CASE inc. on putting computation to work

Daniel Davis – 9 April 2012


n a surprisingly tranquil street for the middle of Manhattan, inside an unassuming brick townhouse, gathered around a ping-pong table, sit the members of CASE inc. Or at least the members who do not telecommute from other parts of the Americas. William Mitchell tops the pile of books on the table, although the whole scenario would fit inside one of Mitchell’s books. The only signage is a business card taped to the door, which announces you have entered a place more like a start-up than an architectural office. And it is. CASE aren’t just another consultancy rationalizing Maya models, CASE are a new generation of designers, unusual not just for their working arrangements, but because they seek to change how architects practice. They do all the rationalisation stuff, but they also guide firms through technological changes and openly share what they do on a suite of websites (Design Reform, Design by Many, CASE inc, on Twitter, and even a spot on Arch Daily). I visited David and Federico when I was in New York and asked them a few questions. To me the salient part of their answers is how little they talk of technology and how little they fetishise complex geometry, to them the real challenge of computational design is an organisational one – a challenge few people (especially academics) are in a position to observe.


DWhat was your main motivation for leaving SHoP and starting CASE?


We all bought into a lot of things that SHoP was talking about, bought in is not necessarily the right word, but we really believed in it. They were out there using the technology to push design and as a small firm they were able to do some really amazing things. A lot of that wasn’t really making its way out into the broader industry. In their case I think it worked because they had great buy-in from the partners, they believed in it, and they gave us the flexibility, but that doesn’t scale. So we saw an opportunity as a consultancy to go out and help the industry to implement a lot of these things.

DWhat are the main challenges your clients are facing when trying to implement these digital tools?


A lot of it is people problems. Or people challenges – problems is not the right word. I am sympathetic to it. Often we get hired and the decision has been made, ‘we want to implement Revit’ – lets say – so we are the guys that come in and teach you Revit and help you setup your standards. Some people just don’t want any part of that. They just don’t see the value in it. This is also one of the biggest challenges for clients – conveying why they are doing it. Often times it is a reason like ‘a client said so’, which is not very easy to get buy-in from everyone doing the production on a daily basis. If it was more along the lines of ‘we think this is how we can change the industry, this is how we think we can do twice as much design and get better fees because we are leveraging technology’ then I think people could get onboard with that, but just ‘the client said so’ is kind of meh.

So a lot of it is around people and communication. You can ultimately make technology work, there is always other software. I don’t think cost is a big deal either since the software is switching to these yearly subscriptions, so it doesn’t matter whether they are buying software X or software Y.

DHow do you think practice will change in the next 10 or 20 years?


I think there is two routes. Either fragmentation, where firms get smaller [and hire consultants]. Or vertical integration where a large firm has centres of excellence – a geometry group that services the rest of the firm. I think [vertical integration] is hard to manage because ultimately that group has to answer to somebody and needs some level of accountability. Whereas us as an independent business, our accountability is that if we don’t do it right we are going to go out of business.

Those are the two ways I see it going. And that is not to say they are mutually exclusive but that is what I could see happening.

DWho are your favorite clients?


I like all our clients, I like all their work, I like all of them, I think they are all equally good. [ Laughs and says not to publish any firm names, ‘that will be the first email to come back to me’]. But they are all different. Some firms have a CIO, some don’t, some have a CTO, some don’t, some have a CKO (Chief Knowledge Officer), some don’t, some are partnerships, some are corporations, some have independent profit centres per office, some don’t. It really is so different per office. And that does translate into how I feel about them as a firm, not in a bad way, but it just gives me sympathy to say ‘I understand they have 10,000 plus people and they just can’t do what a 60 person firm does.’ It is just not apples and oranges. So one thing over time is my appreciation for the complexity being far beyond the geometry. In academic persuits it’s like ‘oh yea that is really cool geometrically’ but that is such a small part of everything that goes into a building. Complex systems, complex contracts, liability structures, delivery structures, schedules, all of that stuff is complex and can benefit from technology. So different firms tackle that stuff in different ways, which are not trivial by any means.