciting tool. There was a wide range in the students’ capabilities in 3D. It was really good because the whole class was about collaborating, so it allowed the students who were familiar with 3D design to help me teach the class and bring the other students along.

The second year, we taught a class in Digital Collaboration for Artists, Musicians, Filmmakers, and Architects using Second Life. The project was a community design project, so it was still very architectural in nature but involved architecture students working on teams with non-architecture students. It was very successful. It was amazing how beneficial that is to all of the groups who were involved. The students made a film that year showing them in Second Life working together. A musician from the music school did the music. A filmmaker from the film school did the film, and the architecture students focused on the buildings …That’s why I came to a college that had those four schools in it: to get the architecture, film, art, and music students collaborating.

Part of the reason I came to Montana and started the Creative Research Lab in 2006 was to build on this collaboration that was now feasible because the media we use are digital. In a virtual environment like Second Life, you can make music, do art, and create buildings in there. The advantage of teaching in Second Life is that it allows me to teach real life architecture. As the environment gets better and better, we’ll be able to incorporate more things into teaching architecture, certainly for planning, building models, and showing relationships between objects and spaces and buildings and communities, and to some degree really highly detailed architectural spaces and buildings. There’s no question as to virtual environments being of benefit to teaching, because it allows the students to build.

What’s the benefit of using the virtual environment of Second Life versus a 3D modeling program?
There are pros and cons of each, so one doesn’t replace the other. The third year we did a class where we had three teams. The first team used Rhino, because the students love it for a 3D modeling program. We also used SketchUp, Google Earth, and Google Maps on one team. The third team used Second Life.

The 3D modeling packages allow for some gorgeous renderings, but you’re always observing a predetermined visual path, and it’s difficult for everybody to control their own view. You’re either looking at a 3D program on the screen or watching a fly-through that was made in that program. In Google Earth and SketchUp, it was really cool because we could do a project in Oakland and have the bay and San Francisco in the distance. Then we could create SketchUp models and just put in what we were modeling and there was a lot of already existing information there, which wasn’t in Rhino or Second Life.

In Second Life, you get more of a feeling that you’re building something. You can build those buildings and walk in and around and have visitors look at that space as well. My interest is prototyping buildings in Second Life: Having the architect, structural engineer, electrical engineer, contractor, and owner in the space all looking at it well before it’s built and being able to comment and make adjustments in that environment. I think that’s where this tool can head for the architecture profession. It allows us to see our own work at a very early stage and then invite other people in to see it, and they can walk around on their own and look at things. It isn’t a computer-controlled fly-through.

What lessons from Second Life can be translated into architecture practice?
We were going to jump in the first year and just start doing collaboration among architects, but if students aren’t familiar with working with other students on projects then they’re less capable of understanding the benefits of collaborating. We found that the architecture students actually enjoyed working on teams where there was an engineer or people other than architects. That seemed to be easier and more enjoyable for them to contribute and learn in an environment where it wasn’t just a pack of architects. They could see the reason to be on a team because each team member was contributing something different.

Improving the students’ ability to communicate is a key priority of the class. The students—particularly architecture students, because I’m more focused on them— aren’t necessarily great at communicating with other people, so this is a good environment. When they go out into practice, they’re going to be talking to structural engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, acoustic engineers, fire protection and fire safety experts, clients, and others. One of the skills that will serve them best in their careers is the ability to communicate and articulate what they’re doing. Being able to introduce the interactivity of communication and collaboration in the actual class time is a great benefit.

How have your students responded to the experiences?
I had a student the first year who came in with an idea at 8:00 in the morning. He was designing a multimedia theater in Second Life where he could teach History of Architecture. He built the theater by 10:00 a.m. and had all the other students’ avatars visit the theater. He showed us around, had us go in the theater. There were one or two things that occurred that made it clear that his design didn’t articulate exactly what he wanted people to do when they entered the building. As a professor, it was interesting because I was trying to think whether I should speak up or whether it was so obvious that he would be able to see from the actions of the people in the building that perhaps the building design could be improved to reflect that information, but I didn’t say anything. We all left Second Life and he remained. He totally redesigned the building so that it addressed the issues that had been evident when he had the rest of the class visiting the building. Near the end of that class period, he then invited us back and showed it to us.

He wrote me an e-mail at noon that said, “Terry, I never expected to learn this much about architecture in an entire semester, let alone in the last four hours.” What he was able to do in Second Life was to think of an idea, manifest it so that he could see it, have relative scale avatars come in and walk around the building to see what worked and what didn’t work, make changes, and then have a project in four hours.

Student response varies. Some people find out they love this. Some people decide that’s not for them by the end of the semester. They have other things that they would rather concentrate on, so we get the full range, and that’s not surprising.

I had a fifth-year architecture student who was editing a film for her presentation toward the end of the first class, and she turned to me and said: “God, I love this. This feels more like what I want to do in my life than designing another building.” So, there’s that kind of response where the experience changes their lives because they’ve been exposed to filmmakers and musicians and graphic artists: other majors that turn the course of their work. It’s not our goal to have people shift careers, but she could probably make an incredible contribution to an architecture firm with the skills and talents she has.

What advice would you offer young architects?
I would encourage them to have an understanding that in their careers, this technology may play a role in their firms. I’m not saying everyone’s going to be using it, but I’m thinking that the advances in computers and technology will result in more use of virtual environments. The potential for it to become a contributor to making BIM a reality in the AEC world is out there in the future. It’s not a BIM tool right now, but the ability to view buildings, attach metadata, and work in teams and groups should be considered. I think in practice it will be more used in the future as a tool, just as we use many tools now. I think virtual environments will contribute to the ability for people to collaborate across large geographical areas.

Final thoughts?
I would continue to encourage a relationship with virtual environments. We don’t have to make all the conclusions now. We don’t have to judge it based on its current level of capabilities. It’s going to get better in the future. It’s not the be-all, end-all for everything, but it’s also not to be disregarded as a contributing technology to architecture.

One thing that we have clearly established in the teaching of architecture using this research tool is the ability to be more iterative with the process of architecture and reflect what’s really needed as opposed to trying to teach it linearly. I feel fairly certain that most architecture is iterative, allowing students to participate in design in an iterative fashion where they learn that architecture isn’t about knowing everything and going from A to Z to finish a building. It’s a question of participating in an iterative progression with other people adding their contributions as appropriate. So, rather than trying to get to a point and then showing your building to a structural engineer and then finding out the bad news as to where the columns have to go, this technology will allow iteration of design and inclusion of other people very, very early in the project.

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Terry Beaubois in Second Life image courtesy Terry Beaubois.

Terry Beaubois: Photo © M. Kippenhan.