Today on the Edge of Innovation, we are talking with Benjamin Nutter from Benjamin Nutter Architects, an architectural firm based in Topsfield, Massachusetts, about technology and how it’s changing the architectural field.
Architecture & Technology: Then & Now
Running into Problems on the Job
Paul: It’s amazing to take a pile of lumber or construction materials and make it into a house is just an amazing thing. And you help with the plan. But I’m sure that they hit plan issues. How often does that happen where you drew the plans up, and they go out there, and something is not working because of who knows what? I mean, there’s lots of different things. So it’s a collaborative effort, I think.
Ben: Yes. Well that’s an interesting question in the sense that in the last, say, 12 to 18 months, for whatever reason, I just had an opportunity to kind of reflect back and think back on the volume of construction that we’ve accomplished just in my small firm. And I think over those 30+ years, it’s probably north of $125 million worth of construction. And that’s a reasonable number.
Paul: That’s 1/8 of a billion dollars.
Ben: Yeah. I never thought of it that way. But yes. So and then I also was able to recall when there have been the very few errors or omissions, if you will, that we’ve ever had — whether it was myself or someone else — have been the sum total of four windows, one foundation that we had to do some concrete cutting on. It’s about four to six examples of times when I said to a general contractor, “Okay, we screwed that up.” So three of those windows, I bought replacement windows for them, and those three windows ended up in my house, which is one way to learn a lesson. But it’s been very minor. I mean, it might have a total value of ten or fifteen thousand dollars.
Paul: Wow. That’s incredible.
Ben: So I’m obviously very happy about that. But I’ve always felt that one of the things that really drives us and is really important to us is that we’re not only very creative, but we’re also very thorough. And that’s probably not only a lesson learned from when I was a child working on my parents’ property and sort of understanding the accountability lesson, but also, for four years, I worked in a firm that was architecture and construction. So that combined both professions under one umbrella, and it kind of ramped up my appreciation for if you’re going to draw it, you need to be absolutely certain that it can be built. And I was involved in the process of all of the material ordering and window specs and so on. You know, it’s all well and good to be creative, but if you cannot put a thorough set of construction documents out to the general contractor and the trades, it’s not good information for them, and it could be, it could be a very expensive.
Paul: I was just going to say, based on the number of things you’ve had to fix, the low number six or seven times or five times, contractors must love to work with you because they know the plans are going to be executable. I mean, the last thing a contractor wants is to have to redo stuff.
Ben: Right. Yes. And that’s the last thing we want them to do either. And you’re right. And we have great working relationships with a core set of general contractors. And we have had, on occasion, we’ve had comments back from framing contractor or other people that, “This is the best set of drawings we’ve ever worked with.” And those are obviously…it doesn’t happen all the time, only because you don’t necessarily always get that feedback. But when you do, it’s very helpful because then we understand that we’re providing them with information that’s appropriate and is allowing them to do their job well.
Paul: It’s important to… Because if you weren’t, you’d like to know that. And you probably would.
Ben: Right. Yes, we would.
Paul: But it’s really nice to know that the processes and systems and work methodologies you’re doing are resulting in things that are useful. And as we’ve said before, those contractors, those people that do the building, they’re incredibly talented. So to get them to say something that this is good is high praise. That’s really neat to hear. And I’m sure it made you feel good, but, you know, it’s really nice to know that — whether they say it or not — you’re producing things that are ultimately useful, you know, hugely beneficial to their work.
Ben: Yes. That’s right. Yeah. It’s a very satisfying end result all around. And the more times we can repeat that, the happier we are.
Technology in the Architectural Field
Paul: So now, you started well before computers were contemporary at all. I mean, they just… So you worked with a pencil.
Ben: Yes. Yeah, in fact, it’s almost frightening to think so. But when I first entered college, they were still doing math on a slide rule. And by the time, you know, my second year, we actually had a calculator that probably cost an arm and a leg but at least would add, subtract, multiply, and divide.
Paul: So… Wow, that’s just… So you were doing math to calculate rise and run and all those different things on a slide rule. And then you moved to a calculator. I mean, even a calculator seems primitive.
Ben: It does.
Paul: So when you drew plans in the old world, you’d have to erase them and change them.
Paul: I mean, there wasn’t any other way.
Ben: No, there wasn’t. Yes.
Paul: So, it must have been much more laborious.
Ben: It was so different. Yes. And actually, when I worked at Royal Barry Wills office, there was a gentleman there at the time who had been in the profession for decades as a draftsman. And he used to comment that he would get paid as much to erase as he did to draw. And it was so accurate because in that day and age, you couldn’t just… that’s one of the really great things about computer-aided design now, what we refer to as CAD, because you can do revisions so quickly, and it’s great in both the design process and as you’re doing a set of construction drawings.
Paul: So, now you brought up the point of the draftsman, were you drawing the plans or was the draftsman drawing the plans at Royal?
Ben: Way back… Right. So at Royal Barry Wills office, generally there would be a principal, so that would be one of the lead people in the office. So for example, Dick Wills, he would have a lot of interaction with the client and would do conceptual drawings, which were generally on trace paper, and that would be…that’s a flimsy kind of paper that you draw on, for both floor plans and doing exterior elevation drawings.
Paul: So let me stop you there. I don’t want to derail that. But why is it transparent, semitransparent?
Ben: Oh, it’s so that you could…. Great question. It’s so that you could put one piece of paper over another. So you’re making…as you’re doing sketches for a floorplan, for example, you might put a first pass of thoughts down, for organizing a first floor, for example, but then generally you would explore that and find out, well what if I… Maybe the house should be flipped. Maybe the garage should be on the other end. So you have the flexibility to take that transparent paper and flip it over or upside down or backwards or roll another piece on top of it and try a different arrangement between the garage and where the kitchen is. So it allowed you to do a progressive set of explorations of your design solution. And I have to say that for some of us in the office, even in 2017, it’s still a very productive way to do some of the design. It’s kind of a very fluid way to explore design. So that’s kind of the reason for that.
Paul: Well, I’ve always wondered that, you know. Why wouldn’t you just write it on white paper. But anyway. Okay. So we’re back to Dick Wills, and he would be the principal, and he’d make up the sketches and work with the client. And then what would happen?
Ben: And at the end of that process… So he’d do a concept design, meet with the client, probably do some revisions to that as a sort of more sophisticated solution that would be considered more of a final set of design drawings. And then those of us in the drafting room, if you will — at the time there were five or six of us—
Paul: So you were doing drafting at that time.
Ben: Yes. Right. So then we would take that design, floorplans, and building elevations and begin to convert that into a set of construction drawings — foundation plan, floor plans, exterior elevations. Building sections are when you basically take the giant chainsaw and cut the house in half so you can draw how it’s built — floor joists and rafters and so on. And all the details associated with that — roof trim and window trim, chimney details, whatever is required — that would be part of the responsibility of the draftsman. And then you would also begin to work quite a bit with the client at that point as well.
That process is different for us know, or at least in my office. Each one of the project architects becomes involved with the client right at the beginning of our project as well, whether it’s a renovation or new construction.
And there is a couple of reasons for that. One is that I feel like then everybody has ownership on that project from day one, which, to me, provides an opportunity for that individual who is the project architect, to be more excited about that process. And it also is two sets of eyes, ears, and experiences, and imagination applied to that client project. So it’s a little… The overall process is not dramatically different in its sort of intention, but what’s very different is in the application of going from design, through the design process, and to a set of construction drawings.
The Drafting Process
Paul: So you had a specific pool of drafts-people draftsmen at the time. But that sort of has collapsed, I would imagine because you all use CAD now?
Paul: And you can make the changes and… In other words, I don’t have to hand it off to somebody else. I might, but just for scheduling purposes, but we’re all able to do that. And I mean, it would have been pretty weird to take a set of plans, to take somebody else’s set of plans and go in and erase and change it. Is that right?
Ben: Right. That would be very rare.
Paul: 30 years ago?
Ben: That’s right. That would be very rare, and it would only be a circumstance where maybe somebody was out on vacation, or they were sick for a few weeks, and you had to do something like that. Generally, you took responsibility for those, and we still do that now unless it’s a time crunch or something of that nature. But, yes. And it is. The way that we can provide various design and detailed solutions by way of computer in the 21st century is just remarkable to me compared to when I started doing this.
The Next Big Thing in Technology – 3D Printing
Paul: Well, what do you think is the next big thing in that? Because, you know, you were doing drawings on flat pieces of paper. And then we moved into CAD where we basically mimic that. Then we moved into 3D where we could extrude and do elevations and shading and coloring and all. What’s going to happen next, do you think?
Ben: Well, some of it, in a way, has already started to happen in that there is also more technology available create 3-dimensional actual models.
Paul: Oh, that’s interesting.
Ben: We do not have that capability in my firm. But there are firms where they probably have the equipment to take their drawings and virtually create a 3-dimensional model.
Paul: So like with a 3D printer they would print it?
Ben: Yes. A 3D printer. Right.
Paul: Wow. I wouldn’t have thought of that.
Ben: Right. That is going to… And it’s quite well used in industrial design for example and has been for a while. But that, I’m sure, will trickle down as the technology and the cost of the 3D printers becomes more affordable. More of us will have access to that. That’s a great tool.
The other thing that has changed and certainly is — again, we’re doing relatively small work as far as size of each project. But if you’re doing a 30-story high rise somewhere, the basic premise is the same, but the way you go about it is quite different. And in those firms, many of them are now using a product called Revit. And with Revit, you can have an end result that is both three-dimensional modeling, computer modeling, as well as the two-dimensional construction drawings. So one software program provides you with the opportunity to, to accomplish both of those. Whereas, in our case, we use one, an AutoCAD product to do 2D, and we use a 3-dimensional computer modeling software for our 3D.
Paul: So I find myself, with technology a lot of times, being surprised that that didn’t exist.
Ben: Mmm… I suppose.
Paul: So wait a minute. You’re telling me… Now, thinking about it, I know you use two different packages. But I’ve never really gotten into that detail. But there really aren’t a lot of packages that you do both of them in?
Ben: No. And I suppose that’s probably just the evolution of the capability of software.
Paul: I guess that’s the danger of assuming something. So you draw things in an AutoCAD product, the 2D stuff.
Ben: That’s correct.
Paul: And then you don’t have to redraw it in the 3D. Do you?
Ben: We do.
Paul: Really. Now see that just doesn’t seem right. It’s 2017.
Ben: I know.
Paul: I mean, come on.
Ben: I’m sure that that will evolve to make that even… That will become an affordable package for small firms. And the only reason we are not using a product like Revit is that it’s another investment, and it’s also some time for our people to sort of come up to speed with using that as opposed to what we currently do. So that’s where I would imagine the biggest difference will be over a decade or whatever timeframe it is.
Paul: Probably shorter than we know.
Ben: Probably. Yeah. I bet it will be the opportunity for us to work in a CAD or in a software package that would be similar to a very large firm, and then the opportunity to have an affordable 3D printer.
Paul: Yeah. Interesting. So, now you could probably 3D print some of your stuff, if you just sent it out. Right?
Paul: So you have that capability now, it’s just a matter whether you have a printer.
Ben: Yeah. And we’ve done that, but we don’t do it very often.
Paul: Right. So what was the reaction of the people who saw the 3D print?
Ben: Well, one of them happened to be… Ironically, it was for my own house because I had a friend who was working in a firm that was on kind of the leading edge of creating, the 3D printers. And they wanted to kind of find out how can we work with architects of all shapes and sizes. And so we created the 3D model, computer model, I should say, just to be clear. So we created the 3D computer model and gave it to them. They had somebody then convert it to the software that ran their 3D printer and made the model of my house, which is fascinating for me to look at or people who come in the office.
Paul: Was this before you built your house or after?
Ben: No. It was after. It was after. Right.
Paul: It would have been interesting just the emotional… I mean, what in the world. Is that, is that right? I want to change that.
Ben: Well, you bet. You bet. And there’s no doubt that the ability to do 3D computer modeling has also allowed us to become even better at what we do because we can see things more easily 3-dimensionally and, again, it’s back to both the subjective and the objective. The subjective, do we think it looks better that way, but objective, is there any little sort of hidden, “Oh, that’s not a good roof shape in that location.” So it’s really fun to work in this profession in this time.
Paul: Do you still have that model?
Ben: I do.
Paul: We’d like to get a picture of that to show our audience. I think they would like to see that. That would be cool.
Ben: You bet.
Paul: Because, I mean, I’m very keen on 3D printers, and I’m just so glad I haven’t bought one, you know. It’s this funny thing. You know, the longer you wait, the better they’re going to get, and it’s amazing. One of my brothers is doing some really cool stuff. He lives in Ohio. And there, the public libraries have 3D printers that you can use for free, just pay for the material. That’s a really cool idea.
Ben: That’s a progressive thought. I like that.
Paul: Yeah. I said, “Wow!” So we gotta make that happen. But, so if you don’t know what a 3D printer is, we’ll put some links in the show notes about that and a link to what Ben has done. We will have all Ben’s contact information and links to his website in the show notes. And you can reach out to him for questions, etc. And, get a look at some of the incredible buildings that just fit so well. I think that’s one of the biggest comments I’d have about the architecture I’ve seen you do is it fits so well into its environment.
Ben: Thank you.
Paul: And that’s, I think that’s high praise. I mean, that is not just… I haven’t seen the inside as much, but they just fit so well. And, we live in New England and it’s a rural area, and it is one of the most beautiful places in the world. And we take it for granted a lot, I think. But I had a good friend who went overseas to school and came back, and he’s like, “Wow. New England is just spectacular.” And it really is. And if you haven’t had a chance to visit here, you know, get a chance to look around and see what it is. But, there’s some great examples on your website and other things. And I’d like people to take a look at that.
So we’ve been talking with Ben Nutter, Benjamin Nutter Architects in Topsfield. I hope you’ve enjoyed the time. Hope everybody has enjoyed listening.
Ben: Thank you very much, Paul. I’ve enjoyed doing this.
Paul: Thank you, Ben.