Sep 12, 2019

Leveraging off-the-shelf tools can bring lighting professionals up to speed. A practitioner shows us how

By Sarah Dreger

Technology changes constantly and with the upsurge in app development, it’s more difficult than ever to sift through the noise of “innovation” and social media to find the devices, software or apps that might be of use personally or professionally. If that’s not enough, we have new acronyms and terminology cropping up, and their meaning and execution are often ambiguous. For example: AI (Artificial Intelligence), VR (Virtual Reality), AR (Augmented Reality), MR (Mixed Reality), PIM (Product Information Management), and even BIM (Building Information Modeling) and the degrees of BIM, are subjective.

Mastering all this tech is time-consuming and costly. And really, who has that kind of time when expectations are great, schedules limited and margins slim? We all know that technology is changing the way we deliver design, but our role in the design delivery process will also evolve. If you don’t want to slip into obsolescence, you absolutely must anticipate, adapt and evolve as well.

How do you spend more time designing and less time documenting? What if you could automate repetitive tasks or allow technology to solve complex design issues? What if you were able to spend the bulk of your time truly listening, hearing and engaging with your client and design partners versus the mad shuffle to design, update models, generate drawings, coordinate, and upload or print?

While there is no “silver bullet,” I’ve found a few solutions over the years that are worth a look and, best of all, they’re scalable—accessible regardless of tech-savvy or firm size. I’m not in software sales nor am I particularly vendor loyal; I’m a practitioner with over a decade of experience that has and does face the same day-to-day challenges you do, so perhaps you can benefit from my experience and have an easier go of it.

One of our industry’s biggest inefficiencies, risks and potential opportunities is in our ability to actively manage and leverage data. There are four key categories within a design “tool kit” and each firm, regardless of size, should have some combination of these solutions to accommodate and anticipate client and market demand. What follows is an overview of the four categories as well as ideas for how to leverage each to elevate your lighting design practice.

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1. Coordinate

I’m not talking about design coordination or detecting potential construction clashes that can occur on multidisciplinary projects, although those are important as well. I’m talking about PIM or Project Information Management. Having a core set of solutions that allow for the seamless exchange of information between internal and external team members is perhaps the most vital category for firm and individual success, especially with globalization and digital delivery.

Email, FTPs and cloud-sync solutions are no longer the primary means of communication. Today—with workplace communication software like Skype, Slack and Zoom on the rise—it’s all about chat, and, let’s be honest, finding all related threads, documents and images for a specific issue has traditionally been a pain. Everyone has an idea as to what’s logical, reasonable and practical—sometimes rationale aligns, often it doesn’t. This is compounded by software interoperability and talent changes throughout project delivery lifecycle.

Wouldn’t it be neat if there was a solution (one solution to rule them all) that provided a single interface that would allow you to search all project emails, models, drawings, PDFs, images, etc.—all information related to a single project so that in a matter of minutes, not days, you have exactly what you need to address the issue?

At least one vendor is already delivering projectfile management software that does just that, and multiple vendors are getting closer to doing so as well. By partnering with other major software vendors, the software can also reduce duplicate data entry using “connectors” to access and index information from many familiar products and sources while also meeting stringent security requirements.

2. Design

There are many authoring, analysis and modeling applications on the market. There is no one answer here as client demand, project team capability, and firm role or discipline may differ, but four applications tend to dominate: Revit, Rhino, AutoCAD and SketchUp.

Revit adoption has increased substantially over the last decade with advancements in content availability and increased functionality; even contractors are beginning to move away from tried and true “fabrication” platforms. If your firm hasn’t checked out this application, its partnering application BIM360, or made the leap to parametric modeling, chances are this is or will soon limit your ability to land new work or actively engage in project coordination.

Rhino is another modeling application that has grown in popularity for a number of reasons, but its strength is its ability to accommodate the design and modeling of unique geometry and irregular curvature, also known as NURBS (nonuniform rational B-spline). This may not yet apply to lighting design but given its growing adoption in architectural, structural and even civil design, it is worth noting. If you haven’t worked with this file type yet, you may soon.

I’m not going to spend your time chatting up the merits of AutoCAD and SketchUp—both solid applications that are still used heavily in our industry. What to use and when depends entirely upon project type and need.

3. Compute

Compute is my favorite category. Why? We generate so much data and are finally at a point in technological evolution and application availability that we can really dig in and start leveraging information to automate, educate and inform design. Best of all, you don’t have to spend years learning multiple programming languages or a bunch of complex applications to start.

Visual programming is gaining in popularity. Perhaps you’ve heard of Dynamo or Grasshopper? Think of it as the modern-day version of connect the dots. No programming background needed—just logic. Automate day-to-day repetitive processes. Run complex enclosure or lighting simulations. Allow the computer to run through structural options given specific constraints. As an example, how cool would it be to automate prescriptive daylight harvesting zones for code compliance with our documentation? This could free up your staff to focus on the visual and less tangible, however more impactful, elements of lighting design.

The possibilities are endless for automated lighting or systems generation. Instead of generating models and drawings, the computer could do it for you and, more importantly, would have a corresponding interactive tool allowing you to walk the client through various design alternatives or options that meet with their individual and unique needs, including: lowest first cost, lowest TCO, or to compare and contrast buildings systems with the increase or decrease of enclosure options. This and scenarios like it are possible and will become available with advancement and exploration of machine learning, generative design, computational design and artificial intelligence—it’s now a question of who gets there first.

No, this is not a HAL 9000 moment. Your computer will not negate you…at least not yet. This is an opportunity. Generative design reduces waste. Instead of spending countless hours, days or weeks generating multiple design alternatives, the computer can do it for you in a fraction of that time, providing multiple alternatives without compromising quality. This is the game-changer. Our roles and how we engage in the design process will need to evolve with this technological advancement in order to remain relevant.

4. Visualize

Visualization tools such as VR, MR, AR, and all variants of software and hardware are “the thing” now, and with good reason. A picture is no longer enough—certainly not when working through occupant feel and flow and other intangible elements of design. Sure, rendered images still have their use, but conceptualization isn’t for everyone and physical mock-ups are expensive and often inconvenient to access.

There are many reasons to leverage this advancing technology. Visualization enables designers to bring multiple people into a single virtual environment despite geography, overlay future design on existing structures, and virtually bring a systems expert on-site to troubleshoot and facilitate operation. If you aren’t already leveraging visualization technology, the good news is that it’s easier than ever to start.

Early adopters did the heavy lifting, taking what was once thought to be gaming technology and adapting its use for the design and built environment. The biggest challenge now is putting this technology in the hands of designers, architects and engineers.

There are a number of devices and solutions available, and selecting one is a matter of right sizing to meet the needs of your firm, client or team. 3DS Max, Maya, Enscape, Lumion, Matterport, Hololens, HTC Vive, Google Cardboard and Matterport are merely a few in this arena. There is no right answer, but if this is your first foray into immersive reality, there are applications that offer simple solutions for beginners by generating multiple types of virtual experiences leveraging existing model geometry. Designers can use these visualization tools to:

Three outputs or options from one inexpensive and easy-to-learn solution—and this is merely one of many applications available today.

The complexities of design and rapid evolution of technology mean that what works today may or may not be the best answer tomorrow. The best any of us can do is engage with clients and industry peers, evaluate new and tangential technology, and look at each project or encounter as an opportunity to elevate practice.

This article is based on a presentation delivered by the author and Rachel Fitzgerald, associate and senior lighting designer for Stantec, at IALD Enlighten Americas 2018.