Architects and our tools: A return from user to creator

Jesper Staahl Jesper Staahl May 8, 2023

4 min read

We architects love sketching, and for good reasons. It’s the shortest path from mind to design. No software, no updates, no booting up, no filters. The idea lands on the paper as quickly as you can think of it. 

To everyone else around the dinner table our mad scribbles on the tablecloth may look like nonsense. But to the creator it’s a link to an inkling of an idea, it’s a perspective, a connection, a plan! You all know the trope of the architect: horn-rimmed glasses, black turtlenecks, and pen in hand, sketching grandiose shapes of buildings on napkin paper. 

The reality is often a far cry from that, it’s a series of rational conclusions, engineering limitations, code, and regulations. It’s about people and most importantly it’s about space. Yet between the raw idea and reality, lies another filter, the tool. A tool which, all too often, forces us to adjust our vision of spaces by adhering to features that may or may not be available. 

The Tools these days are software. There is no way around it, you order your groceries online, you watch entertainment online, you bank using software. It’s become an integral part of our lives. For architects this is old news. We first went digital in the 80s and have continued to adopt new technologies since. Software defines how we act and what we do. 

With some experience you can tell what software a building is designed in by looking at it. You can tell when we moved from hardcopies to CAD, from CAD to BIM, based on what the designs look like. You can tell when users started to use parametric design tools. 

When the software can’t keep up with our intentions, we hack, we abuse, we loophole our way around. Like using one element to represent something else. Slabs become volumetric floors. Detail drawings become links to older formats. We take our designs from one software to another, a ship hull design software becomes a tool for buildings. We try to brute force a look we wanted to create. But at what cost? 

Some offices use their BIM or CAD software like glorified tracing tables and calculators. Imagine using all that raw computing power, ten thousand times the computing power needed to land us on the moon, to do the equivalent of a piece of charcoal, a really straight stick, and a slide rule? But what’s the alternative when the tool you’re using can’t help you put to paper the design as you intended? 

There is something extremely empowering about not just being a consumer but a producer of the tools you use.  The disconnect has never been more apparent than since I started working shoulder to shoulder, or rather Zoom-to-Zoom these days, with my programmer coworkers in Autodesk Forma. The comparison is banal, programmers often seem much like blacksmiths; When they need an engraving tool, they use their other tools to forge one.

Now I’m not saying every architect should chop wood for every timber-structure they want to design, but perhaps if we had a larger stake in the design of the tools we use, we’d remain in more control of our design and creative process?

And I’m not saying it’s smooth sailing as soon as every architect “learns to code” as Silicon Valley would have you believe. I’m sitting here at the bleeding edge, and I’m still twisting and turning this new tool in my hands to the point where my coworkers jokingly call me the “Chaos Engineer”. But you have no idea how good it feels to have a conversation where you discuss your needs, where we can then create a prototype and test it immediately.

We have an opportunity right now to reclaim our relationship with our tools. Once the master craftsmen, we can again become creators of, not only our designs, but also of the tools we use. I believe we architects have a responsibility to pick up the mantle and help create the tools we use to design the spaces around us, to not fear new frontiers, or denounce new methods. That’s not what architects do. That’s not us. For me, being part of Forma is being able to craft the tools we use. I am not only contributing to create a tool that is used by architects but to a tool co-created by architects. I would argue that all of us should look for ways to be both users and creators of the tools we must use.

*Do you want to help shape Forma? Let me know at, I’d love to hear your input.

[Blog header image by Sven Mieke on Unsplash]

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