Provocateurs of Design Technology for Interiors

Profiled Firm: Eastlake Studio |  Location: Chicago, Illinois

In the last couple of decades, architecture and interior design have experienced a dramatic shift in the workflows that professionals consider standard. Hand-drafting is long gone; for many it’s nostalgic, and many more embrace the power incumbent to digital drafting tools. Some take it even further with BIM, embracing the process to lead their businesses into lasting success.

Eastlake Studio is a Chicago-based interior design and architecture firm that has been operational for 33 years. They specialize in corporate office design, producing state-of-the-art workspaces for their clients.

We really were one of the first architecture firms to be using computers.

Principal Christina Brown, Eastlake

Principal Christina Brown says Eastlake has always been driven by the advent of technology — “We really were one of the first architecture firms to be using computers,” she said, offering proof: one can see two Eastlake founders on a 1991 cover of Mac Chicago, a well-respected publication for Mac users.

The cover of the magazine was the very beginning of their journey with design technology, but the appearance goes to show that Eastlake is always looking forward — for ways to better themselves, the spaces they produce, and, most importantly, the clients they serve.

Great Design Means Clients First

Eastlake Studio proudly pronounces their guiding philosophy on their website: “creating great places to work, play, and live.”

But designing these great places involves understanding what “great” actually means to the client, because “everyone is so different,” Brown says; and to her point, it’s easy to see how a design that impresses one client might totally miss the mark for another. “There’s never a one-size-fits-all solution. We want to embody this model for our clients, and I think that those who have worked with us see that and deeply appreciate it.”

How does one embrace this clients-first mantra? “By asking as many questions as possible,” Brown says. “As weird or as simple as they may be, lots of interesting things can come out of it. We try to do that as opposed to pushing our own agenda, our own thoughts, our own ideas. All we can do is advise our clients on what we think and what we know.”

Many of Eastlake’s projects have a turnaround time of about six months, an incredibly small window when you factor in everything it takes to realize a project. It places a particular importance on the conversations Eastlake has with the client — they need to fully understand the client’s desires, as there isn’t much time for revisions.

“We first like to look to ourselves and what we’d want in that space,” Brown explains. “What would our employees want and what would make us function better in our environment. “We want outdoor space, we want as much light as possible, and we want people to feel like they have different choices of where they can work, whether it’s a café, a heads-down space, a conference room, high-tech spaces, low-tech spaces, all of it.”

With a baseline in place, Eastlake is ready to do what they do best — design.

Mastering New Software

Brown says Eastlake started with a very early CAD program which she describes as driven “by a couple guys in a garage.” It didn’t offer them the kind of capabilities they needed to grow their business.

“The bigger we've grown, we’ve come to realize that it wasn't a robust enough tool for what we needed,” Brown says. They eventually picked up Vectorworks Architect, a robust design solution that brings effective building information modeling (BIM) capabilities to interior workflows.

The main driver behind choosing Vectorworks for our interior design work was trying to consolidate the technology in our process.

Principal Christina Brown, Eastlake

“The main driver behind choosing Vectorworks for our interior design work was trying to consolidate the technology in our process,” explains Gabriel Blackburn, a lead technical designer at Eastlake. “With Vectorworks, we have more control over seamlessly going from 2D to 3D without workarounds or pauses in the process. Having a sophisticated program that we can grow into, rather than grow out of, is critical as we take the next steps in our firm’s evolution.”

They’re currently in the process of pushing to maximize what the software can do — and Blackburn says they’re only just scratching the surface of what’s possible with BIM in Vectorworks.

“It’s just a much cleaner way of being able to go through entire projects,” he says. “Having those smart objects linked from one place to another leads to a lot less errors. Because if we change the size of the door here then it changes everywhere in the file; before Vectorworks, we just didn’t have that. We’d have to remember — okay, if I change this aspect, I have to manually change it everywhere else, too.”

As part of their journey learning the software, Eastlake Studio participates in bi-weekly meetings to go over what everyone has learned about Vectorworks. Blackburn says he’s found this helpful, because “everyone is very good at sharing their information.” It shows that everyone at Eastlake is on the same journey, one of mastery.

Growth Guided by BIM

Interior designers don’t typically embrace BIM, but Eastlake’s work stands to solidify the ever-present benefits —their story invites you to consider the areas where a BIM process, despite its unfamiliarity, brings more streamlined analysis and coordination to interiors workflows.

“Our BIM manager has set up some pretty incredible templates that have all of our layers and classes predetermined,” Brown said. “All of the settings for each is ready to go, so when we get files from other consultants, part of the challenge is just making sure that it all fits into what our standards are.

“So, there’s a little bit of time and effort to get things set up right, but it ensures that each project is a clean slate, not just a mess of different things bogging down our files. Ultimately it’s worth it, because then, internally, we can all be speaking the same language and if one person isn’t in the file or is on vacation, then everyone else kind of knows how the files works and how it needs to be worked within. It really helps keep us all on track.”

 Beyond improving their workflows internally, Brown has high hopes regarding what BIM means for the future of Eastlake.

I think you get to a certain point where anything other than BIM is going to limit you in the types of projects and clients you work with.

Principal Christina Brown, Eastlake

“I think you get to a certain point where anything other than BIM is going to limit you in the types of projects and clients you work with,” Brown says. She’s talking about the growth of Eastlake over the last five years, a growth not only in firm size, but in the magnitude of projects they tackle, too. She says people had grown used to Eastlake doing small projects, push-pinning them into a niche — and even though they excelled in this niche, it wasn’t how they wanted to be known forever.

“What happened was we slowly took on bigger and bigger projects,” she says. “Before, we’d have half a dozen people on a small 50,000 square foot project, and that was a huge deal for us. Now, that kind of project is common practice, and our biggest project at the moment is 150,000 square feet — it’s these kinds of projects where you run into coordination issues, because there are so many pieces in the air at once. You need something that’s more integrated, so you can collaborate with your team and consultants with smarter tools.”

BIM, to Brown, is futureproofing.

“If your goal is to get bigger and better projects, BIM is the only way you’re going to be able to do that,” she says. “You need something different than what you’re used to.”

Images courtesy of Eastlake Studio and Kendall McCaugherty, Hall Merrick Photographers.