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by George T. Manos, AIA
A couple of points before getting started -

There is nothing you can do with a computer that you cannot do by hand or with brain. The computer is unquestionably faster computationally than any human. It is also more unequivocally obedient than any human. But it is not human. If a human cannot do it, a computer cannot do it. Think about it. If you are thinking of getting started with computers because you have the impression that computers will quickly give you the capability to do things you are now not able to do by hand, you may be disappointed.

Do not be afraid to work with a computer. The computer is a tool. There is nothing to fear. It does what you tell it. It cannot do anything on its own. To the person first using a computer, some programs impart to the computer ways of operating which make it seem as if the computer is acting on its own, but that is an illusion. The computer is acting the way some programmer told it to act. If the way it does act happens to be the way you would want it to act on a particular occasion, then you have encountered a fortunate coincidence. At first, most of the time that won't happen. Most of the time you will wonder what on earth the programmer had in mind - or if the programmer had a mind. That happens even to the veteran user, and it happens to the best of them. However, they are not afraid to plunge ahead with the program nonetheless. So do not you be afraid. When in the presence of the Computer Committee, you are among friends.

If you are the principal of a small or medium-sized firm, you owe it to yourself and to your staff to know how to use the computer at least as well as your staff if not better. This very presumptuous statement is based on personal experience. If you doubt this, then ask yourself if you think you can use a parallel rule and triangle as well as your staff. Do you see the connection? Is there something about using a parallel rule and triangle that your staff knows that you do not? Would you be satisfied to have a staff member tell you what can and cannot be done with a parallel rule and a triangle? Computer usage is not well understood by a relatively large segment of the architectural community. Surprisingly enough, even recent graduates from architectural programs which offer training courses in the use of computers, in particular CADD programs, do not really understand how to use them productively in an architectural office. There is a good reason for that. It takes a long time to learn. For the same reason that little time is spent in college courses teaching how to use a parallel rule and triangle, little time is spent on teaching practical applications for the computer (rightly or wrongly, depending on your point of view). That teaching is, unfortunately, left to your office.

The principal who is uninitiated to the use of computers will mistakenly assume that when a graduate enters the office with "CAD Training" on his or her resume, that employee knows how to use CAD efficiently. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The typical recent graduate does not know how to draw efficiently and effectively with a CAD system these days any more than did the graduate of a few years ago know how to draw effectively manually. Unfortunately most recent graduates do not know that they do not know and would not believe it if you told them, because they think they do know. They've paid tuition to learn, and they have learned, only not the kind of information needed in a production environment. (That is not intended as a condemnation of college programs, but as a wake-up call to both the profession and the academic community).

The unsuspecting principal is tempted to leave the management of a CAD operation to someone with such credentials rather than take the time to learn it himself or herself. In a very large office that can be a viable solution because the large office can afford the large salary that a truly qualified individual has the right to expect. But stop to think: If it would take YOU a long time to learn, who already knows what production efficiency means, imagine how long it would take someone to learn who does not know even what you do.

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In a CAD environment, efficient use of every facet of the tools the computer programs contain is critical, and so is management of the way drawings are developed. That DOES NOT NECESSARILY MEAN STANDARDIZATION. That is a crucial distinction to draw. Standardization of certain CAD operations is the act of the individual who does not really understand the power of CAD, and setting standards, such as one-size-fits-all layering guidelines (the AIA is as guilty of this as anyone), is always the first thing everybody tries to do. It seems like a good idea, but, except for architects with practices in certain vertical markets (you would know it if this applied to you) in most cases it is not.

That is not to say that no standards need to be set, for some do (lettering sizes, line weights, and colors under certain circumstances), but, just as the gifted drafter can depart from previously- adopted drawing guides with spectacular results, so can the gifted and experienced CAD user. The main thing to understand is that on every project in which the computer is used, its use must be managed. That means that the standards which apply to a particular project must be used by every person who uses a computer on that project. Standards may vary from project to project, the same way drawings may vary from project to project. The nature of the project determines the nature of the drawings, and the same is true for CAD usage - the nature of the job determines the best way to use a CAD system on it. There is no one "best way."

In just about every architectural office, the cost of producing working drawings consumes at least half the income of the office, meaning that efficiency counts in turning out C/D's. You rightfully will not tolerate wasteful or inappropriate manual practices, and should not do so with CAD practices. It could be very costly.

The reality is that computer technology is rapidly becoming a fundamental ingredient of architectural practice and, although the technology is getting cheaper almost by the minute, it is still more expensive initially than earlier instruments of practice. Only the most financially independent small-firm principal can afford to entrust the implementation of this technology to someone else. More importantly, if, as a small practice owner, you do not know how your systems operate, then how will you know whether the people you hire to run the systems are using them efficiently?

It does not matter how old you are. People who have been in the architectural profession for many years may feel abandoned, left behind by the practice in its rush to computer technology. Unfortunately that can become a self- fulfilling prophecy. Some practitioners may have concerns about various aspects of the profession, and think that the movement toward computers is one of the aspects to be concerned about, but the truth is that computer technology is itself neither the cause of any condition which is part of architectural practice, nor is it a symptom. It is simply a fact, in the same sense that the thousands of parallel rules out there don't make the profession what it is, either.

Computer technology is unfamiliar to long-term practitioners who did not grow up with it. Those who try it may find it mysterious, confusing, frustrating, un-intuitive. The natural reaction is to think, "That's it, this stuff is garbage. It's not architecture, it's got nothing to do with architecture; If this is what architecture has come to, then architecture is in trouble!"

Although it may be little consolation, every practitioner who has attempted to get hands-on experience has had the same thoughts, no matter what their age. You don't hear about it, probably because folks are too embarrassed to admit it, but take it from someone who knows, except for the few mentally-mutated individuals to whom the technology comes totally naturally, this stuff is hard for everybody to catch on to. Learning how to use the computer is not for the faint at heart or the impatient, no matter what their age. In fact, one of the best reasons to learn to use a computer may be linked specifically to age. The longer an individual has been in practice, the better that individual understands what counts in practice. The younger practitioner has somewhat less of this perspective (not a criticism), but, while the longer-term practitioner might have to overcome more preconceived, possibly ill-conceived, approaches to the technology than a younger one might, he or she will also be able to bring more substantive approaches to it when they master it - but only if he or she does master it.

Be prepared to spend time learning There is no escape. Computer software, which is what you really use when you use a computer, has not yet matured. Most of it is far from intuitive in its operation. Everything seems arbitrary at first - the command names, the way the commands work, the order in which they are supposed to be invoked - as though the author sat up nights trying to guess the way you would want to do things, and then wrote the program 180 degrees to that. Actually, in most cases, after a while the program makes sense, but only after you accept the author's approach to the task. That is why learning to use a computer takes time. You know the way you want to do things, but the computer does not, and unfortunately you can't teach it to do things your way. You have to learn to do things its way. Once you accept that, it's downhill.

Most computer learning occurs in spurts, moments of glorious revelation, generally preceded by hours of anguish, and generally followed by weeks of unwarranted self-satisfaction. With a really deep piece of software, one that can do a vast number of things a dozen different ways each (WordPerfect comes to mind), if you are new to computer use it can take a year or more of working with it every day before you begin to extract its real power. CAD systems are even worse. Most veteran users will confide that, while they thought they were pros after the first six months or so, it wasn't until they used CAD software steadily for two to three years that they really began to understand the way to use it. That is not to say that the conceptually nimble user will not be productive quickly, because most will - it is simply that they will not be really productive.

This long learning curve is not all bad. It means that the software you are using is powerful, deep, and capable. Can something which offers so much in terms of capability and productivity be absorbed with little or no effort on your part? Remember, you are buying a computer in order to earn money with it, not to play StarFighter or Bridge. How long did it take you to learn how to letter well, or to draw, or read, or write?

Reward time - The Envelope, Please . . . When you get it, it really feels good. It's almost physical (most moments of revelation come immediately at the end of long hours of frustration). More than that: there is always something more to learn, something you did not know about, some capability, some idiocyncracy, which makes it possible for you to extract even more from the tool than you thought possible. It is truly amazing, and it is one of the great things about owning a computer. However, remember, there is another side: computers have shortcomings. The technology has phenomenal potential, but no, it has not graduated to the point where it can adapt to you, and these days you will have to adapt to it. But that is not a reason for not getting started; it is all the more reason to get started. If you decide to wait for the technology to be perfected, then you will probably not buy a computer in your lifetime.

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