People Profile: Paul Seletsky AECbytes Profile (May 2, 2019)
Paul Seletsky, AIA, an independent Digital Design consultant who was one of the pioneers in the application of AEC technology in architectural practice, shares his experiences and insights in this Profile.
"...it's human nature to want to choose the winning horse when selecting tools as critical as BIM, but without competition, new software that could truly impact our practice simply won't see the light of day."
What is your educational and professional background?
I graduated with a B.Arch. from Cooper Union in 1982 and then went to Italy, working for two years as a designer for Vittorio Gregotti Associati in Milan. Our documentation back then was done in pencil and ink.
Returning to New York in 1984, I joined Emery Roth & Sons to learn construction drawings. Documentation was produced in ink on mylar, with notational errors corrected using a chemical eradicator. Roth had one of the first CAD systems, McDonnell Douglas GDS, the precursor to Revit. In my role there, however, I did not get to work with it.
In 1987, I joined the Port Authority of NY/NJ, spending ten years in the public sector. In 1990, I did receive the opportunity to work in CAD and learned Architrion, MicroStation and AutoCAD; eventually being named their first CAD Manager. I also began setting up PCs, Mac, Windows and CAD, a small network and a pen plotter—learning "in the trenches." After seven years there, I returned to the private sector.
HLW Architects hired me in 1997 as their IT director. I built a staff of eight people and installed a network of servers and routers across four offices globally. I gradually came to regard this work as too laborious and costly, and falling outside the core competency of an architecture firm. In 1998, Revit came out and they demonstrated their software to us. BIM had arrived and I immediately saw it as a game-changer.
In early 2001, I joined my cousin's startup company to develop an early iteration of the smartphone. Nine months later, I was hired as Director of Technology by Davis Brody Bond Architects. There, I decided to outsource IT, leasing a new phone system, all printers and plotters, and eventually MS Office (but not AutoCAD). My colleagues gently teased me as "Mr. Outsource." In 2003, we began using BIM, trying ArchiCAD on one project, followed by another in what was now Autodesk Revit.
I began to write and lecture about BIM, describing what I foresaw as its impact on architecture and construction. In late 2001, I became chair of the AIANY Technology Committee, and for the next 14 years curated a monthly lecture series about AEC Technology's impact on practice, culminating in a symposium held in October 2012 called Bits+Mortar. The event featured a two hour conversation between Frank Gehry and Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab.
In 2005, SOM New York sought to fill a new position, Digital Design Director, and hired me. A senior partner and I created a new department called the Digital Design Group, recruiting 25 architects as AEC technology gurus and BIM mentors. Over the next five years, we created two student research programs, tested environmental analysis software, created our own massing study tool, and held in-house lectures with AEC Tech luminaries. It was an exciting time.
In late 2010, I journeyed outside New York to work for KieranTimberlake in Philadelphia, then spent a few years selling online AEC software and BIM training. In 2017, I happily moved back to New York. I spent 2018 focused inward, exploring what I wanted the last thirty years of my career to look like, since I don't intend to ever retire.
What is your current role? What are the main projects you are involved with?
I'm currently an independent Digital Design consultant in New York, seeking new clients. I greatly enjoy the environment and interaction of working in an architecture office, so if anyone out there is interested, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When and how did you get interested in AEC technology?
In 1983, I was sitting at my desk in Milan, drawing the seating floor plan for a redesign of Barcelona's Olympic Stadium. I was using a beam compass that must have been at least 3 feet long. It was at that moment that I said to myself, "Someday I'm going to be doing this on a computer so I can focus more of my time on design versus the mechanics."
How much of what you do today is related to AEC technology in some form?
Ninety-five percent analyzing client needs and deploying solutions, and five percent lamenting BIM software churning out mundane, BIM looking buildings. Spirituality distinguishes Architecture from mere existence, so let's not be deceived that technology—AEC or otherwise—is a panacea for all ills.
From your vantage point, what do you see as some of the main technological challenges facing the AEC industry today?
I'd say the challenges really emanate from human nature, specifically fear of change: Understanding what's at stake converting one's practice from CAD to BIM and then, only doing so to produce conventional drawing sets faster.
There's also a pervasive lack of competition in our software sector. Again, it's human nature to want to choose the winning horse when selecting tools as critical as BIM, but without competition, new software that could truly impact our practice simply won't see the light of day.
How do you see AEC technology evolving in the future?
It's evolving right now and it's called the Digital Twin—the virtual (BIM) building bi-directionally communicating with the (completed) physical building, leveraged throughout every phase, from optimizing the design concept to overseeing operations and maintenance, to monitoring energy performance.
I'm confident the Digital Twin will eventually enable direct model-to-fabrication, as is the norm in industrial design, bringing the topics of Risk and Means and Methods back front-and-center into a new debate about the limits of practice. Full-scale building components will be 3D printed and installed. Materials will be printed from powdered glass, steel, polymers and new composite materials we haven't even discovered yet. Sensors will be embedded into the materials to monitor the building. Drawings and specifications will become resultant documentation for legal purposes only.
IBM and Siemens are already promoting this space, as is a small Australian company named Willow, using the Digital Twin to monitor building operations and maintenance. Stay tuned. The fun is just beginning.
If you had a wish list for AEC technology, what would it be?
That it becomes ubiquitous, like a crosswalk light or a traffic signal; that we don't have to think about it and can focus on cultivating our talents and new ideas. In that vein, the general public might then come to understand that architects use computers to do more than just design gift-wrapped curtain walls and gravity-defying geometry; that we utilize AEC technology to augment our knowledge and experience.
Any additional information/observations/insights on AEC technology that you would like to share?
Yes. It wouldn't hurt us to establish a cooperative financial investment fund to develop significantly more advanced AEC technology than we have coming from one or two commercial software developers today; one enabling analysis, simulation and performance monitoring with pinpoint speed and accuracy. I haven't yet mentioned AI (or LED smart windows or robotics) but it'll all be there, and with it the possibility of new services and avenues of revenue. Risk brings reward and, in turn, relevance. The equation is simple and the opportunity lies ready for the taking.
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