At Ike Kligerman Barkley, technology’s intrusion into the design process has been tempered by a reverence for the hand. From preliminary sketches to advanced 3D modeling, the firm’s layered approach illustrates how to embrace digital tools while keeping creativity alive.
On a sunny morning last November, I visited the midtown Manhattan offices of award-winning architecture firm Ike Kligerman Barkley, where, after pausing in the vestibule to admire the framed watercolor paintings of past projects, I donned VR glasses to “walk” through a recent project, scoped out a massive 3D printer that spits out chalklike models, and listened to a drafting whiz explain the ins and outs of the company’s cutting-edge software. My tour came courtesy of an invitation from Thomas A. Kligerman, whose willingness to embrace new-fangled technologies while preserving more analog approaches is evident in the ethos of the firm he co-founded in 1989. The architect may miss the days when his new hires were well-versed in history and relied on books rather than Google searches, yet he also pushed the firm to invest in tools like the 3D printer and virtual reality goggles long before either technology was remotely mainstream.
Ike Kligerman Barkley’s ability to invest in hand-drawn sketches, multiple models, and digitized drawings and renderings is partly a function of the 40-person firm’s size, scale and sky-high project budgets. Yet the benefits of a thoughtful approach to technology’s role in design are universal. Nearly a year after that pre-pandemic visit—and in an extraordinarily different world—I caught up with Kligerman to find out his secrets to striking the right balance between analog and digital inspiration.
Why start with a hand drawing?
The further you remove your brain from your hand, or your hand from your eyes, the less intuitive things become. After doing this for years, it’s amazing how your hand will sometimes do things before you’ve even thought them through—the neural pathways have been so developed that it’s very intuitive. You can’t do that when you’re creating on a computer, so we keep it hand-drawn for as long as we can.
You can also communicate very quickly in a drawing. At the start, I’ll do a drawing—something that might look literally like [a scribble], because that’s the limit of my drawing ability. Alex Eng, the firm’s director of design, has worked here for more than two decades, and he can look at that rough drawing and have a pretty good idea what it means. I just drew that [initial scribble] in, what, 10 seconds? To create an idea like that on the computer, it would take you 30 minutes. In the early stages, you want to keep it fast, you want to keep the communication very clear, and you want to keep it intuitive as well as intellectual.
Where does that shared language come from?
You develop a shorthand with each other. So much of what we do, regardless of whether it’s very traditional or more modern or in between, is based on something we’ve seen before in history. We were just talking about this new shingle-style house we’re doing out in Southampton, and in addition to talking about the entrance hall, we were also referencing a Frank Gehry project in Berlin. It’s a big commercial bank building, but the concepts were the same. So while we’re drawing, we’re also talking about touch points. Saying, “You know that bank?” is a lot easier than, “What if we did a curve and there was a line and it was this tall and it was open?”
And you both know it and understand what that reference means.
In theory. He didn’t happen to know this building, but we looked it up online in real time, and a picture is worth 472 words. The people who excel in our office are somewhat familiar, not necessarily with every book, but certainly with the ones that we refer to a lot.
In the early stages, what does a client see?
We go back and forth with these sketches and then produce drawings to show the client. For our first presentation, what the client sees is all hand-drawn in Prismacolor marker on vellum—we have an office standard of using a terra cotta marker for the walls.
Why is seeing the hand-drawn version good for the client, too? And why terra cotta?
When you present a drawing, the clients look at it and can see the rooms. The details are developed just enough to begin the conversation. They can see windows and shelves and stuff like that; where there are horizontal lines, what I’m seeing is horizontal wood paneling, but they may look at it and go, “Oh, that’s cool. It’s going to be stone.” They are bringing their own imagination to it.
At this point, the drawing is still loose enough that you can have a conversation that isn’t frozen by what appears to be a photograph. If it’s too real and too perfect, it really stops people’s imaginations, because it’s all figured out. With this, I’ve had people say, “That’s a window? I thought this was the window and that was a refrigerator.” And maybe we go, “Well, wait a minute. Maybe it should be a refrigerator.” That kind of stuff is snuffed out by getting too real, too fast. These sketches are a gateway to imagination that you have to be careful not to kill too soon.
How do you decide what to give this treatment to?
It’s not every room—it’s really hard to do that. For early presentations, you want to show them the floor plans and exterior so they understand what the house will look and feel like, and then you want to give them one or two interiors, plus any really important [exterior] thing—an outdoor stair that does something, or some weird chimney. You can’t show everything, and frankly it would be a waste of everybody’s time if you did, because you want to have the conversation about the window and the refrigerator [first] so that the next time around, you’ve gotten into their head a little bit more and are more aligned on where the project could be heading.
What does that next time around look like?
It usually looks very similar. They’ve taken the drawings home, talked about it, and they call you after the weekend and say, “We’d like this, but we don’t want the dining room open to the living room, and we actually need an extra bedroom,” and so on. So you come back with a very similar thing, but adjusted, and usually a couple more views.
And this is all still by hand.
The one piece of technology that we might have at this stage is a little 3D print. It’s a massing model [an architectural term referring to a structure’s general shape and form], so you can do it relatively quickly because you’re not worried about details like windows or doors or shingles. We’ll have a tiny house, the size of [a softball]—enough to show them the shape of the roof, the chimneys, the front door, and maybe a little bit of the context, like the lawn and the driveway. The machine will print in any color you want, so we’ll put green on the ground so they can see a little grass. People get excited about models, even if they aren’t perfect. They’re always cute—I tell them that if I was that size, I’d be cute, too. Part of this stage is about getting people excited. I’ve never shown a model where people didn’t go, “Wow!”
You bought a 3D printer so you could make gypsum models in-house. Has it been a worthwhile investment?
We used to build a lot of models, which were incredibly time-consuming. We made them out of all kinds of [materials], but for the equivalent of the little models [at this stage], we would actually carve them out of Plasticine, which is like the clay you used in kindergarten, or you could make something quickly with chipboard. And then, as the computer began to grow in the world of design and we started using 3D programs like Revit—which actually produces something you can look at—we stopped making models and instead started showing virtual models on the screen. It was amazing. You get the “wow,” but you can also make adjustments or spin the house around or look at it from the air. But then, as those houses were actually getting built, I found that, as good as the computer was, there were things that I hadn’t really seen. I started thinking that we need not just the virtual model, but also a physical model.
We were pretty early adopters, but by then, 3D printing was getting to be more common. We bought this machine seven years ago, and it has become one more helpful design tool. You can imagine on a computer screen, but if you pick up a model house in your hands, it’s really good. Until you build the house, you don’t really know what it’s going to be like. You do the best you can to create that in your mind, and every tool you have that can help makes it better.
Once the client has seen two versions of drawings and the model, what comes next?
By this time, people have started to [look at the drawings] and say, “There’s just not enough room in the pantry.” And we say, “Wait until we get this thing hardlined on the computer.” If you’re drawing crudely with a pencil, walls are a foot to 18 inches thick sometimes; when you do it on the computer, it’s a 6-inch wall, so you’ve just picked up a foot of space. It’s the same [ideas], but more accurate, and they’ll see that there’s a lot of space after all. If you compare a computer-generated floor plan to the brown ink drawing, you can see the difference. So the third presentation is typically on the computer, looking at floor plans and elevations with clients.
By the way, there’s an important distinction to make here: We aren’t drawing the house on the computer, we’re actually building the house on the computer. And even though it’s built, it’s not beautiful yet—it takes quite a few go-throughs and adjustments before it gets to be pretty—so even at this point, we’re often still doing hand perspectives. If you look at a computer perspective at this stage, it’s pretty dry, so we’ll print out a computer perspective and trace over it by hand to get the benefit of both worlds.
We also make a much more accurate model to represent pretty much everything on the house—the divisions in the window, or the little vents at the bottom, which are required by the zoning on the coast [in case of flooding]. And then we begin to render it in color.
And you can do all of this in the same program?
No, I wish. Instead, we are the U.N. translators between all these disparate programs. A dry black-and-white computer drawing is based on a Revit model. Then you import that into another program called Lumion, which has a whole database of materials. You can click brick or shingles or wood and it’ll wrap that thing in any of those materials, and then you can adjust the color. We spend a lot of time fiddling with these things to make them look right.
So it’s less about making the design decisions and more about making the rendering look right.
Yes, but getting the rendering right affects the design decisions. Because at this point, you’ll go, “The shingles are too far apart” or “They’re the wrong color” or “The shutters shouldn’t be cobalt blue, they should be a gray-blue.” It's like you’re sharpening a knife: You need a finer and finer whetstone as you’re going into more and more detail.
Drawings like this, you show them to the client and they go, “Oh, I hate that gray-blue.” And you say, “OK.” You click once and now you have green shutters. In a way, I hate this kind of thing, but at a certain point the hand sketch can’t give you the feedback that Lumion can. So this is an important tool at this stage, because now you’re talking about the color of the landscape, the color of the trim—and if you’ve drawn these things properly in Revit, everything that’s wood, or every shingle, it’s all connected in something called a “family.”
So if you want to make it change across the board, it’s instantaneous?
Yes, and you can change just that thing. If you don’t build it properly, you could end up putting shingling on all the windows when you go to make a change. There’s a lot of thought that goes into getting the project ready to be imported into Lumion. The other great thing about Lumion is the landscape architect uses the same program. So he has built the holly trees, pachysandra, privet and hydrangeas in Lumion, and then you can put them together.
That must be such a magical reveal.
Other things become useful, as well. For this house in Southampton, the town was really irritated because it had such big windows. We had to do nighttime renderings to show them what it looked like with all the lights on—we even did a drawing to show them what it looked like at night from a mile away. You can show the house at daytime or nighttime. You can cast shadows. The client can say, “On the Fourth of July at 5 o’clock in the afternoon when we’re sitting outside with cocktails and are about to barbecue, where’s the sun going to be?” And you can show them where the shadows will be. Maybe they don’t like the shadow and we should move the terrace so they won’t be in the shade. At 6:45 in the morning on August 12th, where’s the sun? When you’re in the breakfast room, are you going to be blinded by the sunlight? You can see all of that.
We do a lot of shadow studies. We’re doing a house in Baltimore right now, and the client was worried about the amount of sunlight in his study, so we showed him what 8 a.m., 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. would look like over the length of the summer. We printed out a sheet where you could see the shadows and how they move. It’s amazing. You can really see what’s going on.
How did you do this kind of work before these programs?
Before the computer, you would draw the house, and then you’d go to a book that would tell you the altitude and the azimuth—the angle of the sun—and then you would construct and draw it. So you could do it. But you’d usually say, “We’ll give you three days and then we’re done.” Now you can say, "We’ll give you 360 days at 2:14 p.m.” It’s that accurate.
When I visited the office, your team was showing me the house in the rain and snow, too.
That’s the other thing you can do—say, “What’s it like in the wintertime?” There it is, covered in snow. You can say, “And if it’s windy?” to see that, too. You can also do a video with the same program where you come up the driveway and see the house, and then go into the garage and pass around the master bedroom suite. The software takes a long time, about 36 hours, to make that video, but it’s very accurate. And with the same program, with a little less accuracy, you can move through the house [in real time]—you can run up the stairs and look out to the ocean. In that way, we can walk people through the house with quite a lot of detail. I always say, “The only kind of surprises we want are good surprises. We don’t want you to walk into the building and be surprised by something you don’t like.”
Has that been the biggest transformation for the firm—that this software eliminates misunderstandings?
It eliminates design surprises for the clients, but because these programs are so accurate, it also eliminates [mistakes] that used to happen, like where plumbing lines run into structure. You can really make sure the framing works and the air conditioning duct fits before anybody even drives a nail. It used to be that you couldn’t really do that, but now, we usually have no situations where you can’t get the air conditioning into a room, because you’ve figured it out. You’ve literally built the house already.
It seems like this dramatically changes your experience for the better, then.
It totally does, and we’re doing things now that we wouldn’t have thought of had we not had this software. We just finished this house in Bridgehampton that has these really cool chimneys. I came up with it because I was looking at a rendering before we started construction, and I was like, “It just looks heavy. What if we did this?” So we did a new rendering and it was really cool—something I’ve never seen before. Things like that wouldn’t have happened before—or they might have, but not as easily. Because, of course, we see renderings way before we show [them to] clients. We look at so many things a client never sees.
Does it change the possibilities because you have a clearer sense of what is possible, or is it just faster?
It’s initially slower, actually, but once you get everything [accurately loaded] in the computer, many things happen much more quickly. Like the reflected ceiling plans and the framing plans—if you want to make a change, you can see that reflected in the elevation, in the plan, in section, in details, and in a window schedule. With Lumion, they’re all linked. So you can take the window out of the drawing and it comes off everywhere—it’s gone. If you don’t have that, you have to remember to go through all those things and redraw what you took out. So in the long run, it saves time.
Where it really saves time is in the field, because you don’t get a contractor calling up saying, “There are six people standing here and they can’t finish the bathroom, because the duct doesn’t fit in.” In the big picture, it’s a savings—it’s an investment.
There are other programs that are even more photorealistic. We do elevations in Photoshop and people will think it’s a photograph. When we did the Rizzoli bookstore on Broadway [in Manhattan] and it was photographed, the images looked just like the renderings. When people want to see the building, we’ll sometimes show them the renderings because someone left a shopping bag in the middle of the photograph and otherwise they look exactly the same. You can do things that are super realistic if you have the time.
How does that fit into your workflow?
As it gets more real, you’re beginning to show real materials. In conjunction with a photorealistic drawing of a living room, we’ll show a floor sample and a molding sample. And we don’t just print the models—we also print the moldings, door handles, hinges, cabinet hardware and fireplace surrounds. For an apartment on Park Avenue, we printed a diorama of the master bedroom with three different fireplace mantel options.
Just like the room itself, first it is a drawing, then it’s a print, and then you make a piece of the molding out of the actual material in the real finish. Every time you do a mock-up, you’re refining it. I’ve never done a mock-up where we didn’t make some tweak that made it better than it would have been if we had skipped that step.
How do you know when to stop iterating?
When you realize the new step is just different, not better. Because you’re right—design never ends. That was true even before these tools, but now it happens more quickly. When you’re picking between options and they’re all good, that’s when you start thinking, “Why don’t we just build it?” Because even when you build it, you still might make changes. There are still moments where people go, “That should have been a window; can we add a window?”
You said there’s so much that clients never see. How did these tools shape what you do before you’re showing the client?
We go through many more iterations than what we present. We recently did this curved house out in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and there were certain things we couldn’t figure out. I think we did 12 models of variations of chimneys, garage locations, and the slope of the roof. We had all these different models—they looked like little crabs across the table. And as you’re working on an idea, sometimes you take a pencil and draw on the model. I mean, the thing is, it’s hard to keep from getting too precious with them, because they come out and they’re so beautiful, so no one wants to touch them, but they are tools. You draw on them, you snap a piece off, and see what happens. One time I remember someone knocked over a vase while he was putting one of the models on the table and the chimney broke off. I’m like, “Wait, it’s better like that.” So we moved the chimney.
Do you iterate more quickly with these tools?
You do more in the same amount of time and it’s more accurate, and so in a way, you have more choices. But it’s not as though these models are easy to build. You have to build the house in Revit, and then you have to build the model again in the modeling program—that 3D model doesn’t just pop out of the computer. Clients have this sense sometimes that you tell the computer that you want a five-bedroom house, a living area on a terrace, here’s the site, and somehow the computer pops the house out. It doesn’t work that way.
For all these things, you’re still building the model—but we never would have built 12 versions of chimneys and rooflines by hand. We just would never have done it. And I think we came up with the best solution because we looked at so many options. But maybe 25 years ago, we still would have gotten a nice house. There may be a lot of self-indulgence in this.
But that’s good for clients, too.
Yes, we always indulge our clients.
For a smaller firm that may not be able to invest in all of these technologies, is there one that’s been especially transformative?
I’d say you don’t have to buy a $100,000 printer; you can buy a printer for a few hundred dollars. The reason we bought that machine was that it can do tiny details and it can make big models, but with a less expensive machine, you can still do the massing model—you don’t have to spend a lot of money. You also don’t have to print everything out all the time.
Revit is an expensive program, and it’s hard to learn on your own. People learn to use it well by being in an office with other people who know how to do it. But it’s really good. When someone says, “What happens when you look in this corner? What’s the framing you can cut?” You can go, “There’s the joist and there’s the rafter.”
You have a team that is really dedicated to using these tools, which is a pretty sizable investment in and of itself. How did you know that was how you wanted to grow?
I just think you can’t stop the future—you can’t stop technology. We’ve always been pretty early adopters. We started using AutoCAD very early on, when other firms were very proud of the fact that they were still hand-drawing everything. I was like, At some point that’s going to catch up with you. It’s a little bit like Instagram. When I started doing it, I didn’t know why, but I thought I’d better figure it out and that [the reason would] become apparent at some point. As magazines become fewer, I’ve realized I have to promote myself, and I’m sure glad I have an Instagram account. You just have to adopt these things.
At the same time, I want to be careful not to lose hand-drawing, so we started a figure-drawing class in the office. We’d have a model come in every other week, and it got so popular that we had to have models come in two nights a week because we didn’t have room for everybody who wanted to draw. Figure drawing obviously has a whole host of critical issues in the workplace. [There are signs saying], “Do not use this door, there is nudity in the office.” But it has people drawing, and I don’t want to lose that. I want to encourage people to change their brain by not just looking at the computer screen all day. We have a foot in both worlds. But it’s interesting—more and more people who are digital natives, they’re much more comfortable with the computer, but they tend not to do the [analog] things that come second nature to me.
Among the young people that you hire, is hand-drawing part of their toolkit?
Rarely. That’s one of the things that frustrates me. It’s a different world from the one I grew up in. It’s not just that they aren’t trained in hand-drawing, they also aren’t really educated the way I was—they have no historical education, really. They’ll take a yearlong survey of architectural history, or maybe just a semester, and that’s all the school gives them. It makes it very hard to have a meaningful conversation when you can’t reference things. And meanwhile, these people are amazing on the computer—as productive as four people.
How have new technologies changed the way you hire?
We hire people who can do Revit. The problem is that everyone comes in and says they can do it because they took it in school—but doing it in school and actually being on a deadline and drawing a house that you can build are two very different things.
I’ll tell you, and this is my advice to students who ask: Learn history, Revit and hand-drawing, because it is a rare talent now. Everybody used to be able to draw to some degree, and you would talk about ideas by having a piece of paper and pencil, but not anymore. And it’s really a shame, because the disconnect between the hand and the brain is not a good thing.
The person on your team who is turning those drawings into a Revit file—how much freedom do they have to try new things or pitch ideas?
My answer to that is that everybody in the office should be as talented as possible. I encourage thinking, and I tell them, “I pay you to disagree. I don’t just want to hear yes.” When someone is drafting, they should be thinking about it. They should come and say, “Look, what about this?”
It also depends on the individual. Some people can draft and design and have great ideas; some people draft and come up with things that are not great ideas. I’ll often say, “Show me what I want first, and then I’ll see your ideas.” Almost everybody does that, and then they’ll say, “But how about this?” I love that. We try not to hire people who just mindlessly draw. But you also have to realize that not everybody can do everything—not everybody is a really good designer—so you have to tailor the tasks to the capabilities of the person you’re talking to.
As far as the interiors of a space, what role do the software programs play in that part of the design process?
We’re doing this big 30,000-square-foot house in Canada and another 60,000-square-foot house in Maryland, and the owners wanted to see exactly what they’re going to live in. We’ll work with the interior designer on something like that, and then you have to hire an outside firm [for the renderings], because that’s a major amount of work. You can put in fabrics and light fixtures and rugs and the light reflecting off it; you can give the floor the right amount of shininess. You can even do a movie going through the house with enough time. I should say, though, that you have to work very, very hard to make it look like that. The danger is when you get 93 percent of the way there and then it looks like a Stepford wife. Then it’s really creepy.
The uncanny valley.
Even someone who’s not trained in design, they look at those rooms and they’re a little bit creeped out. One of the biggest issues in that creepy zone is getting brass to look right. You have to get a very good renderer at every phase, because if they don’t have a good eye, they can really cause more trouble than they can be helpful.
It’s also extremely expensive. We just got bids in from renderers for this house in Canada—and granted, that’s a huge house with many drawings and movies requested—but the base price was $460,000. And by the way, the client was shocked.
I would be, too, I think.
I had said, “If you want to do this, it’s going to be at least $300,000.” But it was $460,000. Now that’s been pared back to $150,000, but that means we had to really limit the scope of it—and like anything good, it’s a matter of time. It takes time to do it well. It’s like those 3D models I was telling you about—they don’t make themselves!
Is there a certain client you’re more likely to recommend these refined renderings for?
It really is client-driven. All of our clients basically trust us—I don’t think any of them distrust us—but some really want to see it for themselves rather than take our word for it. You can say, “We’re going to do this cool ceiling that’s like a cloud,” and show them a hand drawing, and some clients will say, “Wow!” Others will say, “I’ve never seen it like that. What’s it really going to look like?” And we say, “Well, for $5,000 we can have a drawing like this done.” At that point, some will say, “I’d rather spend that money on a table.” But others will say, “Yeah, I’d love to see it.” For that client, we don’t have to do every room, but you might want to do three for them to see.
Are more people coming in expecting to see the design that clearly?
Yes. People come to you and expect to see a photograph. Actually, when we show our hand sketches early on, clients are often surprised that they’re not seeing a rendering. We did our first computer renderings for a client with a house on a vineyard. When he said, “I want to see computer renderings,” I was like, “Argh!” I did fight it for a while—I didn’t like them because they looked so fake, and we had to force ourselves to do it. But as we got better and better, I realized it could be really good.
Part of this process is teaching the client about what’s going to happen. So when we get a prospective client and take them through the process, we show them all these drawings so they don’t come into the first presentation expecting to see a rendering and then get the hand sketch. One of the things you do when you design a house for someone—particularly someone who hasn’t done a house before—is constantly explaining what you’re doing, as well as how you’re doing it and what the ride’s going to be like. That’s part of the fun of it, actually.
It goes back to having a foot in both worlds—and teaching clients why that’s important.
Both halves do matter. And especially for us, I think, because our work is not super modern or super traditional. It’s in the middle. And so the way we work, and the technologies we use and don’t use, reflect that. By the way, this pencil—this is technology, too.
You have me looking at my pencil jar a little differently now.
The caveman did not have it. At some point, someone invented this pencil, and then Leonardo did an awful lot of great work with it. It’s just old technology. But I think the way we work and the tools we use—both traditional and new—are a mirror of the kind of work we produce. It fits with my philosophy about these things: I love architectural history, but the truth is that we’re a modern firm and we should be doing work that is somewhat modern. What I want is for people to look at our work 100 years from now and go, “God, look at what these guys did a hundred years ago,” in the same way that we’re looking at what people did a hundred years ago. I don’t want someone to look and go, “Wait a minute, did they do that in 1910 or 2025?” I don’t feel like we’re doing our job if we haven’t moved the needle some, and that comes from combining things in our design the way we do, and from the technology we use to actually design it.