Friday, June 28, 2013

Sketchup and Technological Advantage: or Why Bill Gates is worth $72B and I'm not.

I was recently commissioned by VimTrim, an Arizona based health and fitness company, to propose a conceptual design for a new commercial development anchoring their new 60,000 SF gym along with adjacent compatible retail.The vision is to create a destination "third place": in addition to the gym with a full range of health facilities (weights, cross training, yoga, pilates, racketball and squash, running track, swimming, spin, etc) there are also plans for in-house physical therapy, chiropractic, naturopathy, a full service spa, and child care.

Now since this was to be a concept design -- not really fully worked out but enough to meet the basic demands of the Zoning Ordinance (what the City will actually allow on the site), a preliminary budget analysis for the business plan, and a clear design direction that sought to express the goal and vision of the client, this was done on a very limited time and materials (T&M) budget.  I was given the site information on Friday, and told that there was to be a client meeting on Wednesday -- what could I do in that amount of time?  We agreed that I would dedicate about 30 hours to see what I could devise -- it actually took just slightly more time than that -- and so I set out to investigate the complex zoning ordinance (this is in a planned area development [PAD] in the Chandler Air Park Area Plan, so there are multiple layers of zoning requirements that supersede the standard Zoning Ordinance), and my trusty Sketchup program, rolled up my sleeves, and went to work.

The 8.56 acre parcel of land under consideration would support about 85,000 SF total of building.  This is calculated on "floor-area ratio" (FAR) that the City zoning code allows which is simply:
8.56 Acres x 43,560 SF/Acre x .23 FAR = 85,761 SF buildable.
From that we calculate the required parking at about 1 car per 200 SF = 429 car spaces, and assuming 100 cars per acre = 4.29 Acres just for parking.  Parking is actually more efficient that that, but it shows what can reasonably be built on the property, taking into consideration other areas for building setbacks, retention basins, landscaping, open areas, and the like.

This allows, in turn, about 25,000 SF of compatible retail uses that would work well in conjunction with a top quality private health club, such as a sporting goods store such as REI, upscale health food restaurant or cafe such asPita Jungle or Dr. Andrew Weil's and Fox Concept's True Foods, smaller boutique grocers like Trader Joe's or Fresh & Easy, and the like.

So the challenge of this project was to design a dynamic and interesting commercial center that created a strong sense of place (placemaking is one of the important themes of recovering a humane understanding of the built environment, where people actually want to be, that facilitate healthy patterns of human interaction, much like the ancient agora or the medieval market square or the cathedral plaza or village green once did). Furthermore, the ethos of the project is health and fitness oriented, unabashedly catering to the comfortable middle and upper middle class clientele that would frequent a specialized health club along with other retail that are "destination" stores in their own right -- creating a synergy of uses all focused around healthy living. The design needs to elicit a strong sense of well-being, energy, environmental presence and outdoor activity.   Of course, being built in the southwest desert, with beautiful weather in the fall, winter and spring but very hot summers, creates an additional challenge, to be addressed with lush but low water usage vegetation (using principles of xeriscape and hydrozoning to create a microclimate), deep shade awnings with misting systems, and an umbrella of overhead trees to break the sun.

As I finished up on Tuesday afternoon, in time for my client to prepare for his meeting and to feed the design parameters to the contractor for preliminary budgeting, I was reflecting on the fact that I as a sole practitioner am able to put out a coherent and integrated design for a very large multimillion dollar project, and to present a design package of 7 full color 24" x 36" drawings --site plan, elevations, aerials, perspectives -- in such a short period of time.

When I first began my career in the mid 1980s, especially working as a project designer for Charles Kober Associates in Phoenix (later Leo Daly), computers in the architecture industry were in their infancy. We were early adopters, and I remember getting the Apple Macintosh with the amazing 128K of memory and the WYSIWYG graphics in black and white. Great fun for a designer, where we were entirely board drafting with the cutting edge use of technical pens on mylar, pin registration, blue and black lines, and boxes of Prismacolors and Chartpack Ad Markers for handcoloring presentations. Of course, at the time we were just using the Mac to produce things like text for title blocks and signage for illustrations, where we'd xerox onto clear film and literally "cut and paste" (really "tape") onto the mylar presentation sheets to make composites for presentations.

25 years ago, I suspect a project design and presentation like this would have taken a team of two or three people maybe a week or two to complete, and that would not have included the aerial perspectives which would have had to been mechanically constructed at probably 40 to 60 hours each. We generally budgeted about 40 hours per sheet for any sort of architectural drawing. So let's assume even conservatively:

(2 people x 40 hours/ week x 1 week) + (4 perspective renderings x 40 hours) = 240 hours, or basically 6 weeks of work for one person. Yet I was able to do all this in just 30 hours plus change.

This shows the massive technological advantage of CAD (computer aided design) systems: I can work at 800% efficiency, or do the work of 8 others in an architectural firm. As an aside, and I'll write further on this question, the architecture profession curiously has not shrunk by 7/8ths with these technological advantages.  Rather we see what I call "sheet inflation". I often am working on remodels to projects built in the 1950s, 60s, or 70s, where I am given the entire set of architectural working drawings for a whole building (architectural, structural, civil, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) that might be 10 to 30 sheets. Today it is not uncommon to have a hundred sheets, even two hundred sheets, in a set of architectural working drawings. Building systems and material technologies are perhaps more complex than 30 or 40 years ago, but also it seems that architects now do a lot more detailing both for protection against liability (errors and omissions) as well as to make up for a certain loss of artisanal technique in the building industry. Masons, carpenters, concrete workers, steel fabricators and erectors, roofers, and the like once had a body of knowledge of how to properly build, often passed along from generation to generation either through the family or the guild or trade union. Today a lot of that is lost -- not entirely thankfully -- so the architect now needs to give much more explicit instructions for how the building is to be put together, which is the purpose of the working drawings.

So why is Bill Gates worth $72B?

There is the old adage that "time is money".  I think the inverse is actually more true: "money is time".  Money is method of storing and transferring time as a means of economic exchange.

Existentially, time is all we have -- time is what we "spend". We are all given a life time of time, whether short or long, to make our lives worthwhile and meaningful.  That's all we have. So we spend our time working to make money to live. For most of us, that is a much more efficient way of living: it is easier and more economical to spend 40 hours working for a paycheck to earn money to buy or rent shelter, buy a car and clothes and groceries, to buy a computer or a TV, than spending time actually making these things. If we all had to make our own clothes, or grow our own crops, rather than to buy them, it would take massively more of our time to do so.It would also take massive amounts of time learning how do do all the things necessary to do them-- most of us cannot even smelt metal or forge iron or blow glass, let alone make transistors or aspirin, so we spend money to buy these things from people who spent the time learning how to do these and making them.

So rather we generally buy things that improve our quality of life -- nothing is more obvious in this regard than what we are willing to pay for health care that either extends our lives or make our time free of pain and discomfort -- but more generally we spend money on things that make our use of time much more efficient.  Every single major economic or technological breakthrough can be best understood as an exchange of time for goods or services through a medium of exchange, either bartering (I'll give you two dozen eggs for the pair of sandals you made) or more generically through the medium of money. This is, in fact, the very basis of the true "free market" economy: individual people determine what the value of exchange is for any two goods or services. If one party does not see the economic advantage for whatever they are trying to acquire, the exchange simply does not happen.

The agrarian revolution that brought humanity out of the hunter-gather phase into the neo-lithic period (c. 10,000 - 3,000 BC), greatly increased the efficiency of life by  providing a steady and stable supply of food, which in turn allowed time to develop primitive cities and houses. This is also the beginning of religion in the human consciousness -- as evinced at Göbekli Tepe and Çatalhöyük and other neolithic archeological sites. Humanity had time to start to think about the order of the cosmos, and time to start to actually mold our environment. This is, perhaps since the advent of the stone knife, club, spear and arrow (maybe 64,000 BC), the greatest breakthrough in technology and time saving. In addition to being the genesis of architecture and religion, it was also an age that allowed mankind the time to solve problems of how to make metal, for instance, that developed in the Bronze Age and later the Iron Age, which were other major breakthrough in saving time.

Market economies developed in trading cities, so that people could begin to barter and eventually use money as a medium of exchange (c. 700 BC). We can look at other major break throughs -- the Roman aquaduct system, the printing press,
the canal systems in England and the US, the cotton gin, the railroad, the telegraph, and the automobile all through the filter of massive time saving devices. Henry Ford made his fortune by providing a product that allowed millions of people to save massive amounts of time. The money he made represented the time-value of anyone who spent time earning that money and  giving it to him in exchange for his automobile that saved them even more time. The same can be said of Wright brothers,the department store and catalog sales (Wanamaker or Sears-Roebuck), or the railroad barons.  Great fortunes were made through saving people time, in exchange for money that represented the time used to earn that money.

So for someone like Bill Gates, who figured out how to make 0s and 1s into a useful program that saved billions of people a lot of time, his massive wealth is an accrual of that time saved (or really just an infinitely small portion of the time) by everyone who uses his software.  The same can be said of Google, Apple, Facebook, and every other modern fortune.

So I am grateful to folks like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and the developers of Sketchup and AutoCad and Revit (the three CAD programs I principally use), and all the developers of hardware, software and the internet, since they provide me as a small practitioner with all the tools to do the work of many, to provide efficiently for my clients, and to greatly improve the quality of my own life to be able to work from my home.

It beats working in the salt mines.


  1. "Money is a method of storing and transferring time..." Excellent phrase, IMO. Is that yours, or a quote? But I do have a caution: as the pendulum swung to the point that people could specialize in just one thing and buy everything else from other specialists, we lost the holistic view. Some of the most dreadful environments in human history were built as a result of transportation specialists and planning specialists, not to mention architectural specialists. We're just now beginning to see that we need to recover some of the basic abilities of life, and it's not clear yet how long some of those recoveries might take.

    One other thing... a good rule of thumb with blogging is to state the most important thing in the first sentence and spend the rest of the post supporting it. If you say the most important thing near the end, lots of readers may never get there. You say several important things that are meaningful to me after the last image, FWIW.

  2. what is your design concept ?