I originally wrote this article for the AIA Small Project Practitioners Journal.
When we talk about BIM, we typically focus on the benefits to production (faster, more complete, linked drawings), coordination (data exchange with consultants, sharing files in the cloud, helping the client visualize the design via 3D models on mobile devices), or integration (using BIM data on the job site, handing models off to contractors, extending the life of the models by using them for Facilities Management, or even using the data for fabrication). All these advantages have clear benefits for saving time and especially money—money that often stays in the client’s pockets because of lower project costs or extra profit for the contractor because he’s wasting less material and manpower on the job site. But there is a fourth aspect of BIM, which I think should be of primary interest to architects: how BIM can enhance design.
There are, however, three key issues holding back architects from harnessing the power of BIM for design. The lack of tool invisibility is a major problem. When we design by hand, we don’t think about the pencil or the pair of scissors. The connection between thought and action is unconscious. There is no interface we have to tackle. With digital tools, which are not invisible to most architects, there is still the need to translate the design idea into input data before seeing the results. If we are dreaming of an interesting floor plan, most of us need to think “W for Wall tool, or L for polyline, or click that button for the massing tool, or where’s the menu for choosing the surface color…”. There is a scrim between ideation and us. And that is the software.
This is not a permanent barrier. It is one that can be dismantled through practice, dedication, and increased familiarity with both computers and architectural software. But this shift in our profession progresses slowly because of a distain for digital technical skills. We value the ability to sketch in minute detail a cityscape or famous building while on vacation more than the ability to make Revit or ArchiCAD bend to our wishes. We attend university drawing classes and AIA sketching events as ways to grow ourselves as designers. We take software classes because we are forced to, because we want an easy A, or because we think it’ll make us more employable. Who has ever heard someone say, “I signed up for Revit training at the community college so that I could be a better designer”? Living in an increasingly connected and digital world, we need to shift this thinking. We need to see our digital tools as a route to design excellence.
The struggle to move past the basic mechanics of using BIM, CAD, or simple 3D modeling tools—to become the master of the machine—and the cultural perception that developing these skills are tangential to one’s value as a great architect, lead to the third problem with BIM’s acceptance as the most powerful design tool available to architects: a lack of creativity in the usage and exploration of the medium (this is exactly the issue I want to address in my Sketching without Sketching class).
With traditional architectural tools—pencils, pens, paintbrushes, and physical models—there is playfulness in their usage. The accidental of the impure environment that we employ these tools in adds to the feedback loop that is design. A messy conceptual design can be made on a stained napkin with a crayon; a piece of chipboard can be torn and taped back into place; a good stick can turn soft earth into an impromptu onsite canvas. We have learned to accept the individual limitations of these tools and see those constraints as strengths. We have embraced and internalized their idiosyncrasies. We have not done this with digital tools yet. We instead view their limitations as points of failure and reasons to not unravel their mysteries.
So in an effort to inspire some creativity with the use of BIM as a design tool (and help us battle the forces steering us away from the future), let us dwell on the potentials advanced tools offer. By examining and daydreaming about what might be, we can see ways in which we can harness the design capabilities of BIM.
One of the benefits of designing with a pencil on trace is speed. When we view BIM through the same lens of speed, it falls short. The limited information that flows from the end of the pencil tip allows great focus and freedom. It allows the designer to create one image incredibly fast. It is hard to imagine how anything could ever beat that. But when we step back and look at speed from another angle, things change. Designing with a pencil is a serial act. Develop the plan then the section then the elevation. One might jump between images, but an architect can’t construct multiple views simultaneously by hand. Designing with BIM must therefor be understood as a parallel act. Instead of thinking about representing a design via one view at a time, think about it developing from multiple points at once. While by hand a designer can craft one beautiful image at a time, think about how a designer can harness the interconnectedness of a BIM to develop a concept from all views and drawing types. A BIM designer is theoretically creating all images and aspects of the building at once. That might feel a bit overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be. Every aspect of the design goes from 0% understood and represented to 100% understood and represented simultaneously. There is immense power in that proposition.
BIM benefits from repetition. Often that repetition is encapsulated in a template. Once you’ve done one residential project with a BIM software, say ArchiCAD, you have built up a kit of parts that can be reused over and over again. You’ll have door and window objects that meet your graphic standards and have all sorts of embedded information. You’ll have wall types that can be laid down to quickly build up a plan that takes into consideration gyp. board thicknesses from the earliest sketch. But beyond having the pieces to play with, the beauty of Save As can be harnessed as well. Of course this isn’t unique to BIM; Save As is accessible to any digital media of worth. But Save As becomes all the more powerful with BIM. When you are doing scheme after scheme that encompass not just plans, but also sections, elevations, 3D models, and schedules, all being generated at once, the design data that is produced with each iteration becomes immense; multiple versions of even simple design changes can be viewed and analyzed in countless ways. The real value of different options becomes that much more apparent and describable. With all this data, the designer can shift his perspective from making all the drawings that describe the changes to exploring and analyzing all the changes (and coming up with new ideas from that knowledge).
BIM offers opportunities to design with more data and in more dimensions. A hand sketch can easily handle two-dimensions, and most competent architects can convey the third-dimension as well. But what about more complex information? Can a hand sketch easily describe time or energy or cost? BIM moves beyond 3D models and allows designers to analyze and create with more. A great example is the energy evaluation features of ArchiCAD. This allows designers to start adding energy modeling to their design criteria. No longer do architects need to rely on hunches and assumptions about the benefits of material choices, thermal properties, and solar orientation. With BIM tools they can start validating and incrementally improving these design decisions. Design discussions can thus more easily move beyond what looks better to what functions better.
BIM also provides the opportunity for shifts in resolution. Architects designing with BIM can dial up or down the detail of a model, either by adding only the relevant information (say adding weight and distance traveled of materials but not cost) or by hiding information (it’s easy to model every layer of a wall but only show the client a pochéd plan). When one looks at BIM through the lens of model resolution, the variety of output becomes apparent. BIM is a balance between grain, complexity, and order. A designer can model as much or as little is needed to move the project forward and then be able to convey only the relevant information to the client. And that information can then be modulated depending on whom it is shared with (a design meeting with a client requires different visuals than a design meeting with a structural or mechanical engineer). Understanding resolution as it pertains to BIM keeps a designer in control and not bogged down by unnecessary data. This is just as important in design as it is with producing documentation.
The aesthetic qualities of early images from BIM are often the downfall of designing with such powerful software. All the power of designing with more information will be ignored if the output is ugly. It is a sad fact that early drawings and models easily look horrible. This though is not the fault of the software, but the architect or intern behind the work. When designing by hand, we have centuries of conventions to borrow from. We have so many accepted styles to adopt to achieve an acceptable look. We do not yet have similar go-to solutions for digital output. This is partially because we haven’t spent the time to develop them ourselves, partially because we don’t spend the time to research and study other existing solutions, and partially because as digital tools continue to evolve new solutions arise (and old ones become obsolete). But when looking back at what BIM does offer us as designers, it should become readily apparent that the scope for beauty is enormous. Resolution control allows us to filter data in appropriate (and aesthetic) ways. Multiple dimensions allow us to graphically represent all sorts of fascinating data in interesting ways. Iteration and speed allow us to apply the same graphics and image quality, once an acceptable standard is developed, across every scheme and design change. A concept that takes five minutes or five days to develop can be represented with the same amount of clarity and polish. Thus a good idea discovered at the last minute can be judged on equal terms as another idea that was developed earlier in the process.
There are more examples of how BIM aids design, but speed, iteration, multiple dimensions, resolution, and beauty cover a wide range of options for further investigation. To get the most out of BIM, whether for design purposes or any of its other benefits, we must look at it with a critical eye and explore its possibilities. If your design process hasn’t been improved by technology; if your process doesn’t continue to be improved because of technology then you are doing it wrong. And you are falling behind the curve.
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