A Designer’s Toolkit: Communication, Collaboration + Technology

February 28, 2017

Written By Holly Jordan & Felipe Zumaeta

A truly responsive design solution requires an inherently complex process. Reflecting the myriad of criteria that will inform and influence them, comprehensive and effective design solutions are uniquely tailored to meet – and ultimately further enhance — overall economic, social and environmental factors, demands and requirements.

Composed of quantitative and qualitative data, great architectural design solutions will find a way to express a custom blend of tangibles and intangibles through the built form. This complexity is precisely why it’s important to use the right tools and technologies to meet our clients’ objectives. Once we layer the multitude of individuals and teams involved in design from the exploratory to final stages, we also begin to see how important clear communication and collaboration truly are to the process.

Streamlining and simplifying with technology

As innovation continues to push the boundaries of design, project requirements have become more challenging. Technology has responded to these demands with new ways of tailoring approaches, exploring options and organizing information. At the outset of every project, designers engage in the process armed with a customized combination of software to address client objectives. They’ll select the tools they use to suit these objectives and address each project’s unique set of challenges. Ideally, these tools work together in a way that allows for the sharing of data and details across platforms to strengthen the process. This collaboration allows design teams to comprehensively synthesize the multitude of restrictions, requirements and aspirations to uncover dynamic solutions.

While designers employ a tailored mix of high-tech tools for each project throughout the design process, some elements of their methodology are best addressed with simple applications. Seemingly mundane software like email for instance – how would we communicate across borders without it? Word processing and spreadsheets play their role as well, helping to store and organize data in a way that can be easily conveyed. Graphic applications and basic presentation tools also play a part in presenting preliminary design concepts and can be used to start conversations and get ideas flowing through visual references. There’s an art to blending low- and high-tech tools to communicate data and ideas.

Finding the right tool for the job

Depending on their comfort level with the various tools at their disposal and the desired output format, designers will often use several software programs to build a base for a project, and subsequently, to explore more complex design details through multiple iterations. Felipe Zumaeta, Designer at B+H, recognizes that “architects, now more than ever, have to be software experts.” For instance, where computer aided drafting (CAD) software, like AutoCAD® was once the preferred method, building information modeling (BIM) software, like Revit®, has stepped in. BIM software has enhanced the process by adding greater complexity and coordination to the drawing production process. Double lines drawn on a plan – once simply indicating a wall – now include information pertaining to materials, finishing, quantities, fire ratings, assemblies, etc. BIM software is used to create intelligent 3D models organizing and accommodating this level of detail.


In this new workflow model, deliverables include drawings and schedules that come directly and fully coordinated from a single, unified model, where changes made in one area are reflected throughout. Where CAD was typically the tool of choice for architects and engineers to turn specifications and sketches into technical drawings, BIM files can be used by the broader team beyond architects, designers, and engineers — extending to include contractors, manufacturers, building owners and operators. During design, BIM enables coordination between disciplines, creating detailed models for architectural design, MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing) and structural engineering, and other specialty disciplines (i.e. food service equipment, systems furniture, acoustics, lighting, etc.). This in turn can be shared with contractors in the construction of a building, serving as an ongoing site coordination tool and assisting with take-off analyses and shop drawing production.

Despite its capabilities every software also has its limitations, and this is why designers need to be proficient in compatible tools that can be used to explore project aspects that require added focus and attention. “We’re now authors and curators in design and need to understand a software’s limitations and capabilities to understand how they work together to uncover the big picture,” says Holly Jordan, Senior Associate at B+H. “With so many options at their fingertips, designers can use any number of tools to meet their needs.” For instance, Rhino® will produce 3D models as well but is often used to explore complex forms such as curved façade details and isn’t relied on to explore the more technical nuances of a project, like Revit is. Then there’s software like Grasshopper™.

A visual programming tool, the Grasshopper plug-in for Rhino can generate iterations that can be integrated with a master Revit file. This supports an exploratory process involving an infinite number of design possibilities – to cast a wider net of discovery. This can be used to refine elements within a specific context. However, despite all the advanced tools intended to streamline processes and allow for the broadest of design potentials, there’s nothing like clear communication and effective team collaboration to ensure a project’s success.

Why communication matters

Imagine if you will, a team member stationed in Toronto opens the project BIM file he or she is working on. By altering a single element – rendering a change to a detail in the Revit model file – everything that’s connected automatically updates in a ripple effect that impacts the project’s overall design. Within a couple of clicks of a mouse, a three-storey underground parking garage is now a four-storey parking garage. At the same time, someone halfway across the world with access to the file notices that the construction schedule has increased exponentially. Along with this change is a surge in materials and labour through excavation requirements, inevitably multiplying construction costs. Communication and collaboration are absolutely essential to ensure that everyone understands the repercussions of changes made from concept to construction, particularly when changes are made in later stages.

Communication also extends to how concepts and ideas are presented to clients. While renderings, fly-throughs and virtual reality are often used to communicate designs, physical models remain an effective communication tool. In response to tightened design timelines and expanding technological advancements, 3D printing of models continues to grow in popularity. Powerful tools for designers 3D models create tangible representations of buildings and massing that clients can see and touch, delivered in a fraction of the time that it traditionally took to create physical models.

Designers use scaled models to demonstrate the fundamental form of buildings. 3D printing models enable the possibility of presenting several options at once. For example, possible designs can be made to fit into a scaled contextual layout of the surrounding area (e.g. a city block) to understand how a proposal will integrate into its immediate environment. A physical model can demonstrate that a building will comply with view corridor restrictions and it can also show how a design will complement the neighbouring cityscape as it impacts form in the area.

Advanced tools and technology can multiply possibilities and create endless opportunities, but at the end of the day, the people using technology are integral to project success. Despite the many things that technology can do, people are essential to the curation of data during the process and designers offer a skilled eye for composition to understand what can and can’t be achieved. In the end, comprehensive design solutions are the result of careful curation where possibilities are vetted for sheer aesthetic and other criteria like material availability and cost. Designers can anticipate needs and intuitively connect with what makes the most sense for the context — and there’s no technology in the world that can teach that…yet.