It's a simple question, but it's also the one I am asked most often, both by readers of Portico and by anyone who happens to know I studied architecture: friends in different fields, family members, and people I've just met. It sometimes seems like everyone is interested in architecture, but no one knows quite what it is or exactly how you go about doing it.


Surviving Group Projects at Architecture School

Surviving Group Projects at Architecture School

Hhow do you feel about group work?

In my experience - both as a student and as a teacher - there are two kinds of people at architecture school, those who love group projects, and those who begin trembling with anxiety at any mention of working with others.

Unfortunately, all it takes is one bad group project experience to tip those in the first group into the latter group. And going back the other way isn't such an easy slope to climb.

Why you need to make your architecture concept presentation believable (and 3 steps to achieve it)

Why you need to make your architecture concept presentation believable (and 3 steps to achieve it)

If your architectural drawings have glaring inadequacies in the construction or structural department, your tutors, critics, peers and clients will be distracted from the really rich, well-considered and revolutionary aspects of your work. To avoid this, u need to make your architectural concept believable.

IS IT TRUE: Do you really learn more about Architecture in 1 year of practice than you do in 5 years of study?

IS IT TRUE: Do you really learn more about Architecture in 1 year of practice than you do in 5 years of study?

This post isn't about content - the quantifiable 'stuff' you'll learn at architecture school or in practice - or about how well architecture school 'prepares' you for practice. Instead, I'm going to unpack for you:

  • why I think it is a myth that you learn more in practice;
  • the conditions that perpetuate this myth; and
  • why it's a dangerous way to think - not matter what stage you're at in your journey. 

Instead of falling prey to the myth, you can choose to be strategic in your education, and take the driving seat in your architectural journey.

ARCHITECTURE SCHOOL | Workload, expectations & how to manage your time so you can do your best work

ARCHITECTURE SCHOOL | Workload, expectations & how to manage your time so you can do your best work

Your first year of architecture school will be exciting - there's no doubt about that! But it might also be daunting, and even overwhelming at times.

The class structures, workload and expectations are probably very different to what you have experienced before, either at school or in the workplace. In fact, even if you have studied at university before coming to architecture, the expectations and intensity of the studio environment can catch you off guard. 

 In this post, I'm going to share with you some of the things that might be different at architecture school. 

I'll let you know:

  • what to expect;
  • what the workload is like,
  • how you can manage your time

I'll also talk through some ways you can prepare for and manage them - so you can focus on doing your best work!


 Scale allows us to understand the relationship between a representation - a drawing or model - and reality. Being able to draw accurately to scale, and to shift fluidly between scales, is one of the most important aspects of architectural drawing and spatial design.


'To scale' simply means that every element in a drawing or model is in the same proportion, with the same relationships as than the real (or proposed) thing - but, that it is smaller or larger by a certain percentage.

Scale is how we relate our representations to reality; a magic correlation of mathematics with experience.

But when we say a drawing is 'to scale', we usually don't just mean that the proportions correct. 

Rather, we are often trying to confirm that what we are looking at is shown at a common scale, one that we know and understand, so that we can translate the spatial qualities in our mind and imagine occupying the spaces.

We represent scales using the mathematical way to show relationships: ratios. For example, a drawing might be at 1:100 (said one to one hundred). I'll give you more information on how to use ratios later in this post.

Or skip down to 'doing the maths' if you can't wait!


Using Scale

Why do architects use Scale?  

At a basic level, the main point of scaling is to ensure to we are able to represent reality on a piece of paper, or in a model.

Fundamentally, this is based in the practicality of making the drawing fit on your page, or your model fit on your table, or be light enough to lift. In other words, the reason we we don’t often draw at 1:1, is simply because the real drawing would often be too big, and take the same effort as actually building the building! 

There are, of course, ways around this.  For example, if you have a very long building, whose section does not fit on a single page, you might be able to use break lines to ‘cut out’ and omit the central or more repetitive sections of the building. If you are using this technique, be sure not to omit any aspects which are critical to the understanding or construction of the building, such a changes in levels or materials interfaces.

how do architects use scale?

Architects often use a different set of scales than engineers, surveyors or furniture designers rely on. This relates to the standard measurements, the size of what is being designed, and the relative complexity of the design.

And then there is that added complexity of which measurement system you use! In New Zealand, the metric system makes it fairly straightforward for us - with most scales being multiplications of 2, 5 and 10. The imperial system gets bit trickier. And converting between the two? That's extra for experts.


Understanding Scale

Scale is how we relate our representations to reality; a magic correlation of mathematics with experience. Scale is one of the architectural ideas that truly blends the abstract and the real.

you need to develop an understanding of scale in two ways:

  • in a mathematical, physical sense; and

  • in terms of your body and experience of space.


The first of these, the mathematical, can be learned, working with fairly simple systems of ratios and percentages.

The second, understanding scale in experiential terms, will probably take time to embed, but will eventually come to you so naturally it becomes difficult to identify it as a skill in its own right.

Portico Architecture Scale Doing the Maths

Scale: doing the maths

Scale is shown as a mathematical ratio, which means that it gives a direct relationship between the measurements in the drawing or model and the reality. For more on Architecture & Maths, see here.

Converting between reality and your representation

A wall which is one metre long will be drawn as 1cm long, or 0.01m, in a 1:100 scale drawing. I've done these calculations so often now they happen naturally - but the premise is that to get from reality to the drawing, you can divide the real measurement by the scale factor. So, 1m divided by 100 = 1cm. 

The same one meter long wall, at a scale of 1:500, would be drawn as 0.2cm long, or 0.002m. This answer can be found by dividing 1m by 500. 

Converting between representational scales

Once you're happy converting from reality to your drawings or model, the next step is to convert between drawing scales. This is where it gets fun, but the technique is the same:

  • a 1:50 drawing will be twice as big as a 1:100 drawing(100/50 = 2)
  • a 1:500 drawing will be 2.5 times smaller than a 1:200 drawing (500/200 = 2.5)

Let's try an example: 

(If it is any reassurance, I've picked a one of the more tricky ones you will come across. If you can follow this logic you can figure out the others.)

A 24 metre long wall is drawn as 12cm long in a 1:200 drawing. To transfer from the 1:200 scale to a 1:500 scale, you can either:

This is a two step process which involves using the 1:1 scale as an intermediate step.

  1. From the given drawing, figure out the actual length of the wall at 1:1. To do so, multiply the drawn length by the scale factor.

    Scale Calculation: 12 x 200 = ?
    Answer: 2400 or 24m

  2. Now that you know the actual length of the wall in reality, you can rescale it to any of your chosen scales. So, to get to 1:500, simply divide the length (24m) by 500.
    Scale Calculation: 24/500 = ?
    Answer: 0.048m or 4.8cm long at 1:500.

This is the most direct process, where you figure out the ratio of the two scales, and use that to calculate the resultant scale change. 

  1. First we need to determine the ratio of the two scales to each other. To do , divide the desired scale by the current scale:

    Ratio Calculation: 500/200 = 2.5
  2. Now, divide the drawn length (12cm) by the scale ratio (2.5) to determine the length it will be shown at in a 1:500 scale drawing.

    Scale Calculation: 12/2.5 = ?
    Answer: 4.8cm long at 1:500.

Scales & Percentages

You will also see the process of scaling - that is, changing scale - referred to in terms of percentages. 

Understanding these percentages is fairly fundamental to being able to use the photocopier to scale up or scale down a drawing. The other place you will increasingly need this skill is on the computer. For example, when you import drawings into Adobe Creative Cloud Products such as Photoshop, InDesign or Illustrator, changing scales is based on percentages.

Tge process that is fairly simple when going from 1:100 to 1:200 (magnify by 200%), but can get a bit more complex if you have a drawing printed at A4 that needs to be scaled up to an A3 (141%).

*hint: when importing images and PDFs into Adobe Creative Cloud products, they often mysteriously rescale. Make it a habit to always check the scale of all axes (x, y and z) is set to 100%. You can easily rescale from there if need be.*

If you need any further help with scales and doing the maths, let me know what you would like help with in the comments below, or send me an email here. 
Portico Architecture Scale Spatial Experience

scale: spatial experience

Over time and through habitual use, scale is one of the key tools that enables an architect to understand the space and reality of a drawing. This is why we like to use common scales - because they are the ones we can immediately visually understand, and can often draw completely freehand, yet quite accurately, to these scales.

Powers of Ten
Charles and Ray Eames, 1977


I couldn't write a whole article on scale and architecture without mentioning the now classic film by reknowned architects and designers Charles and Ray Eames, commissioned for IBM and released in 1968.

It's relatively short, at about 10 minutes long, but if you're short on time, even watching the first minute will give you a good idea of the concept. To make it even easier for you I have embedded the video above - just click on it to play!

In the Powers of Ten, the Eameses use film to visualise scale changes, focusing on the mathematical concept of exponential powers. The film reveals that even the most everyday, 1:1 reality of a picnic, zoomed in or out to the scale of an atom or of the universe, can be magical and mysterious. 

Our experience of scale is obviously always at the 1:1, at the scale of the picnic - but being able to consider a zooming in or out enables us to retain our bodily understanding of space, while bringing other aspects into the picture.


I've put together a list of 'scale tricks' which can help you begin to understand scale and proportion. These are just a starter - but understanding scale in your everyday life is critical to internalising the concepts of scale.

  • Know how big your handspan is. Mine is handily exactly 20cm - so I can figure out how big things are pretty easily.
  • Know how high the ceiling is in the key spaces you use. This might be your office, school studio, or bedroom.

  • Know what the column spacing is in your building (if you can see the columns!) This is particularly useful for conceiving of larger spaces.

  • Think about the width of spaces. How does a narrow hallway or corridor make you feel? How narrow is a doorway? How narrow can a ledge or walkway be until you feel uncomfortable? Measure these spaces and tuck those measurements away in your mind with the experience of space.

  • Develop a personal scale toolkit. Scale model people and cut outs (try 1:20, 1:50 and 1:100) can be great to play with while sketching sections or making rough models at concept stage. It might seem like child's play, but it can really help you understand the experience of scale.


In case you missed it above, I have put together a Guide to Scale in Architecture Projects covering the basic rules. Click on the button above to download your copy.

You can use it as a starting point as you plan out your drawing set, to ensure you are setting yourself up to produce a clear, relevant and easily understandable set of drawings . You can even print it out and highlight which scales you are using for which drawings, for your personal reference, if you want. 

The PDF also includes a checklist, so that when you have the scales all figured out and are prepared start a drawing, you can run through a series of questions to make sure you've made all the best decisions.

what do you find difficult about scale? what tricks do you have to simplify it? i’d love to hear your thoughts and tactics down in the comments! 

Lest we Forget | Architecture, Memorials & our Sense of Community 

The Dedication of the National War Memorial Carillon, Wellington, 25 April 1932 (Alexander Turnbull Library) - William Hall Raine 

The Dedication of the National War Memorial Carillon, Wellington, 25 April 1932 (Alexander Turnbull Library)
- William Hall Raine 

ANZAC day, in New Zealand and Australia, is a day for remembrance. It is also a day that reveals the important role architecture plays in our communities, giving richness to our collective memory, and playing a part in our sense of community. 


In New Zealand and Australia April 25 is ANZAC day - a day of national remembrance commemorating New Zealanders and Australians who have served in war, conflict and peacekeeping duties. The date marks the landing of NZ and Australian troops in Gallipoli, Turkey in 1915.

You feel encompassed by the past, by those who gather and have gathered around you.

This morning, across both countries, thousands arose in darkness, and gathered with their neighbours in their towns, cities and suburbs. Together we stood outside in silence, acknowledging the solemn parade of veterans, the defence force, and bands. The atmosphere enhanced by the slow autumnal sun cracking the horizon.

The centre of nearly each of these individual dawn commemorations is a memorial - traditionally a tall, stone, almost monolithic building raised on a plinth, often adorned with sculpted men and engraved with the names of those who served. During the service, the foot of the memorial is laden with wreaths of poppies - their bright, delicate beauty in contrast to the enduring solidity of the building. 

architectureS OF MEMORIAL

Like New Zealand and Australia, most countries memorialise events, people and actions - often setting aside space, or providing an object or building to pay respect and to remember. Some memorials are small, intimate places, others are vast spaces which make the hairs on your arms stand up.  

Maya Lin's "The Wall", Vietnam Memorial, Washinton DC. Photo by Derek Key.

Maya Lin's "The Wall", Vietnam Memorial, Washinton DC. Photo by Derek Key.

Often, such built memorials reach for the sky, but equally, connection to the ground has great resonance. At Maya Lin’s famous Vietnam War Memorial, in Washington DC, the land is contoured to lead you down beside a thick wall, a physical and emotional depth from which you then slowly reemerge, towards the sky. Peter Eisenmann's Holocault Memorial in Berlin disrupts our understanding of the ground - giving us back something between building, maze, landscape and seemingly endless series of objects. 

The key elements of stone, fire, water and light also have significant presence, either in the architecture itself, or through the ritual of use - the rising of dawn, the lighting of a flame, the reflection on a still body of water. 


These memorial architectures stand silent for most of the year, but are brought to life and fulfil their purpose on days like this. They lie dormant until we call on them, resuscitated through memories. But it’s not only the built structure and form of the memorial, but the location, space around it and procession towards it that awakens the space. The ritualised dawn memorial service invites us to occupy the space of our city, to walk and stand with presence alongside the architecture. 

“Time alters understanding and blurs memory: architecture remains.”
— David Cohn

Great architecture extends beyond the exterior walls of the building, connecting with the streets or open spaces around it, speaking to the wider city. A memorial isn’t just about a physical ode to history, but a space of active, bodily engagement with the past.  

Memorials, then, are the gathering points, the moment of pause. As physical markers they bring people together at a single moment in time, then again and again, over the years, to the same place. The space becomes imprinted with ritual of gathering, the repeated collective action of standing together in solidarity.  

You cannot go to a memorial and feel alone. Certainly, you feel the the futility of it all, the weight of your own mortality, but you do not feel isolated in these emotions. Rather, you feel encompassed by the past, by those who gather and have gathered around you. It is a place of meaningful connection, where even in silence there is camaraderie.  

Paul Ricoeur has written that if history is a search for truth, memorial is about faithfulness - and here, as we come together alongside architecture, we are invited to reform our own, collective and individual notions of this what is means to be faithful to ourselves and our memories.  



The New Zealand Memorial, Longueval, France. 

The New Zealand Memorial, Longueval, France. 

For me, the essence of ANZAC day is increasingly made up of overlapping experiences, extending not just through time but also across continents. The wide, axial road of Anzac Parade in Canberra comes to mind, as does the New Zealand War Memorial in London - a 2006 collaboration between John Dibble and John Hardwick-Smith of Athfield Architects. I dream of Gallipoli, of Northern Africa where my Grandfather served, of the battles in my own country, and of Le Somme.

In 2004, as a schoolgirl I laid a wreath at the base of the wall which encloses the small town of Le Quesnoy in Northern France - a town whose incredible urban structure and fortification made it nearly impossible to recapture, until the New Zealand troops scaled the walls a week before the war ended in 1918. 

Memorial architectures form portals, connecting each of these places, events and times. This global network of memorials, which is far more extensive than what I might possibly mention here, forms a kind of geography of remembrance. Each individual memorial you come across is an invitation to the network, a key to navigating our wider collective memory and architectural history.


ritual community

It’s good to be able to recognise the value of...our architecture, the spaces which also serve us as a community, reflect us as a society, and, hopefully, enable us to continue to stand together in the future.

It has now been over a century since the first landing at Gallipoli in 1915, and memorials still form the centrepieces to many of our towns and cities. Their architecture makes them recognisable, but their ubiquity means that they usually sit in the background, standing silent as we go about our day to day lives around them.

And to me, this is as it should be. I don’t think history, or architecture for that matter, need to jump out at you to add richness to your life, or to contribute to how we construct our place in the world.

But every now and then, it’s good to be able to recognise the value of both these things: our history, the people and events who came and served before us; and our architecture, the spaces which also serve us as a community, reflect us as a society, and, hopefully, enable us to continue to stand together in the future. 

and at the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them
portico architecture anzac poppy memorial

Do you see a relationship between architecture and history? Between buildings and how people come together, how we create shared memories, and what we value as society? I'd love to broaden the discussion around these thoughts, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below!




Before I began studying architecture, the word circulation meant very little to me, other than bringing to mind science classes spent learning about the movement of blood around the human body.  

In architecture, the concept of circulation isn't so different - it refers to the way people, the blood of our buildings, move through space.

In particular, circulation routes are the pathways people take through and around buildings or urban places. Circulation is often thought of as the 'space between the spaces', having a connective function, but it can be much more than that. It is the concept that captures the  experience of moving our bodies around a building, three-dimensionally and through time.

In this article, I will look at what circulation is, and how you can design for it - using the rules and breaking them too. I also touch on how architects represent circulation, often using diagrams, and how circulation relates to Building Code Requirements.


Drawing for Architects Basics: Line Weights

PORTICO | Line Weights | Drawing Basics for Architects

Line weight is the visual lightness, darkness, or heaviness of a line within a drawing. In any architectural drawing, from a sketch to a construction drawing, the interplay of different relative line weights is used to communicate depth, importance, and proximity.  


Weight refers to the strength, heaviness, or darkness of a line against the background. It can be achieved through different thicknesses, intensities, and sometimes even different patterns - dashes, dots etc. Traditionally, you would generate a heavier line by applying more pressure, or by angling the pencil to produce a thicker line. Today, you can find pens with different nib sizes, and pencils and leads with different hardnesses to aid the process of producing different line weights.  

Additionally, all architectural computer-aided design programmes have in-built systems for generating and managing line weights in architectural drawings. These systems range from the simple (closest lines are darkest, further away are lighter) to the highly complex (elements in the drawing have pre-determined line-weights, based on value-decisions make by the architect).

Before jumping in to these more intensive situations, it is important to have a grasp on what line weights mean and how they are read, and what you should consider when incorporating them into your own work.  

how do architects use line weights?

There are a number of different situations in which architects use line weight. Line weight is a notational device, and can be used to identify different types of information which are layered in the same drawing. It is used in all drawing types - sketches, sections and elevations, plans, diagrams, perspectives, and details.  

Why use different line weights?

To show relationships in time or space.

For example, a dashed line might show an existing portion of a house has been removed, a different stage of construction might be shown lighter, or an element which is underground and can’t really be ‘seen’ might be marked by a lightly dashed ‘hidden line'.

To establish a hierarchy.

Architects select line weights carefully, to bring the viewer's attention to particular parts of the drawing that they identify as important first. Traditionally, the most important information is rendered in the deepest, heaviest line. 

Taking this one further step, you might also consider the presence or absence of lines, and what is visible in the drawing. Using different line weights, or at an extreme, erasing elements completely, allows you to edit what should be present and communicated. 

To create depth. 

Architects are always converting 3-Dimensional spatial ideas into 2-Dimensional drawings. Key to this process is the ability to develop a sense of dimension and depth within a 2-D drawing.

You can use a variety of line weights within a drawing to establish a sense of depth. Darkest line weights come to the front, while lighter, finer lines fall into the background. 

To add legibility and clarity to a dense drawing.

When your drawings need to communicate a lot of different and often overlapping information, clarity is key. I have talked about this before in my post on The Keys to a Great Architectural Drawing Set here. Using different line weights allows you to distinguish one type of information from another, and to guide how the eye moves around the drawing - both elements which are key to achieving legibility and clarity. 

how to create different line weights:

    Think about the density of lines.
    Lots of lines close together can give the impression of weight, whereas a single line in a large open space will appear thinner than it actually it.

    Manipulate the degree of darkness. 
    You can do this by pressing harder, or you can use different shades of grey, or even consider introducing colour.

    Change the thickness of the line.

    Change the line type. 
    Rather than a continuous line, you can use a range or other line types, from equal spaced dashed lines to centre lines and cross hatched lines to indicate different elements or hidden elements.

    Three clues to using Lineweights:

    Variety, Consistency, and Intuitiveness

      1. The number one rule is to use a variety of different line weights. 
        4 is probably a good starting point. As you add additional elements or items of information to the drawing, consider whether you can make them to look the same as existing lines, or whether this would cause confusion. If so, you can add more line weights, change the darkness or colour, or look at changing the line type to a dash or something similar to differentiate.
      2. But more importantly, whatever rule you are following - be consistent
        There is nothing more confusing than line weights which change rules in different parts of the drawing, or within a drawing set. Once you have a system in place, be sure to stick to it - or if something needs to be changed, change it everywhere.  
      3. Your system should be intuitive. 
        Not least, so you aren’t continuously having to look up rules in order to draw! The plus side of this is that the more intuitive it is to you when you are drawing, the more intuitive it will be to whoever is viewing the drawing and trying to make sense of it later. 

      How to use different line weights
      in your drawings:



        Here, the typical rule is the closer the object, the darker the line; the further away, the lighter the line. This is because read thicker, heavier lines as being closest to us, whereas lighter lines recede into the background. This is particularly important for making sense of perspective drawings, and for giving depth to 2D orthographic drawings - in particular Elevations and Section where space is flattened. 

        Importance & Hierarchy

        Heavier, darker lines suggest more importance, so you need to be selective about what information you are showing in your drawings, and the line weights you attribute to different elements. This is a personal decision making process which can vary from drawing to drawing. 

        For example, you might draw construction lines and guides to help you set up the drawing and get other lines in the right place. While they are important for you while drawing, these lines are often not important for others to see, so were traditionally drawn very very lightly, and often erased later. 

        But there are no hard and fast rules here - you need to be selective about what is appropriate and important to help you communicate your project. Often at concept sketch design level, or in University project, you might choose to keep or even enhance these lines to communicate the process and add texture and atmosphere to your drawings.


        Depending on the scale of the drawing, you may show more or less information about the specific elements and materials which make up a wall. Sometimes you may give no indication of materials at all, and adopt an outline-only style, or infill walls and other elements with poche

        Sometimes, it is useful or even necessary to indicate materials using a variety of lines in your drawings. Generally, a light material is given a lighter line weight, and heavier materials are given heavier line weights. It makes more visual sense to draw stone with a heavier lightweight than you would the fabric curtains.


        Architects use a number of drawings which rely on 'cuts' to reveal things we would not normally see. The standard rule is that anything that is cut through to produce the drawing will be a very heavy line weight. 

        For example, a Section Drawing is produced by taking a cut through the building. Any element that is sliced through is this process will be darkest or heaviest. What is visible in the room beyond or on a distant will will be much lighter. A Plan is also a cut, so the elements which are cut, usually walls, will typically be darkest.

        This rule is also moderated by the idea of Materiality above. Where you choose to show each of the different elements that make up a wall (the wall 'build-up'), you would consider the appropriate line weight for each of these individually. It is the density of these lines, located closely together on the page, which gives the weight to the wall as a whole.

        Outlines, edges and surfaces

        This rule comes into play when drawing 3-dimensional forms in axonometric, isometric or perspective.

        The 'outline' or 'silhouette' of an object - where the object ends and the space around it begins - are typically treated with the darkest lines. Mid-weight lines are used for other edges, which denote a change in plane, but aren't set against the background. Light-weight lines are used for any detail, texture, or elements which are embedded within or on the surfaces of the planes. 


        Remember that line weights are most useful when a variety are used in relation to each other. This is related to scale. As you zoom in to parts of a project, you should manage the relative line weights within the drawing.

        For example, in a 1:200 plan, a pane of glass might be demarcated by a single, light-weight line. At 1:50 scale, the glass might be two mid-weight lines, and at 1:5, 12 light-weight lines, with a mid-weight line on either outside edge. 

        In case you missed it above, I have put together a Guide to Using Line Weights in architecture projects covering the basic rules. Click on the button above to download your copy.

        You can use it as a starting point for each drawing, to ensure you are setting yourself up to produce a detailed  but legible drawing with depth and clear hierarchy. There is space on the PDF to note different line weights as a kind of key for your personal reference, if you want. 

        The PDF also includes a checklist, so that when you think you are nearly done, you can run through a series of questions to make sure the drawing is working the way you want it to say. I still use a number of these questions today in practice - getting a drawing reading correctly is an art, and requires continuous re-crafting!

        Josef Albers

        The image used in the main post graphic above, and the one to the right, are both artworks by German-born American Artist Josef Albers (1888-1976).

        Although most celebrated for his work with colour and form, which influenced the artistic practices of colour-field painting, abstract impressionism and minimalism, his work with line is equally valuable, perhaps especially for architects. 

        Albers established his legacy through teaching at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College and Yale University, where a number of prominent artists and architects studied under him.


        Formulation : Articulation, Portfolio I Folder 33, 1972

        Formulation : Articulation, Portfolio I Folder 33, 1972

        how do you use lineweights? what do you struggle with? i’d love to hear your thoughts and questions down in the comments! 

        CAD | How to master Computer Aided Design programmes

        PORTICO - CAD Computer Aided Design Learn how to learn

        CAD: Computer Aided Design

        The key to mastering CAD is to learn how to learn.

        Technological advancement happens fast, and individual technologies bloom, blossom and die in turn. 

        At the present moment in architecture, Computer Aided Design (CAD) is almost ubiquitous, a change which has happened in the last 15 years. Now, more advanced methods of Building Information Modelling (BIM) are becoming more commonplace. At architecture school today you will almost certainly be expected to use CAD software to draw, model, and design. 

        Technology changes quickly

        But technology changes quickly, and these changes can often be unforgiving: refusing to integrate with more traditional methods, becoming requirements for certain types of work, and leaving those who don’t take them up in the dust. This happens at an industry wide level, with reference to broad technological changes. Other than the long-standing pencil on paper, there are almost no computer programmes or applications that I currently use that I can envisage still using in 2050.  

        At the level of individual programmes, changes can be even more frequent. Most programmes are ‘updated’,  go through complete facelifts or are even phased out every few years. The specifics of the architectural programmes you learn during your architectural university life will likely be outdated by time you leave.  

        Further, with so many different CAD programmes, different methods of use, and a variety of different global standards, there is no knowing which programme you should master, or indeed what mastery might actually involve. In the four years since finishing my degree, I have learnt 3 new CAD programmes - two completely from scratch. And, my skills in the software I was most fluent with at university are now very, very rusty.  

        recognising the fluidity of technology in practice

        Understanding the fluidity of technology and its role in architectural production, I think that the key to mastering CAD is to learn how to learn. In doing so, you will set yourself up to keep learning in the future.

        So how can you learn
        how to learn CAD?

        I suggest that you focus on understanding the systems that make up the back bone of these computer-aided design programmes. These systems for design will likely fall into four categories: 

        Organisation, Combination, Filtering and Description. 

        1. Ways of ORGANISING information

        Most programmes that allow you to work with any kind of complexity incorporate a system for managing that complexity. Typically this will take the form of  layers or categories which allow you to organise information. Best practice is to organise information as you draw or generate it, denoting what position within a building or project a certain part occupies.

        Layers and Categories often also allow you to correlate certain information with an element, such as how it is drawn (eg. with dashed, thick lines). This means that you are able to easily change all elements associated with a certain layer at a later date. 

        2. Ways of COMBINING information:

        Families, blocks, and components are all different names for the CAD clusters which combine multiple types of information together into one ‘jigsaw piece’ which you can then re-use and manipulate in multiple ways while retaining the base information.

        These are critical for providing efficiency if you need to make changes further down the line - you can change one element and all the other similar elements will take on the same changed attributes. They can also be ways of easily accessing and maintaining the accuracy of complex information between projects.

        3. Ways of filtering information:

        Filters allow you to strip a project back, to find a way through the complexity and to only see a certain relationship of parts at one time. Filters work like a special pair of glasses allowing you to have x-ray vision, and so are particularly useful for simplifying specific information sets which might be relevant to one consultant, or to remove all the behind the scenes details to present a simple, easily understood drawing to a client. 

        Once you have done a few projects, you will see the value of setting up particular filters ahead of time, so you can easily access certain information as you draw - and not get lost in the strange depths of many, many lines.


        Finally, there is a large amount of architectural information which cannot be captured or accurately communicated with lines alone. To produce great architectural information using CAD software, you will also need to understand the value and methods of describing the information you draw. 

        Methods of description act as annotations, traditionally added as a final layer once the base 2D drawing is nearing completion. But in CAD programmes, information such as dimensions, scale, and specifications can be added while you draw, and in some cases even automated. 

        Additionally, in some cases, the roles of description and drawing can almost be reversed. Inputting descriptive information (such as dimensions, materials, and attachments) at the outset can allow you to move towards computer programming or scripting a building. This reversal requires a complete rethinking of how a drawing is produced, the role of drawing, and the desired outputs, but can add incredible efficiencies and levels of accuracy, particularly to large projects. 

        For me, focusing on understanding of these four areas

        - organising, combining, filtering and describing -

        and understanding how each task I perform relates to these areas, enabled me to get beyond to confusing interfaces, or face-value difference between programmes. Instead, I found that thinking in this way enables you to get to the core of what CAD is, why we use it, and how it can be helpful.

        Doing so makes it much easier to shift between CAD programmes, to work with entirely new interfaces, and to have belief in your ability to keep learning - because no matter how good you are at Revit or Autocad or Microstation today, things will change, and you will need to keep learning.