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One architect's Journey from Africa to the Great White North... during a pandemic.

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

By Ryan Solomon on January 5th, 2021

Whilst booking a plane ticket in early 2020 and leaving my country of South Africa, who could ever have anticipated what the year would have in store for me. Landing in Canada the day before the borders closed, self-isolation, office introductions via zoom and an attempt to acclimate to everything from the harsh climate, cultural differences and vastly different building practices. What follows is my rough-and-tumble adventure through a complete emigration in 2020 and its effect on my role in architecture.


One of the biggest differences in moving cross-continent and cross-hemisphere, as you might expect, was the extreme change in climate. With this change comes a complete overhaul in building technology. Those of you residing in warmer climates might be accustomed to certain building and construction standards - such as brick and mortar. These systems, up until a few months ago, were my only (very limited) standard of reference.

Canada on the other hand utilizes a stark contrast of prefabricated wall panels and flooring systems that, together with the finish, sandwich numerous layers of moisture barriers and insulation. The difference in this change in building technology is immense. Most Saffers* are acclimated to the temperature outside being similar to the temperature inside, both at home or in the office. I expect this is similar in many warmer climates, such as Australia for example. As architects we design thus, and our end product reflects this. At school we extracted a great deal from the work of Glen Murcutt, because his work was derivative of our local climate. In switching over to Canada I needed to replace passive cooling and shading with multiple layers of thermal insulation - and to great effect. Imagine my surprise to discover most Canadians don't use heating in their homes for much of the year!

*(Saffer (plural Saffers) (slang) A native or inhabitant of South Africa.)


In the workplace I had to quickly learn entirely different methodologies for drawing and detailing. As any good architect will know, a good design starts with a comprehensive understanding of all the building technologies to be used. Comparing various construction systems in detail moves a bit beyond the scope of this article, but for reference, consider a newly discovered favorite of mine: ICF construction. Insulated Concrete Form uses expanded polystyrene blocks in a lego-like structure to create a permanent formwork for concrete to be poured into. It has numerous advantages including excellent thermal properties, durability and ease of installation. It isn’t cheap, but the 10-30% increased cost is more than made up for advantages.

With regard to BIM standards, these alternative construction methods add great room for potential. ICF for example needs to become a standard wall type for architects, as do other wall systems with various membranes and insulative layers. My experience is that these systems are complex to the point where Revit users often don’t bother to draw them correctly due to time constraints. Even our templates at don’t properly accommodate these systems. We will be making alterations this year and adding several new types in order to accommodate this. The idea being to constantly be growing and evolving our templates to suit new standards and systems.


South Africa operates entirely on the metric system, while Canada uses an awkward mix of both metric and imperial. Imperial often seems odd and arbitrary to those of us that have only ever used metric, but with experience comes understanding. The system is used to great practical effect to create standardized size increments. You’ve probably heard of the old ‘pass the 2 by 4’ cliche, but this is actually a good example of how the system excels. It represents part of a template of standard sizes used in woodwork and construction alongside others like 2x6, 2x8 etc. While we do of course have standard sizes for metric items, they just aren’t nearly as streamlined. Here is a great article comparing the two systems for the purposes of woodworking. In summary, the imperial system trades accuracy for speed by forcing larger increments.

I’m not trying to sway anyone's preference one way or the other. The problem lies not actually with any particular system, but with trying to move between the two. Unfortunately, there’s no greater example of this than in Canada where they use both…

A disconnect occurs when trying to convert one system to another. This is essentially because the two simply aren’t interchangeable. 1 inch = 25.4mm and 25mm = 0.984252 of an inch. It just doesn't work. Sadly, mid-project conversions happen fairly regularly with professionals such as Architects and Engineers often preferring to draw with metric units, while contractors and suppliers insist on operating via imperial. Unfortunately the standards are often well indoctrinated into businesses at this point, so if one party can’t simply be made to switch over, even if they have the knowhow. In the complex world of construction, I’m afraid this can result in anything from mild inconvenience to disastrous consequences.

One might look to BIM in order to solve these issues. Revit does its best to adapt to both systems, in fact with the click of a button the entire project can be switched over from one system to another. Certainly if you consider the arduous task of trying to convert multiple drawings in Autocad it becomes clear how much Revit has improved on this. However, until the conversion is able to recalculate according to industry standards I’m afraid that it will never be perfect. So it becomes a question of updating software. Perhaps our Dynamo users can shed some light on this?


I still have much to learn within the building industry here and its effect on BIM technology. 2020 was certainly a challenge (not sure how else to describe the year we all wish to forget) and 2021 looks likely to contain similar hardships. But as I’m finally able to sit down behind my laptop and pause for reflection, I gaze out at the snowy landscape in front of me. The future is exciting, and I’ve been inspired to tackle it head on.


What crazy experiences have you had moving locations, either as an architect or BIM enthusiast? Or just in general? Let us know in the comments below.

Also if you have any questions about me or my experiences please ask away.

Stay safe friends.

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