Sam Diephuis

Cory Brugger, Assoc. AIA, is the chief technology officer at worldwide firm HKS. Such a widespanning role can lead to incredibly unique opportunities, including working with NASA as a juror for a 3D printing competition to design habitats on Mars. But most of the time it requires Brugger to ask big questions, such as: “How can technology best support design?” and “How can designers learn to embrace tech?”

NASA’s Centennial Challenge competitions are amazing. They’ve been set up to support and instigate new thinking about a particular area of practice, and they’re always centered around a very pragmatic use case. There are four competitions running right now; beyond 3D printing, the most interesting one involves creating vascular human tissue for space missions and for use on Earth. NASA plans all these competitions to explore options for changing technology while also pondering how it might benefit them—or us—five, 10, or 20 years down the line.

And if you think about the structure of any organization, we should all be looking at moon shots. We should be wondering what we can benefit from now, with the intent of also helping our company or practice evolve. What are our short-, mid-, or long-term innovations? Some of them will be incremental, but others can be truly transformative. How do you build the foundation of culture? That’s something the industry has lacked for a long time.

When technology comes up in conversation, I try to instead talk about innovation. Many in the industry are derogatory towards technology or see it as subservient, and that’s one of the things I’ve been working hard to change. We need to develop a different understanding of how technology applies to what we do. We all send emails because they became more efficient than phone calls, letters, and faxes. But fundamentally they are the same thing.

If we look at that as the foundation, then the value we provide to clients is ultimately just a set of drawings. And when you break down the profession, what we’re selling is our hours and our expertise to produce those well-coordinated drawings. We take away the ability to position ourselves as a true professional service.

That’s really the question I’ve been asking: How do we shift from producing a set of drawings—or the vision of what a building is—to focus on addressing the fundamental needs of the stakeholders we design for? How do we reposition the value of an architect as something more than just the idea for a building? And how can technology help? —As told to Steve Cimino