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The Value Of A CAD Free First Year
Now deep into second year, a lot of my and my colleagues’ work is produced digitally. Whether it’s technical drawings, diagrams or portfolio layouts, it can’t be denied that architecture is becoming a digital profession. What is odd then, perhaps, is that my first year at university was largely spent away from a computer screen. When starting university, I was puzzled and daunted to discover that we were not allowed to use CAD (computer aided design) for any of our work during first year, and any other digitally created work was not advisable. However, in hindsight I have realised how important a hand made first year was, and the many benefits it has and will continue to bring in the future.
My first project at university was a huge personal challenge. Each student was tasked with drawing 20 sketches of a nearby street in a week to be presented to our tutor and colleagues. Having studied three A-levels which required little or no hand drawing, I wasn’t sure if I had even produced 20 sketches in my teenage years. Despite this, students without an art background were encouraged to go for it, with the tutors understanding how daunting the task could appear. Of course, the sketches were far from fantastic, however brilliant drawings were not the desired output. Tutors wanted to see sketches that portrayed a message or feeling, since that’s what matters when an architect sketches their ideas. Ever since being thrown in at the artistic deep end, many students haven’t looked back; we all have sketchbooks that contain ideas, buildings we like and memorable scenes etc. By forcing students to draw in first year I’d argue my university has improved the sketching confidence of every student, a confidence which will be necessary in practice.

Of course, a year of drawing also improved the skill and sensitivity of my year group as artists. Architects must utilise a diverse range of drawing types as tools for demonstrating ideas, such as diagrams, perspectives, technical drawings and sketches to name a few. Since drawing throughout first year, I can draw a lot more naturally and am competent using a range of media. Without being forced to explore hand made art in first year I would probably still not know how to use charcoal, paints or pastels, decreasing my skill set and making me a less effective and versatile architect.
Moving onto technical drawings, hand drawing them seemed a slow and laborious process at the time. However, since I now draw digitally I can understand that hand drafting taught me and my year group some fundamental and vital techniques. Firstly, drawing by hand forces you to consider scale from the offset. Technical drawings must fit to one of a set of conventional scales (1:1, 1:5, 1:20, 1:100 etc.). On computers, there is no scale, which can cause a lot of problems. For example, at larger scales such as 1:200 a lot of detail should be lost on a drawing as it will be illegibly small and appear messy. When drafting digitally students often zoom in very far and draw tiny details, only to find that when they export the image the details appear as a messy blob on the paper. By hand producing our technical drawings, my colleagues and I learnt how much detail we should incorporate into each scale. Now that we all draft digitally, we know how far we should push the detail at each scale intuitively. Secondly, line thicknesses are a lot easier to gauge when hand drawing. Some CAD programs use colours to denote different thicknesses or change the thickness depending on the zoom level. These aspects, coupled with the work appearing on a screen and not the paper on which it will be printed, make line weights hard to judge when drafting digitally. Memorably in my first semester of second year I spent weeks with my tutor trying to nail digital line weights, with him remarking “I’ve never had such a detailed conversation about line weights with a student”. When drafting by hand, what you draw on the page is what you pin up on the wall, and this directness combined with the tactility of using a mechanical pencil makes line weights a lot easier to grasp as a novice student.
Digital work can be bland, especially in university projects. Making competent technical drawings on most CAD programs is simple once you know how to use them. This results in a lot of work looking the same, and whilst it is accurate and competent it lacks an emotion to make it engaging. A wonder of hand drawn art is that everybody’s is different. Whether someone thinks they are amazing or terrible at drawing, whatever they produce will be unique which makes each piece of work special. Hand drawing in first year allowed my year group to develop our own personal style, which we now continue to use in second year, with most memorable and impressive work often coming from those who have a distinct aesthetic.

Another positive of a hand made first year is the ease at which it introduced my year group to space planning. Space planning is the most important part of architecture in my view; it encompasses the designing of spaces that comprise a building, their size, height, position and relationship to other spaces etc. By hand, space planning is like a brainstorm. You try tens or hundreds of configurations of spaces to see if they work, aiming to find the most effective plan. When done on a piece of paper, the process is immediate and messy at first, however as your thoughts clarify the ideas and plans are refined. The immediacy of drawing by hand allows the architect to get all their ideas down quickly, acting on spacial disputes and pitfalls on the fly. The process is fluid which allows the most successful layout to be reached a lot faster than if the task was attempted on a computer. I carry out most of my work digitally as it is generally faster than working by hand, although I’m fairly sure I will never space plan on a computer.

During first year I often loathed having to work by hand. It seemed slow, frustrating and pointless. Whereas now I can completely see where the university staff were coming from when they told us it was absolutely necessary that we learn the manual tools to be an architect before working digitally. I take comfort in the fact that I have had a whole year to learn the fundamental skills of being an architect and develop them as I move through second year and beyond. For a lot of tasks, computers are revolutionising the architecture industry, however I think there will always be a place for hand drawing. The immediacy of sketching and space planning by hand, personality of hand made work and ease with which conventions can be learnt when hand drafting all reinforce the importance of the simple pencil.