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Industry Voices: ‘Attacking Technology as a Design Problem,’ with Evan Troxel, AIA

Architects take the friction out of the way their clients live and work, yet they still need to remove industry-specific friction from their own practices. The TRXL Podcast is aiming to help fix that.

ARCHITOSH IS INTRODUCING A NEW SERIES of articles devoted to discovering and hearing the voices in the industry that want to help and address the many problems confronting architectural practice so that the field of architecture can do better for itself and society.

We begin this series by talking to well-known and highly-regarded Evan Troxel, AIA, creator of the TRXL Podcast, a show solely focused on technology discussion in the architecture industry.

TRXL - the podcast focused on AEC industry digital technologies.

The TRXL Podcast logo. (Image: Evan Troxel)

We will jump into some hot themes currently confounding the practice of architecture, what his TRXL conversations are really for and about, and lightly touch on the unionization movement, what Tect is doing (where he has a new role), and how architects need to do what they do for others (remove friction from their work and living spaces) for themselves.

About Evan Troxel

Evan is a licensed architect, a tech enthusiast, a former digital design director of a midsized California firm, a noted industry podcaster, and now with Tect, a technology company addressing the architecture industry’s relationship to product manufacturing. His TRXL Podcast was established in 2020, now has over 100 episodes, and is a constant fixture on my radar for important new ideas about how technology can tackle some of the biggest challenges the AEC industry faces.

The Interview

(AFR) Did you always know you wanted to be an architect? 

(Evan Troxel) My grandfather was a geologist, and when I was very young, I was fascinated with rocks. Rather than legos, I built my first architecture with rocks. As I got older, I would devour house plan magazines while my mother looked at books in the bookstore. I loved to draw, and I loved the technicality of these floor plan magazines. When I was a ten-year-old, I found a book on Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Robie House. It blew my mind…the proportions, the rigor.

How did your conception of architecture change when you went to architecture school? 

I took mechanical drafting in middle school and four years of architectural drafting in high school. But architecture school ripped apart my conception of what architecture was. I thought it was drafting, making plans, and writing notes. I had a professor who, early on, told me my early school years did me a disservice by teaching me to color inside the lines. Suddenly, architecture was this vastly larger thing.



On the other hand, the [TRXL] podcast also shows how screwed we are. Even with all the tech around, architects will not help themselves. It is so difficult to get them to help themselves out of the hole that they are in because I don’t think they necessarily see it as a hole.  



Why were you one of just three people in architecture school using a computer? And how did that gap between what you thought architects did and what you learned they did in architecture school play a role in your thinking about the digital?

I am insatiably curious. And I have always been interested in technology, tools, and making things—just some of many things that fascinate me. If you look at my bio, you see that I’m an architect, podcaster, musician, and author—it’s all these things, and how do you fit that into your day?

TRXL - the podcast focused on AEC industry digital technologies.

Evan Troxel, the man behind the mic at the very popular TRXL Podcast. Evan is also a former Digital Design Director in a major California architecture firm. (Image: Evan Troxel)

My curiosity led me to the podcast. And TRXL was not the first, as you know. Archispeak was established a decade ago.

But TRXL has a serious concentrated focus. What are its goals?

TRXL is about trying to figure out this puzzle about practice and technology. I mean, there is no playbook for any of this. Most people are just fumbling along.

In terms of making the best utility of our digital technologies when you and I both know the field is far from excelling…

Yes. Some people are talking about it. For the most part, people are not. And that, to me, is an incredible disservice to the profession.

So that’s the basis of the [TRXL] podcast. Let’s create the playbook—at least examples that have worked for some people and make that knowledge available to everybody.

You have been a digital technologies educator and influencer for some time now. I remember your excellent FormZ training materials. But you were also a digital design director at a mid-size architecture firm out west.

It was so difficult in practice to transform an 80-year-old firm into a digital-first firm—when there is no playbook for that. The industry needs a recipe for that; everybody is trying to figure it out independently.

It’s interesting because that’s what architects do; we combine all these disparate parts into this integrated whole, this gestalt. 

My wife has a master’s in architecture from the same school I graduated from and came in as a post-graduate. But our experiences are vastly different. She described it as the most disorganized experience of her life. That’s how she cast it. And what’s funny is that is our profession.



Think of what we do as architects. Our work is inspirational; it takes the friction out of how our clients live and work. It fits them like a glove. We need to turn that back on ourselves.



There is no over-arching organizational body that cares about operations, organization, standards, none of that! Just like in architecture school—you are on your own.

I often wonder if the minds of those who are attracted to the profession are not well-suited to solving that problem. 

That’s an excellent point because we do thrive in the moment of that chaos. That was Studio. Look at the desk behind you. We are totally comfortable with the mess that is created throughout the process.

When I was at HMC, they would say, “a client is coming in—clean up!”

But why? Why would we clean up for a client? Well, because the client thinks architecture is one thing, but we know it is something else.

Do you see some lesson lost in that irony? 

I always thought this was an opportunity to show them how we can thrive in chaos. Because that’s also the construction process; it is entirely chaotic until it is not.

So I think it is a really interesting question you pose. Is it even possible to organize and structure this profession when the mind of an architect is not made that way?

Yet, the TRXL Podcast is filled with folks who don’t have that mind.

There are people in architecture that do think like that—and they’re the ones the industry is battling with. They are business-oriented, project management checklist-oriented, budget-oriented, and all that, and then they look at the designer’s desk and think they are crazy.

When I look at the TRXL Podcast, I see a cadre of folks you are talking to trying to untangle messes in the profession by leveraging technologies not yet used or used differently. 

Did you see that documentary film The Beatles: Get Back?

Yes! It was fascinating because the process was messy, frustrating, and completely time-consuming. 

I think there is this big parallel with architecture. The public never sees that stuff. They only hear the final song, and they have no idea how the real life of a song or album takes shape.

TRXL shines a light on the real life of architecture practices and the connections to all these technologies. It is about plotting the way forward with technology. And to gain some sense of control over the process. 

Totally. I’ve never been so satisfied when I create a tool to accomplish an idea. And that could be a physical tool, or it could be a digital tool. I’ve built jigs in my workshop to build a thing. And just making the jig can be a big challenge—just think about what is required to build the iPhone.



Stop going it alone. Architecture schools are actually doing the profession a disservice by fostering this rugged individualism.



I think of all the machines they had to design just to create the iPhone. That is a design process that we don’t see, but it is probably bigger than the iPhone itself.

So the discussions on TRXL are about talking about digital jigs?

That’s what these digital things are—they are the tooling for the delivery part of our process. And the common aspect I see is that some of us want to create tools to automate the stuff that we don’t think we should have to do on a day-to-day basis. Not enough people think about it like that.

I agree. It’s super unfortunate. But why?

They fall into the background; they don’t want to stand out; they just want to do their job. And what does that mean? It means drawing parking lots; it means drawing bathrooms.

They don’t think about it as a trade-off, “you mean I could spend my time doing more of the thing I love to do every day?” They don’t think about it like that. And I wish they would because that is the freedom creating tools allows us to have.

How has the TRXL podcast shaped your thinking about your profession? Differently than your very successful Archispeak series?

The two are very different. The TRXL podcast is much more niche than Archispeak.

There is this group within the profession of architecture that understands why this is important. It is a small number of overall practitioners. It’s cathartic for the listeners to know others think as they do. And it was for me, for sure, that there is a mass of people who get it, and why it’s important for the profession’s future. So we can take care of this stuff and do the meaningful work of architects.

It’s also about getting the message to firm leadership. The readers become the messengers of these giants in the industry, like Phil Bernstein and Randy Deutsch, and all the others on the show.

On the other hand, the [TRXL] podcast also shows how screwed we are. Even with all the tech around, architects will not help themselves. It is so difficult to get them to help themselves out of the hole that they are in because I don’t think they necessarily see it as a hole.

The podcast illuminates that for me. I try to stay positive about it, but at the same time, I’m very worried.

You see it in the stories. You can read about the firm [unionization] stories, how they pay their people so badly, and how unprofitable they are. 

These firms are ill. Young people pay attention to this stuff. And they ask, “why would I ever want to do that?”

It does seem quite bleak at times. 

So the future of our profession is alarmingly just barely hanging on. Because what is the current state of the industry actually doing to attract those young people in meaningful ways? It takes more than a firm having a ping pong table and seemingly being cool. And the attraction of high design and sacrificing yourself?

Those days are numbered. Young people today are saying no. They are saying, “I’m not going to sacrifice like that.”

I find that uprising in attitude is a critical part of the necessary change. What else is needed, though?

It’s going to take a pedagogy change. It’s going to take licensure change. It’s going to take an organizational change at the national AIA level.

AIA puts out a tweet that says something about how expensive it is to attend architecture school—that debt is killing people. All they do is put out these facts.

So what will an emerging professional think about their professional organization that only points out problems and doesn’t have solutions?

So there is a darker side to the podcast.

Absolutely. How many times do we have to say the same thing over and over again? We have to fix this mess.

And here are people [on TRXL] passionate about fixing this mess—untangling the string—and they are not in leadership in their firms, so they can’t do much about it.

Your segment with Paul Wintour highlighted that folks who want to untangle the mess and are in positions like digital design director or BIM manager lack the power and influence in their firms to manifest change to improve things. 

These folks are running up against that pervasive culture of rugged individualism in the profession. 

We spoke about that at Tect about stopping trying to go it alone. And students are taught to do everything by themselves. Everything!

And man, there is so much expertise out there who are willing to help you for free, from a product manufacturing standpoint, who know their shit so well, that you will never know it like they do. So why try? You have way better things to do [as an architect.]. Just accept their help.



And there is absolutely nobody on my podcast that is fooled into thinking that technology is the reason why we are doing this architecture thing.



Stop going it alone. Architecture schools are actually doing the profession a disservice by fostering this rugged individualism.

It is the whole Howard Roark thing and these romantic stories about architecture as a profession. The Renaissance Man concept doesn’t recognize its wastefulness. Tect is living the proof right now that this history of rugged individualism in the field is actually self-inflicting to the individual practitioner.

I don’t recall who to attribute it to, but I read a quote that said, “we program computers just as media programs us.” Right. And that is so interesting from an educational standpoint. It is a way of thinking—you will give all of yourself—to no end—to accomplish high design or whatever it is.

So what is the high-level philosophy coming through on TRXL? What will architects learn by listening to your podcast? 

The technology is a means to an end. And there is absolutely nobody on my podcast that is fooled into thinking that technology is the reason why we are doing this architecture thing. We are doing this technology thing so we can be great architects.

So are non-techs going to get it, going to understand the point of the conversations? Can the designer type get inspired or at least curious? 

Absolutely. People from the outside looking in think, “oh, you guys are nerds, you are computer nerds, and you are doing that because that is what you love.” But that is wrong. I came at this as a designer and digital design director, and I attacked it as a design problem.

And to me, we need a lot more of that. We need to look at our own practices as a design problem. We must look at our operations as a design problem and make it fit us like a glove.

Think of what we do as architects. Our work is inspirational; it takes the friction out of how our clients live and work. It fits them like a glove. We need to turn that back on ourselves.

Evan, thanks for talking about the TRXL Podcast and sharing your industry observations. I highly recommend Architosh’s readers to take a listen if they have not done so already. 

Thanks for having me.

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Each issue arrives in your inbox on the first Sunday of the month. Issue #1 arrived on March 3, 2019. Full archives and easy navigation for your pleasure. Enjoy! 

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