Unconscious BIM and Ugly BIM

You probably noticed a surprise drop in my writing output over the past few months. 2014 is a time of transition for me—I moved to Seattle, I am about to move again within Seattle (buying a house, so hopefully it’ll be a long, long time before I have to move again), after a year away from doing live projects, I once again have architecture clients with ever-changing needs, I began playing the bass guitar after a too-long hiatus (I can’t tell what’s crazier: that as of last week my wife and I have been married eleven years or that this fall will mark my 25th year of playing the bass), I visited Budapest for the first time as an adult, I’m once again shifting my writing focus (maybe), I’m hoping to grow Shoegnome beyond just me being me (probably), and much more. I am eager for this fall when life may be a bit calmer (or at least theoretically more stable). Fat chance. My oldest daughter starts kindergarten in a few months, I’m going to try to have my daughters home with me instead of at after school care, and I have a feeling my architectural workload will just continue to increase. All great things, but all stressful things.

Part 1: Unconscious BIM

I have been using ArchiCAD regularly over the past year, but always for research and theory purposes. As such, I was interacting with the program differently than I was when practicing full time. While I am much more knowledgeable with certain aspects of the program, other bits are very rusty. The most glaring shift was I had forgotten so many of my shortcuts and workflow efficiencies (unglamorous stuff). This really slowed me down, causing much frustration. When I thought “I need to use the split command” or “hide guidelines”, I had no idea what keys to press. I had to fumble around, using menus or onscreen buttons. Then a strange thing happened. Once I had established flow—once I had been working for a few minutes and returned to my comfort zone—, I stopped thinking about what I needed to do and my muscle memory kicked in. I relaxed and ArchiCAD became invisible. I stopping thinking and instead just acted. All my old knowledge returned.

I have talked in the past about the importance of the invisibility of tools, and how this is a major barrier in the transition from analog to digital. And here was a clear example of this being surmounted. The first few times the barrier between thought and ArchiCAD vanished, I was caught of guard. I tried to replicate the key command, or workflow short cut that I had just used, but I couldn’t. I had no idea what I had just done. Once I was conscious of the act, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t actively know what I was doing, only passively. So I had to start working again, distract myself and when I returned to the proper mindset I could execute the shortcuts without thinking. It was really cool. The less I thought about ArchiCAD, the better I functioned within the tool.

Part 2: Ugly BIM

It took me about 40 hours of working in the model (starting from a blank template) before I finally passed the Ugly Duckling phase of the model. It shouldn’t have taken that long, but like I said I was rusty. I had forgotten some shortcuts and efficiencies. And I was testing out some new processes, which once again turned my workflows upside down. But that’s how I like to work. Find a good solution then break it in hopes of finding a better solution. Then break that one…

Have you experienced the Ugly Duckling phase of BIM? It’s like Junior High. Everyone will one day (hopefully) be smart, beautiful, and functional human beings. But in Junior High we are all awkward and confused and just a mess. So too is it with BIM—at least in ArchiCAD. I’m guess it’s the same with Revit and others. As you put in data, your file is a jumble. Different things are prioritized, you’re aware of problems you’d get to ignore if you were doing the work by hand or CAD. You feel a bit embarrassed by the drawings, by the model, by how much time you’ve spent with seemingly nothing to show. (I’ve written about this before). But you are focusing on the right things. You’re making sure the design works, you’re validating all the subsurface stuff that makes a project function well.

And then you add a room label or fix some materials or just otherwise do a little cleanup. Suddenly you realize you are insanely far along and things are starting to look great. The model has matured. The pieces have come together. You are out of Junior High. The ugly duckling has become a swan. Yes cliché alert. But this is purposeful. I want to give you the analogy to comfort yourself in the depths of early work and also to help explain what’s going on to your confused bosses.

This is SUPER important for new users of BIM to understand. For them it’s all new and all Junior High. For a long time, until things click and they’ve made it through the pain and seen the end. Think about that. Learning ArchiCAD or Revit after learning how to function as an architect by hand is like traveling back in time from your senior year of college to being 13 again. And then if you don’t work hard to escape, you end up being 13 forever. FOREVER. No wonder BIM gets shit upon and is often the scapegoat for larger systemic failures.

Until we recognize this ugly time we can’t combat it. Until we shorten this ugly time and master it, we’ll always lose every battle and argument about designing and thinking within a digital environment.

If I had a picture of me in Junior High, I’d share it with this post. But I don’t. Maybe I’ll ask my mom to e-mail me a photo. Or not because good god, I just want to forget that time ever existed. Just the worst. 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. Are you interested in guest blogging on Shoegnome? Ideally I want to have 2 to 4 guest posts a month. E-mail me.


  1. Patrick May June 12, 2014
  2. Jason Smith June 12, 2014
    • Jared Banks June 13, 2014
  3. Pingback: Design like an Architect » Shoegnome June 26, 2014

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