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.

BIM: It’s a State of Mind

Building Information Modelling is not a single software system. It’s not a debate of Revit vs. ARCHICAD. It’s not a process, either.

It’s a way of thinking. 

A state of mind.

2D CAD was merely a digitisation of an age-old process: the act of putting pencil to paper, using a slide rule to draw. CAD merely replicated this using a keyboard and mouse. BIM, by contrast, is a vastly different beast. BIM is as much about data and information as it is about “drawing in 3D”.

The organisation, parsing and manipulation of information encoded into the digital “virtual building model” is as important, if not more so, than the act of designing and modelling in 3D. This is the inherent power behind this next phase in our industry. It’s perhaps, also, why many architects have been so reluctant to jump onto the BIM bandwagon.

The failure of BIM in practice could thus be traced back, in most cases, to the adoption of BIM by a company. One cannot assume that they can simply flick a switch and transition an entire workforce from 2D CAD (or the common 2D CAD/3D model – generally the fan favourite SketchUp-AutoCAD tag team) to a sleek new BIM package. This is corporate suicide, in my opinion.

A cleverer, discreet and scaled process is far better. First, understanding the limits and capabilities of BIM is essential. BIM is not the answer to every single problem that we face as architects. Yes, it will accelerate productivity, but only if one knows how to tame this beast. The implementation of a company template, for example, is absolutely critical to unlocking a percentage of the power inherent in BIM. Not using a template would mean reinventing the wheel with every project. Working smart and not hard is the holy grail of our profession; the mindset that the quality of work is directly proportional to the hours spent labouring over a drawing needs to change. As architects, we need to understand that there are better, faster ways of doing things.

Changing one’s perception of technology in the realm of architectural design is the great challenge of this new generation of designers entering the workforce. If we are to succeed in this economy, to thrive as architects and assert our role as a key agent in the AEC industry, then the courage to venture forth into this digital age is paramount.