Focus on instructors: Al Whitley

“As an architect you design for the present, with an awareness of the past, for a future which is essentially unknown.” ~ Norman Foster


Al Whitley has taught for UC San Diego Extension for 25 years, and is a principal at WhitleyGroup, an architectural practice that provides specialized CAD and BIM support for commercial, biotech and government projects. He and his staff have received numerous awards for their work on project efficiency optimization, project documentation and computer visualization. He teaches an array of classes for UC San Diego Extension, including AutoCAD, 3DS Max, and Revit. We invite you to take a moment and learn a bit about Al and his work in the industry.

How did you get started in the CAD business?

I had just gotten out of the US Navy, as a Supply Corps Officer. Always wanting to be an architect, I put my resume on the street. An architect called me for an interview. We met–and he said, “I’m willing to give you a job, but you’ll be working on a computer, and using this new software program called AutoCAD.” Well, of course, I said “yes,” and started working on AutoCAD version 1.0. At the time, there were about seven firms in San Diego using AutoCAD.

What is your all-time favorite project and why?

Most of the work we do at our office involves BIM Facilitation, where we work closely with design/build teams, virtually (in 3D) resolving construction issues before the projects are built. My staff and the technology solutions we use are pretty amazing, and I’m thrilled to be involved in process–but my all-time favorite project is a retreat we recently completed in the local Cuyamaca mountains. The owners are “regulars” at the Ahwahnee in Yosemite. They enjoy the work of (architect) Gilbert Stanley Underwood and wanted their retreat to express the pleasure they experience when visiting the Ahwahnee and others Lodges that Mr. Underwood designed. So, I had to do my background research, and spent a few months traveling to Yosemite, Bryce Canyon, Zion and at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to enjoy Mr. Underwood’s designs (not to mention hiking in those wonderful National Parks). The project in Cuyamaca uses the “Parkitecture” vocabulary–and I was able to use the technologies we have on hand at the office to show the clients their retreat before it was built; to get real-time design feedback using GoTo software to fine-tune the design while we were online together; to optimize energy efficiency, maximize views, integrate passive solar design, and to create many wonderful architectural details virtually–and then a few months later, to see those design solutions being built in the real world. Now that the project is completed, one of the coolest things is that the technologies we used are invisible–but when you visit the retreat, you are taken back in time, you enjoy a slower pace–and the fact that there are deer and bobcat living in the forest alongside the retreat makes the project very, very special.

What are the key elements to include in a robust CAD portfolio?

My first question is “What is CAD?” If you think of CAD as only 2D project documentation (Computer-Aided Drafting), you’re really selling CAD short. CAD is “Computer Aided Design.” The technology itself is robust–and its breadth includes drafting, documentation, building information modeling (BIM), design visualization, energy analysis, simulation and virtual design and construction (VDC) solutions. Today, a CAD-literate person knows AutoCAD, Revit, 3dsMax and many other CAD-based programs. Autodesk, the parent company of AutoCAD, has done an excellent job of evolving and standardizing the user interface across all of their programs–once you learn the interface in one program, you feel at home in their other programs. If you want to learn CAD, start with AutoCAD–as you gain more exposure to the technology, you’ll understand how you want to increase your skills with other Computer Aided Design technologies.

What are three key pieces of advice you’d give to aspiring CAD students?

Pay attention to detail, practice, and keep an open mind–to maximize your use of the software’s potential. The people who take our AutoCAD, Revit and 3dsMax classes have professions which are quite varied. The people who succeed using CAD are detail-oriented. CAD is a tool. You use CAD to convey your design. If you are in the construction industry, you need to understand construction and use AutoCAD and Revit to communicate your design. If you’re in theatre design, then you’ll want to learn 3dsMax to convey the lighting you’ll be using on stage. CAD is applicable to many professions. Some of our students are mature, and they bring some significant non-CAD experience to the table. Their strength is their professional experience–and CAD is the tool they are using within their profession. Think of CAD as part of your professional development. The technology will always be evolving and you’ll always be learning.

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