The convergence of 25,000 years of Art History leads to BIM

I recently gave a three hour talk about Building Information Modeling (BIM) to a room full of people in South Carolina who had one of two major interests: building enclosures or specifications. Finding out how to properly teach them about BIM posed a unique challenge. While many in the room had some dealings with ArchiCAD or Revit, most were new to BIM. I’ve had countless conversations about BIM with all sorts of people—contractors, engineers, architects, owners, clients, students, etc. But this group felt different. I couldn’t just sell them on my concept of production, coordination, design, and integration. I had to find a new angle, something that energized them. I had to explain BIM in terms that they both understood and cared about. While building my presentation, this diagram came to me:

The most important BIM diagram of 2014

Have you ever seen BIM explained so simply? No fancy speak, no bonus dimensions, no proselytizing about IPD or IFC or social or lonely BIM. Nothing about BIG or little. Just a simple convergence. Yet it’s not so simple because within that diagram is the culmination of about 25,000 years of art history. Let me explain.

1D (Text)

The description, the equation, the computer script, the hyperlink

In early 2013 I made a joke about spending all my time making 1D models. But the more I think about that comment, the more I realize it is not a joke. 1D documentation—text and numerical based data—is so damn important. It’s the core of IFC, it’s what we add to pictures to add clarity, and it is the heart of two of the most important yet under appreciated construction document types: the schedule and the specification. Furthermore it’s also the foundation for parametric design: equations and scripts that yield fancy forms. To paraphrase Shoegnome guest blogger, BIM guru, and ArchiCAD expert Nathan Hildebrandt: “Schedule First”. Focus on that for a moment. Before you add anything into Revit, ArchiCAD, SketchUp, or whatever program, think about how and why you’d schedule it. I promise you, when you start viewing your work from the Schedule First perspective everything you do in BIM will be better, tighter, and have more value.

Another thing that Nathan mentioned to me that also changed the way I think about BIM is that he wants to eliminate text from his documents. What he means by this is that every word shown on the 2D documents should be pulled from and derived from the placed elements and objects (whether 2D or 3D elements). So if there is a note, that note should be embedded in the object that it is describing. If there is a leader calling out a material, it should be linked to that material. Every piece of text. No fudging. All 1D linked to the higher dimensions.

2D (Drawing)

Circles, Lines, and Tone

My second lecture on BIM, from back in 2011, talked about the history of 2D documentation and how it really hasn’t changed much since our ancestors were using paint on cave walls. Today there are architects and engineers drafting circles, lines, and tone in AutoCAD to represent windows, doors, and walls. Not much different from someone wearing a loincloth and using the same techniques to draw abstractions of aurochs on stone. It’s just marks on a surface that all the viewers agree pictorially represent the same thing.

3D (Models)

From subtractive to additive to digital (and back again)

Likewise the history of 3D modeling hasn’t changed much either. Sure we’ve gone from chiseling stone and building up with clay to pushing and pulling and stacking volumes in digital space, but for the most part all we’ve done is take subtractive and additive sculpture and move it to the digital realm. The early forays into 3D printing technology are no different. It’s just automation of something we’ve been doing for over 25,000 years; it’s a better tool. However—much like BIM—3D printing is also experimenting and pushing into new frontiers. As we start 3D printing more intelligent things, we cross the line from dumb to smart—we move towards increased self-awareness vs environmental-awareness of our build environment. We finally do something new.

The BIM Continuum

Thirty years ago when ArchiCAD debuted, the architectural world had its first convergence of the three data streams. For the first time 1D, 2D, and 3D were all linked. It was crude then, but it was a start. And yes other industries had beat us there and continue to be ahead of us now, but what I care about is the AEC industry. As programs layer in 1D, 2D, and 3D data we progress to BIM. And here again is why SketchUp 2014 is now BIM and anyone who disagrees is wrong. BIM is the convergence of 1D, 2D, and 3D. Everything else BIM-related flows from that. SketchUp could do 2D + 3D for a long time; now with the addition of text based schema attached to elements, it crosses the threshold of 1D + 2D + 3D. Likewise, fancy modeling software that merge 1D scripts with 3D output are pushing towards BIM, but it’s the lack of integration with all three areas that keep them from crossing into the realm of BIM.

What about 4D, 5D, 6D, etc.? Describing pricing or sustainability as extra dimensions feels a bit like contrived bullshit to me, and distracts from the real power of the convergence that is BIM. These data are just other ways to describe specialized 1D, 2D, and 3D data. And in fact, most of that extra dimensional BIM is just adding more 1D information. So in a sense you could describe 4D BIM as 3D + 1D or 5D as 3D + 1D + 1D, as we are just adding more layers of text and/or mathematical data. At this point in the discussion I think it’s valuable to remember that 2D data isn’t just an output; it can be an input too. Things like heat transfer or cross sectional strength of materials might be added to a BIM via a 2D data set; 2D should not just be thought of as plans, sections, and elevations.

What about social vs lonely? Isn’t BIM pointless if it’s not shared? Of course not. I’ve discussed this before. The sharing of data is a logical outcome of BIM (and this diagram) because once you start merging all this data it becomes obvious that the results should be shared and the inputs should be collaborated on. Much like the integration of 1D, 2D, and 3D data benefits from a virtuous feedback loop, so does sharing that data with an ever widening circle of creators and users. The social aspect of BIM adds immense value to the whole process, but it is not a requirement. Sharing is a value-add.

The convergence of (almost) 1400 days of Shoegnome

Now that we understand BIM as the convergence and integration of 1D, 2D, and 3D data, it is time to push what we do with that to the next level. If you go back and read my post on Self-awareness vs Environmental-awareness you should see how this all connects, how the merging of 1D, 2D, and 3D also leads to smarter and smarter elements. And how as we layer in more data and blur the line between digital and physical amazing things begin to happen. To go a step further, reread my article Analog — Digital — Organic. As we merge 1D, 2D, and 3D and the digital with the physical the results will push beyond the imagination of the science fiction authors who were overly influenced by the technology of their day. The results will not be contrived new forms, but nuanced new functions. The architecture of the future will break the chains of form follows function because much of that function will be controlled by invisible forces and features small enough to be inconsequential to the macro forms.

Subscribe to my blog to read more about the tricky world of being an Architect in the 21st century: Shoegnome on FacebookTwitter, and the RSS feed. If you want more on Hollywood’s misunderstanding of the future, listen to this 99% Invisible episode. Are you interested in guest blogging on Shoegnome? Ideally I want to have 2 to 4 guest posts a month. E-mail me.


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