Scrivener for Architecture Dissertation Writing

Scrivener: a writing studio like no other.

Most architects will be familiar with the concept of BIM. Basically, BIM software allows you to manage an entire building design mostly within a single app – so from a single 3D model you can get all the drawings, specs, details, everything co-ordinated and synced (I’m obviously grossly over-simplifing this; I’ll be posting more about BIM, one of my key areas of interest, soon). But the reason I begin this post with BIM is because I think I’ve found a writing tool that, in a way, mimics those organisational characteristics of BIM.

Scrivener is an app I’ve been using for years now to manage my writing projects. I still think it’s one of the best-in-class apps for managing monstrous writing tasks – of which the architectural design dissertation is such a beast. For architects (who are generally more visually-inclined), writing is indeed a step outside our comfort zones. Scrivener, then, is like a gentle friend that guides you through the treacherous waters of design research, writing, and data collation that are the three heads of the design dissertation Cerberus.

Why Scrivener?

Why bother with yet another piece of software when we’ve already got Microsoft Word to handle writing, I hear you ask? Well, where MS Word is a generally acceptable word-processor, Scrivener is a full-blown writing suite. With Word, you can get away with writing a short piece of text, like an essay. But navigating the long chapters of a dissertation – where there are thousands of words per section –  can become extremely painful. You end up losing your place, you can’t always see the full structure of the project, your research has to live in a mess of folders… it’s a nightmare, in my opinion.

Scrivener, by contrast, is like BIM software: you can choose to see either the project in its entirety, or you can break it down into its smaller chunks and work on the little details (scrivenings, in this case). One of the best things about it is that you don’t write everything in a single document; you have a Scrivener project, but this is actually made up of a series of smaller files, like text files (which become your manuscript), images, notes, even whole web pages that form part of your research folder.

You organise things into folders (and it comes with a plethora of great project templates to get started; I’ve customised one of them to suit my theory and technical papers assignment in a fashion that works well for me).

The outliner (details of my project blurred for obvious reasons)
The virtual corkboard (details of my project blurred for obvious reasons)

Then you can set up your structure, and this is what I really like about Scrivener: it gives you some great ways of organising your writing project into the various chapters and sections. You can either use a virtual “corkboard” (like tacking a series of index cards to a board, but in the digital way), or a great outliner (which I used to put the structure of my papers together).

Everything is organised on the left panel in what’s called the “binder” – think of this as a virtual ring binder that’s highly-organised and contains literally everything you need and are working on: your manuscript, that contains the chapters and sections of the dissertation, your research, images, web pages, ideas, quotes… it’s all there.

The writing environment itself is great; there’s no distractions, and you can even go into a full-screen mode that dims everything on your desktop so it’s just you and the words on an empty, uncluttered screen.

Project targets window  – I should probably be doing my dissertation writing to get that session target counter moving for today…

Scrivener also allows you to set project and session targets, so you can visually (hey, this one’s for you, designers!) track your progress. It’s a great feeling when you’ve reached your session target for the day, and often I find myself wanting to push further for that day, just to nudge closer to the final project target goal.

 

Scrivener + Architecture Writing = 🙂

I mentioned that architects are visual people; our written work reflects this as we’re expected to have images and drawings that are referenced in text to support our arguments. Scrivener deals beautifully with this: you can set an image as the reference for a card in the Corkboard view – which is great to get ideas flowing around a certain topic or case study.

The binder-style organisation of Scrivener also allows you to keep maps and other images well-organised in folders. You can have these opened as “Quick Reference” windows that float next to your writing, so you can see them while you write. This allows you to stay focussed on the writing, and worry less about formatting and images jumping all over the place (something Word is notorious for).

Workflow

So how does Scrivener fit into an effective workflow for large-scale writing projects? I see Scrivener as a writing studio (much like a BIM authoring tool, where you use it to author the design, but then take that into other tools like Photoshop to further refine the presentation). With Scrivener, I can just focus on getting the draft done; it helps me to structure complex ideas and write in a non-linear fashion (so I can quickly jump between sections as ideas come to me, without worrying about intensive scrolling through thousands of words).

For referencing, I use EndNote. Like Scrivener, EndNote allows me to see all my references together, and I can easily switch referencing styles if needed. When I want to reference something, I simply drag (or copy) that reference from EndNote into Scrivener, placing it where it needs to be in the text. The reference will look a little weird – EndNote uses a strange code system to identify text as references. (This gets fixed later, as you’ll see…)

My preferred workflow is: Scrivener (draft writing) –> Word (text-style formatting) –> InDesign (presentation and layout

Going from Scrivener to Word

Scrivener can export to a host of formats, including Word. What I’ve found, however, is that the formatting styles don’t translate very well.. For this reason, I’ve found some easy to use methods to get your draft out of Scviener, into Word, ready for formatting and bringing in to InDesign for page layout and presentation.

The problem is that you need a Word file to bring into InDesign, and to ease the formatting hassle, your Word file should be correctly formatted with styles (headings, body text, quotes etc). This allows you to quickly apply the correct fonts and styles to different kinds of text. There’s a simple go-around for this: simply export form Scrivener using a custom compile setting (see below), open the resulting Word file, then run a macros (see below) that will automatically convert the Word file into the correct styles which you can use in InDesign later.

Félix Chénier has an awesome tutorial here that contains the macros you need to copy into Word. But here’s the process:

  1. Go to his website (link above), and download the compile setting for Scrivener; this is a .plist file that you can easily import into Scrivener at the Compile window. This will output your manuscript in a format that can be easily styled with MS Word styles (headings, body, quotes etc).
  2. Copy the macros code, following his instruction, and place it in the Word macros editor. (Macros is just automated actions, and in this case, the instructions you’re copying into Word will allow you to easily convert your Scrivener export to the correct Word styles).
  3. Run the Macros (Tools -> Macros -> Macros…, select “FormatScrivener”, click “Run”).
  4. Voilà! Now, all you need to do is go to the EndNote tab in Word, and turn “Instant Formatting” on. All your references will be correctly formatted baed on your selected referencing style; a bibliography is also auto-generated at the end of the document and you can even switch between referencing styles on-the-fly. How cool is that!?

Closing remarks…

I really think Scrivener is one of the best tools out there to help navigate dissertation writing. It keeps you organised, and allows you to be flexible in how you manage such a large-scale writing task. Yes, my workflow might appear a little convoluted. But there is a method to this madness: Scrivener allows me to write the way I want to write, without the messiness and annoyances that come from working in Word. EndNote allows me to keep the referencing streamlined and organised, and everything comes together in Word, which is simply a go-between from raw text to the formatted product in InDesign.

Scrivener is available for macOS, iOS and Windows; it’s well worth the $45, and there’s a free trial as well. It’s developed by the wonderful people at Literature & Latte – click here to find out more.

Disclaimer: this is in no way a product endorsement of Scrivener; I’m simply a long-time fan of the software and thought it might be useful to any architecture students out there curious about ways to navigate design dissertation writing.

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Space, Life and Architecture

What is architecture but the deft manipulation of space? The forms we design seek to contain, and to define, spatiality such that life may be lived. Space, then, is the canvas for urban life.

Space is therefore a critical component that demands attention. As an abstract thing, it becomes challenging to define. In some ways, perhaps we can understand “space” in terms of Laozi[1], specifically, his idea of wu; emptiness.

Space commands a philosophical perspective. Through this we may unpack its ambiguity. The means of encapsulation, then, derive from this abstraction. If we consider it an entity, just like any other architectural component, then we can begin to use it as a mechanism. Here, digital tools can begin to take space into an entirely new dimension. Generative systems can rapidly reconfigure, and biomimetic algorithms can transcend space from this abstract, invisible entity into a a responsive idea that reflects a series of dynamic, evolving characters.

I think here of the neo-plasticists, who, perhaps more than any other, really pushed this idea that space is an entity we can mould, that architecture is truly, at its essence, an organisation of space.

Footnotes

  1. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The Myth of the All-Nighter

I’m entering my sixth year of architectural education very soon. It’s been a long, often frustrating, but fruitful journey. At such a time as this, reflection becomes a key point as the final stretch looms. One of the things that has intrigued me so far, both looking inward to the profession as an outsider (before I began my architectural education), and as a young “newbie” to the professional world of architecture, is this fascination with the all-nighter.

It’s sort of expected that the architecture student must labour continuously on their projects, whether their body yearns for sleep or their mind has become a tangled mess of meaningless mulch. The architecture student is expected to pull off countless all-nighters whilst still maintaining a particular standard of work, and failure to do so means instant discrediting of one’s entire stature as a student studying this field. It somehow suggests that one is not putting in the requisite “effort”, that a little more time spent on the work might have meant a different letter grade – and in an abstract field such as design, doubt becomes a prevalent spectre that haunts the self-critique of ongoing work.

I feel that this fascination is disturbing and entirely unhealthy, both physically, and in its fixation on working hard rather than working smart. The subtle distinction between these two things means the difference between a productive, happy young architect who is energised to start a promising career in the profession, and a burnt-out student who might be on the verge of giving it all up for something else.

A serious paradigmatic shift is necessary to move the mindset from working hard, where the number of hours somehow correlates, to some degree, the quantity/quality of work produced, to the idea of optimising workflows, exploiting the benefits of technology and ultimately adopting a smarter way of getting things done. Of course I’m not arguing for a generation of lazy architects who find every excuse to avoid work. Work is an essential part of our culture, and it’s a fundamental aspect of living, of building something meaningful both to society and to the builder’s life, of leaving a true legacy to benefit future generations. But this morbid fascination with a culture of sleep-deprivation, which itself propagates an aura of anxiety, stress, and unpleasantness, needs to stop. Right. Now.

Much needs to be done in reforming architectural education today. One aspect we can begin with is a critical rethinking of what studio culture is. Lack of sleep and deriding physical and mental health runs diametrically opposed to the kinds of environments that we as architects are expected to produce for the betterment of society.

Judgement of work based on the hours put in does not paint a proper picture of the final product. Rather than overworking oneself in order to satisfy this arbitrary time-centric idea, a more intelligent workflow is needed. This is the exciting part: designing is intrinsic to us, so why can’t we design better means of production? Instead of shirking from advanced computational technologies, this is the time to be adopting those tools. Truly understanding the power of BIM technologies, parametric tools and modern productivity strategies such as Pomodoro are just a few examples of the potentials lurking beyond that sleep-deprived horizon.

It’s time we got over this myth that the all-nighter is a necessity to architectural education, and embraced a healthier, smarter way of learning and working.

Architecture and the Art of Storytelling

All architecture is a story: every space a paragraph, each detail a sentence. Design is a form of communication – perhaps the most effective, succinct system of conveying abstract ideas into tangible solutions.

Over the past year, I’ve come to value the importance of the story when engaging in the design process. Developing an idea and following its progression from abstraction to detail can be a daunting undertaking. As architects we are taught various methodologies for overcoming this, various design strategies. One of the most effective, I’ve discovered, is the art of story.

I’ve always loved writing, and coming up with stories usually through the process of writing them down, rather than explicitly planning everything from scratch before engaging in the creative act. This almost serendipitous act can yield interesting results, and often is a satisfying endeavour. So as I began to engage in the various design tasks of the honours programme, I decided to abstract this storytelling process into an architectural design process.

By distilling the key findings on-site, and first creating a sort of “knowledge hub” comprising site data, social findings, environmental issues (just to name a few), you begin to create a narrative landscape within which your story can begin to form. I find it important from this very early stage to begin thinking about how the presentation will flow; this may seem counter-intuitive, but it helps to set end-goals and delimits certain aspects in order to progress the workflow. This won’t hinder the explorative nature of conceptual design thinking, but rather enhance it by establishing certain parameters within which to work. And this is not obviously set in stone; this narrative becomes flexible and evolves alongside the design.

By actually thinking of the design as a story, you begin to perceive the project as a more tangible, dramatic and emotive thing; even though the project may only exist in a virtual sphere or on paper, your story is adding an abstract, emotive layer that breathes a certain life into the thing.

What this ultimately does is ensure you’re developing a coherent narrative to tell your prospective client about the work you’ve designed. Humans love stories; its something that is ancient and inherent in our evolution. By using the craft of storytelling to guide the design process you’re intricately linking two very potent forms of communication, which can really help sell someone the idea, which is, after all, a key part of our profession.

Architecture + Innovation

Following what I wrote recently about the “PC takeover” of architecture, as posited by renowned Zaha Hadid Architects partner Patrik Schumacher, I’ve been further intrigued by his sentiments when Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, recently announced a revolutionary new roof system.

This kind of technology is the innovation that is sorely lacking in the profession of architecture. Technical prowess has been dismantled from the profession as the architect begins to lose focus of the core aims of the profession – utilitas, firmitas, venustas (function, structure and beauty) – aims that are as old as Vitruvius himself. These are the pillars upon which our profession is built, yet we somehow seem to forget this as we begin to take on more abstract roles as politician, social justice warrior, philosopher, bureaucrat…  

Our lofty goals of achieving social justice, of shaking the foundations of dogmatic political practices and ushering in an era of collectivism, of social coherence and aesthetic and cultural harmony through our designed environments appear as noble pursuits. And no doubt they are essential, for we are in a unique position as a practice that situates itself at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. We can balance these precarious entities through our designed intervention and intellectual prowess powered by years of pouring over precedent, theory, political studies and the philosophies that empower us as architects.

However, the technological agency that lies at the heart of our profession – the technological agency that binds the trifecta of utilitas, firmitas, venustas, is the very thing becoming rapidly marginalised in contemporary practice. We are being sidetracked by more ambiguity rather than pouring our collective talents into actually innovating the architectural technology that ultimately transforms our abstract world into the physical manifestations that form our built environments.

Musk’s development of a unique solar roofing system is exactly the kind of architectural innovation that is being “outsourced” to those outside our field. Yes, I acknowledge that as architects, we are not trained in the minutiae of such technical systems; the kind of product that Musk announced is the culmination of a variety of fields (industrial design, electrical engineering, manufacturing…). However, we are trained in the field of ideas. We should be the ones embracing and advocating for such advances. The Tesla + SolarCity roof tile system is the kind of product that is inherently architectural. It ticks all of the great Vitruvius’s boxes: it is functional (it is highly efficient at collecting solar energy and storing that in the Tesla PowerWall), it is incredibly strong – far stronger, in fact, than traditional building materials like terracotta – and it is beautiful. This last one is particularly important: in order to gain mainstream traction, aesthetics are paramount. 

The Tesla roofing system proposes, for the first time, a viable technology for taking buildings off the grid entirely. As architects, we are in the business of consumption – the very act of building requires consuming the earth in order to make space for our creations. The age of sustainable design is well and truly underway. The urgency for technical architectural innovation – the proposition, promotion and integration of imaginative technical ideas that further the environmentally-cenered design approach that will make or break this era – is sorely needed in a time when the role of architect as master of information is being challenged from within.

The Business of Aesthetics

Patrik Schumacher, partner at Zaha Hadid Architects, recently took to Facebook to voice his opinions on Alejandro Aravena’s Prizker award earlier this year. His formidable position in our contemporary architectural discourse, coupled with his work in the arena of parametricism as style and his collaboration with the “queen of the curve”, the late and great Dame Zaha Hadid, add a certain gravitas to his sentiments and indeed reignite the debate over architecture’s societal role:

The PC takeover of architecture is complete: Pritzker Prize mutates into a prize for humanitarian work. The role of the architect is now ‘to serve greater social and humanitarian needs’ and the new Laureate is hailed for ‘tackling the global housing crisis’ and for his concern for the underprivileged. Architecture loses its specific societal task and responsibility, architectural innovation is replaced by the demonstration of noble intentions and the discipline’s criteria of success and excellence dissolve in the vague do-good-feel-good pursuit of ‘social justice’.

– Patrik Schumacher, ZHA

Architecture as a practice has long sought to root itself within a societal discourse. And rightly so, for the artefacts it produces stand as anchors in time, reflections of the zeitgeist, and responses to various social flows – the flows of people, of money, of technology and of power.

Yet at its core, I believe, architecture holds firmly to the business of producing artefacts. For, once stripped of all the intellectual mist that surrounds a piece of architecture, the thing that remains, the concrete and brick and mortar that form the geometries so intricately laboured over by the practitioner, lies firmly within the realm of aesthetics. It is an artefact, an object that was created to appeal, at its very base level, to certain rules of beauty that have been argued over for millenia.

In pop culture, the way something looks is paramount to its success. Let’s not kid ourselves about this. The aesthetic conception is something that pervades contemporary society; it’s the veil that draws one in to whatever intellectual (or “abstract beauty”) lies behind.

Perhaps there is another debate lurking here – what is it that defines beauty? Ideas of cultural bias, of historic prejudiced views, mathematical proof and geometric arguments all play pivotal roles in discussing this. But that’s not the point of today’s post.

My argument is that, in a world that has become susceptible to politically correct language, it is very easy for discourse around architecture to become dramatically defensive and deny the unavoidable (if perhaps harsh) truth: that aesthetics is the name of our game. We should rather embrace this discourse, and begin to tamper with it: to engage in the idea of aesthetics being a crucial part of architecture, and to interrogate its various virtues and disadvantages.

Architects are not politicians. We’re not activists, nor are we philosophers. Yes, we may harbour sentiments that are shared with these other groups, but at the heart of our profession is a desire to shape worlds, through imagination and the pursuit of the creative spirit. We are ever aware of the gravitas that underscores our duty to society, yet that doesn’t mean we can’t also have a little fun too.

Alejandro Aravena on the Force of Architecture

“So be it the force of self construction, the force of common sense, or the force of nature, all these forces need to be translated into form, and what that form is modelling and shaping is not cement, bricks, or wood. It is life itself. Design’s power of synthesis is just an attempt to put at the innermost core of architecture the force of life.”

– Alejandro Aravena

Aravena was this year’s Pritzker Prize laureate. The Chilean architect has redefined the role of the architect in society, and the relationship between architecture, the economy, and the forces of life. As he beautifully articulates in the quote above, architecture moulds life, whether consciously or subtly. His social housing projects (the famous “half a house” concepts like Quinta Monroy in Chile) prove that inventive ideas, combined with strong collaboration with the societies that are directly affected by, and for whom the projects are designed, can truly change the world.