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The Tools You Use // Tanner Lopez


Digging under the sub floor of house 1.

AbstractThe various tools we use as designers affects our designs and environments. The importance of tehse tools has a profound impact of the construction and result of a design.

Audience: Educators, architects, and fellow student peers

"The Tools You Use"


Nearing the end of my Masters in Architecture study tenure, I have become most interested and aware of how the tools I used to complete it have shaped me as a designer. I wasn’t aware that the importance of tool choice to complete my assignments would have a profound way on how I think about architecture and the physical object that is to be produced in the end.


“We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.”. - John Culkin Professor of Communication at Fordham University “The Saturday Review” March 1987


What John Culkin is saying is that humans design the tools we use and in turn the tools have an effect on our physical body and mental thought processes we use when problem solving. Swinging a hammer gives one strength and specific muscle memory to become more efficient at the job. So too does learning the ins and outs of a 3d modeling software. It helps one become more efficient at producing work quickly but it also can focus the way one might think about design, limiting them to ideas that they know they can produce quickly on the computer.


The dilemma of choosing one’s tools to use in design, either hand sketching and physically fabricating to generate design versus losing one’s self in the computer to make every detail exact (try rewording this sentence - seems important but it’s tough to follow.). This dilemma of tool choice has been growing along with the growth of technology and its impact on the architectural education process as well as the profession itself. I believe that it arose as technological  capabilities expanded but it has pushed forward with profits in mind, and to make a profit larger firms need a streamlined process of design to be completed quickly.


This inevitably pushes architectural design firms to use the wonderful paperless computer that seems to have no boundaries on the ways we can quickly communicate making the design process much more economical. Which in turn forces aspiring designers to spend large portions of their time on the computer to become a more qualified candidate for useful employment, instead of working their manual skills to better understand their design and how it could be fabricated, either through iterative sketches or building physical prototypes and solving problems as they arise.

“We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.”. (JC)

Early on in my architectural education I was told that the most valuable experience a designer could have is on a construction site. Using your hands, muscles, and brain to put layers of a building together gives one a more intuitive thought process when they are designing the layers of building. So, after my first year I worked on a ground up construction crew for the summer.


It was an eye-opening experience that put me in the shoes of the builder attempting to construct an architect’s drawings. It also became abundantly clear how much time and effort goes into the construction of a design, which established an even greater respect for quality contractors who strive to complete the best work no matter the implications.


After this summer I continued working in design studios at school with the experience I had learned but I did not continue the manual skills that I had developed that inspired all that I had learned that summer. Instead I jumped back into the computer to solve my problems as I so quickly had forgotten that problems are solved in reality.


Being an active member of the 2017-2018 Design + Make Studio at Kansas State University has reopened the practice of using more manual tools for creation. It began with quick iterative hand sketches to keep a design moving forward quickly and in a more tangible and humane way than the computer offers. The sense of holding a tool and creating right before your eyes (establishing a mind-body connection?) is how humanistic qualities translate into the built environment. This translation is hard to prove but I do believe it to be true through my own experiences along with many of my colleagues and other designers in the profession.


After working tirelessly to define the nature and rough parameters of our project, we then began selective demolition of House 1 in Volland to learn how it was constructed so that we could manipulate it into its new purpose. This continued hands on investigation allows us to become much more familiar with the house, how it was built, where it needs to be repaired, and how we can transform it within the schedule and budget.

Learning the craft of welding to become familiar with materials.

Before John Culkin said “We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.”. Winston Churchhill said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” We create our tools that then impact us and our thought processes, in turn those tools are used to design and create the space that we inhabit every day. It is in the tools a designer uses that inevitably have an effect on the spaces they create.


The unstoppable force of technology ensuring profit and efficiency has affected the way designers are educated and the tools that they choose to use. I understand the importance of these two factors but what costs do they come at? If in the end the creation is anything less than a space that people desire to be in, I would say that greed has gotten the better half of those responsible for creating positive environments that improve everyone’s quality of life.


I now turn to all educators whether they be professors or peers in the like. It is our job to teach the next generation how to be greater than we have been. The focus of teaching and learning should be largely on the tools being used throughout the process. It is through the use these tools that young designers are molded into professionals.


The tools we use not only shape us, they shape the space that we create, which in turn has an effect on everyone who uses them. This is why the tools one uses are so important. They have a way of not only shaping the future built environment but the future of the human race. Focus on using tools that enhance the humanistic qualities in each of us, and in turn the space created them will evoke those qualities.

Written by Tanner Lopez

Photo By: Karl Ndieli

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