Homebuilding Recovery: How CAD Stifles Solutions

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The Recovery Blueprint is a multipart series on homebuilding. Part II addresses how a reliance on CAD software and a lack of collaboration stifle sustainable land development solutions.

The front cover of Engineering News-Record on March 12th, 2012 was about a technology survey conducted a few weeks earlier. Of 18 issues surveyed, the need for better software was mentioned most frequently. Under the heading "Software Shortfall - Better, Simpler, Cheaper", the editors noted that 'dissatisfaction with current products cuts across all responses,’ and labeled the area, 'Needs Improvement'.

Better Software: Until a few decades ago the development of the world was represented by a hand drawn plan. Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) did not exist. There was an intimacy between the design of buildings and the land development task at hand. Since the introduction of CAD, the typical American city has seen few technology changes in the ways that housing is designed. There is virtually no advancement in the design of land development that can be associated with this new era of software-enabled design. If anything, it could be argued that CAD technology resulted in worse design of the cities in which we dwell.

During a recent lunch with a prominent architect, he explained to me how easy it is to do multifamily design. Simply create one interior unit and one end unit, and then repeat with minor modifications for the first floor units. There was no mention on how to increase the views, or of perceived space (versus actual space), or of efficiencies that could help make everyday living better for the residents. Only that CAD made things so much faster and ‘easier’ for the architect.

Several software solutions companies boast in their literature about how the development of hundreds of lots can be generated in a minute. The attitude that technology is a tool for speed, instead of for quality, feeds complacency and dumbs down design to series of ‘typicals’ or ‘blocks’ that can be instantly duplicated.

CAD was intended as a drafting tool to serve hundreds of purposes within a multi-billion dollar software industry. To serve all industrial usages, CAD has become a ‘jack of all trades but master of none’. This is most apparent in land-based design, which requires calculations based upon coordinate geometry. CAD requires a separate data structure to perform these calculations. As an industry core technology, CAD compromises and limits land development design. To do land based calculations for environmental and economic reporting requires precision spatial analysis, and CAD technology fails to deliver. If CAD were a spatial platform there would be no need for a separate GIS technology (another industry problem) for analytical data.

CAD Saturation: The hand drafting tools used just a few decades ago simply do not exist today. In a saturated market, CAD companies must generate fees through updates, support and training. If these systems were easy (see above complaints) and quick to learn the support and training income would plummet. Thus, intentional complexity assures CAD an income stream for companies at the expense of limiting progress and stifling design advancements.

Pre-packaged software results in pre-packaged solutions. For example, imagine that an engineer schooled in the use of a particular software is given the task of designing a storm sewer on a 100-acre subdivision. To design and create the required drawings and reports for the multi-million dollar storm sewer system using add-on software to CAD, it might take only a day or so. A more natural alternative using surface flow is likely a viable option, potentially reducing infrastructure expense by tens of thousands, and in some cases millions, of dollars. However, there is no ‘button press’ for surface flow. If consulting fees are based upon a percentage of construction costs the situation becomes worse.

Many Architects intelligently use technology that is not possible through CAD. Some of these more intelligent software solutions have even been acquired by leading CAD companies. GIS (Geographic Information System) technology is generally based upon polygons, that is, a series of straight lines forming a shape. Typically, it's useless for precision engineering and surveying irregular, real-world sites.

Technology Inhibited Collaboration: Architects, engineers, surveyors and planners — the group of consultants that are given responsibility to design and produce plans for our world's growth — have been, historically, un-collaborative. Technology has done little to change this and foster collaboration.

Only a few decades ago, it was a given that hand drawn sketches would need to be calculated for construction. Today, a planner using CAD could ‘sketch’ thousands of inaccurate lines and arcs that look like a finished plan, but would be useless for engineering and surveying. Data transferred to the CAD system of an engineer or surveyor does not magically become accurate, and therefore usable. The way CAD has been utilized destroys collaboration instead of building it.

This isn't the fault of CAD technology, which actually can create precise drawings. The blame falls on those that teach its use. One way to build collaboration would be for schools in engineering, architecture, planning, and surveying to work on common projects, teaching the needs of each other in a way that reduces time and workload, allowing more time for better decision making.
Unsustainable Sustainability: It’s human nature to find comfort at a certain stage of equilibrium. What does this mean? We relent to the flow of everyday life. In the case of land development issues, methods and technology that go with the flow lead to an unsustainable path.

Those involved in the development industry, whether working for private or for public entities, know our growth is not sustainable. Instead of seeking better methods, we have reduced planning to either mindlessly automating design, or to creating stricter design models that promise progress by providing a better architectural façade.

Instead of being more efficient and reducing the physical elements required for development, we have added solutions that often increase installation and maintenance costs. An example is permeable paving, which is a wonderful idea: pavement that allows rainwater to pass into the ground, instead of running off the pavement's end and flooding the surrounding area. The problem is not the pavement, but the fact that the under layer supporting the paving must also be permeable. To do this is often prohibitively expensive. If it's not done properly, it traps water that can freeze (in colder climates) and then expand, and may not hold up to the weight of heavy loads.

Despite the promise of permeable pavement, design innovations that can reduce the volume of street surface by 30% or more without reducing functionality make more sense. Eliminating an excessive amount of street surface is an efficient solution that costs less to install and maintain than permeable pavement.

Funding Sources For Innovation: Would it be possible for someone to discover a way to create an affordable base for permeable pavement? Probably. There are hundreds of millions of dollars available from private foundations and government grants for solutions leading to sustainable growth. However, foundation grants fund only 501c non-profits. Should future solutions to development be tied only to non-profit or politically connected entities, or to private firms which may be more capable of innovation?

There is no technology that can create a better design; we can only create better designers. Instead of educating CAD users on how to automate design, we need to create a generation of designers who use technology to create wonderful neighborhoods instead of quick subdivision plans.

The consultant needs to concentrate on the best solution, not just the solution that is a mere button press away. Today, there is no excuse for creating designs that are not precise. Architects, engineers, planners, and surveyors need to learn to fulfill each other's basic needs. This would go a long way towards creating a new era of collaborative design.

Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of Performance Planning System. His websites are rhsdplanning.com and pps-vr.com.

Flickr Photo: Designing tools by evrenozbilen.