Home  /  Being an Architect   /  Here We Go Again

Here We Go Again

This Post is by Jon Buerg.

I’ve been working in the architecture profession long enough that I can remember the days of manual drafting by hand. When I was in school, the profession was already in the midst of the transition from manual drafting to CAD, and people were freaking out about it—both positively and negatively. On the positive side, people were getting hyperbolic about how much this would revolutionize everything and change the world forever. On the negative side, there were pessimists concerned about everything from mass layoffs to erosion of the relevance of architects. All because of little old CAD, that technology that many of us now look at with the same kind of charm we reserve for things like cassette tapes and 8-bit video games. This should sound familiar to anyone working in the AEC industry today, because people are freaking out all over about BIM too. Here we go again…dammit.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” ~ George Santayana

That’s a classic quote from ol’ George, and it’s so true. Here are the lessons I learned from entering the workforce during the transition from manual drafting to CAD back in the mid-90s. Do any of these ring true for you?

Don’t Dilly Dally

I was fortunate to begin working as an intern and later a full time employee for a firm that had already fully embraced CAD, so we were not doing any manual drafting for construction drawings and only a limited amount of manual drafting was being done for schematic design and design development. This was in 1994 and I was seeing a lot of firms doing things like drawing the floor plan for the project in CAD and plotting it out on vellum to annotate it by hand, then also doing the rest of the CDs by hand. I remember the industry buzzing about the Mall of America project (the largest mall in the US) being drafted in CAD and it being the largest CAD project in the world at the time. I was all like, “big effin’ deal, my projects are small but they are all CAD all the time, and there are dozens and dozens of them every year. Plus EVERY project should be all CAD, right now anyway!”

My point here is that then, just like now, people are not going all in with the new technology. Instead they fall into groups such as “staying away from that for now” or “I’ll use parts of that technology, but the old way is better for the rest.” I firmly believe in getting on board as soon as you can and fully embracing things like CAD back then and BIM now.

Getting Over the Hurdles is the Hardest Part

I remember back then that the biggest hurdle in the process was not so much learning CAD as a tool to draw, but rather learning the workflows that went with it and how different they were from manual drafting. In school, a lot of classmates naturally gravitated towards CAD. Others were much more comfortable drawing by hand. I think the difference that separated these two parties was the ability to get on board with the CAD workflows and clear that hurdle, which was a pretty big hurdle at the time compared to manual drafting. Then once you were past that, you never wanted to look back. How many times today do we say the same exact thing about BIM? The biggest hurdle in going from CAD to BIM is the workflows. You can learn BIM as a tool to model a building easily enough, but you aren’t really BIMing it until you embrace the workflows that go with it—and you’ll also feel like there’s no point to BIM over CAD without getting over the workflow hurdle. I think this is the common thread to so many who don’t embrace BIM.

Embrace the Inevitable

I still encounter people who refuse to embrace CAD (though these moments are getting more and more rare), and now they are two generations of technology behind. Most recently, it was a guy that had a one-man shop for drawing tract houses for a developer building sprawl out in the exurbs of Minnesota. He just saw no point in changing, even though the very repetitive nature of his work could’ve been revolutionized, first by CAD and then more so by BIM. These kinds of sentiment are bigger now with BIM than they were with CAD. I spoke with another architect who was working on a new chain concept for his client and, while the client’s primary concept was already in what I would describe as a small BIM environment, this new one was being kept in CAD because, “it’s just too soon for BIM; it doesn’t make sense at this stage.” Are you kidding me!?! The only thing that doesn’t make any sense is using two separate technologies for different phases of project delivery. A major benefit of BIM is the ability to grow with the project as it progresses through the various phases of project delivery. It’s never too soon for BIM.

I use anecdotes like these all the time to explain why the state of BIM is what it is today with coworkers when they express confusion over sloppy modeling or a resistance to moving towards BIM workflows. Let’s all try not to repeat the past, cool?

here we go againSubscribe to the blog so that you don’t miss future posts from Jon Buerg: Shoegnome on FacebookTwitter, and the RSS feed. You should also go ahead and follow Jon on twitter. I’m super thrilled that Jon has had so much to share recently. Do you have some awesome things to say about the current state of the architecture profession? Or about BIM? Or any of the other topics I like writing about. I’m looking for more voices to promote.


  • August 18, 2015

    Brilliant article. Thank you. This should be required reading for every professor (full time or adjunct) who teaches in a school of architecture.

    I too was lucky in that my first long-term job after architecture school and then two years of post graduate research in environmental systems, was at Oxford UK where we were developing both construction systems and a fully-function BIM system (OXSYS BDS) in partnership with Applied Research of Cambridge (UK). This wa in the late 1970s and the BIM system worked incredibly well given the computing power limitations and costs of the time.

    And then along came Autocad and its dumb 2D drafting system with “layers”, ably assisted by huge marketing dollars and a relatively computer-illiterate marketplace which had a hard time distinguishing between computer aided drafting and object-intelligent computer aided modeling. So for 20 long years or more the architectural profession seemed quite content to swallow the marketing hype from Autodesk whose flagship product had zero object intelligence, zero parametric design and zero ability to build simulatable models of buildings in a computer BEFORE committing resources to the production of working drawings generated from “slices” through the model.

    Why is it – I often wonder – why the architectural profession which is always touting its innovation and design, has been so reluctant to embrace fully the kind of computer simulation/design technologies that aerospace, automotive and consumer electronics manufacturers use every day in their design processes? In fact is they used the techniques that so many architects seem happy to employ in design, our smart phones would probably not be that smart and they’d probably be the size and weight of a brick. Imagine built environments being designed and assembled with the precision and thought that goes into a Tesla, an aircraft or an iPhone? The whole fractured and inefficient supply chain from raw materials and manufactured components to ready-for-occupancy built environments would be dramatically changed and built environments would be far outperforming anything that a LEED Platinum designation assures today. And so too would the egregious financial siphonage that takes place from the jugular of the average construction project by non-valued added players like the banks, attorneys, “value engineers” (value?…really?), realtors, “green consultants”, syndication and marketing consultants and, of course the municipalities whose fees and charges represent city income streams to offset things like sales and property taxes.

    I don’t know whether its laziness or lack of any real computer savvy but the days of architects pontificating about the value of their designs while smoking a pipe at a drawing board are long gone – and so has the monetary value that society places in such pursuits.

    Seems to me that unless the architecture profession embraces BIM and all of the technologies that surround it – like 3D laser scanning for site surveying, for example, then the worth of the profession in the eyes of so many in society will continue to decline. One other pet peeve of mine is to hear architects – mostly around my age – talk about their ‘CAD guys” or “BIM technicians.” This is utterly nuts and in my view a complete abrogation of professional responsibility. Its the same thing as someone touting themselves as an orchestra conductor but they can’t read music or play any of the instruments before them.

    My 2 cents – sorry if it came across as a bit of a rant…..but BIM technology and the rapidly evolving computing environments surrounding it are vital, basic tools that everyone carrying the title “Architect” needs to be an expert in. How else is the oft-touted “design” to move beyond today’s appliqué of style-du-jour lingerie that gets draped over sub-par structures and inefficient construction methods because the banks, real estate investment trusts and “value engineers” want everything built on the cheap??

  • August 18, 2015

    Jon Buerg

    Thanks for your thoughts, Phil! I think you’re on to something with tying our relevance to value added to the team, and to embracing the technologies that help us be prepared for the challenges posed by the naysayers.

    I particularly love the analogy of the architect who doesn’t know how to use the software to the conductor who can’t read music. I know I will be using that one in the future…

    • August 19, 2015

      Yes. The conductor / architect analogy is fantastic. That deserves a post unto itself. Or a slide in my upcoming presentations!

  • August 18, 2015

    Hi Jon…

    Another interesting article. My cents worth…
    1) Phil, as an example of an orchestra conductor who can play an instrument before him, watch the YouTube of Daniel Barenboim’s performance of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with the Berlin Philharmonic. Wonderful analogy!

    2) This analogy is so wonderful that I have to brag that I am a consummate draftsman. I had to learn this in order to make money as a builder. The one who draws…knows and controls.

    3) That being said, I went directly from manual to BIM (ArchiCAD of course). Challenging transition naturally, but BIM is downright fascinating and fun! Especially for the client.

    Any architect or designer who doesn’t use BIM, workflow or not, is just not in the 21st century.

  • August 19, 2015

    I started my career in 1993 in a firm that already used CAD completely….aside from some very early sketching. I agree with most of this….but, the way I see it…”BIM” is CAD. It’s just the evolution of CAD, that we all expected to happen….in some form.
    Nothing about “CAD”…. anywhere, anyhow…..said it stopped at 2D. I did some 3D modeling all the way back to the beginning of my career. What rubs me the wrong way is the way humans seem to need these acronyms….& need to be like “the old thing is terrible, & you’re stupid if you don’t see things my way with “product x” & “machine y”…..& then justify everything they believe.
    Myself…..now that I’ve had a few years trying out Revit & ArchiCAD (note the last 3 letters of that name, please)…..I like things about each….both really suck at some things….& all could learn a few basic drafting & production/management approach from AutoCAD. Yeah, I said it. I wish I could have features from Revit, ArchiCAD, AutoCAD, & Sketchup, all in one software package!

  • August 19, 2015

    Arc. Abiodun Olowoporoku

    I’m just trying to get myself conversant with the new technology that comes up almost everyday. Technology is not static, daily inventions are made. This bring me to the transition from CAD Era to BIM. Very soon another invention will be made that will be more sophisticated than BIM. All with thanks to computer which has made work environment easier. The whole world is waiting for that new invention that will replace BIM. I may not bother myself to master BIM but position myself for the next invention.

    • August 19, 2015

      I heard the same thing from architects (especially architects) in the 1980s who said they would not bother to invest the time and effort to come to grips with the rapidly advancing world of computing (PCs and Apple Macintosh) and CAD because the next big thing would be right around the corner. Trouble is they got left in the dust by people who did make the commitment to understand and know the technology that is and will be so vital to the process of design.

      If I were you I’d get on board and start learning to play the instruments of the profession now – not later. It will make embracing “the next big thing” ,whatever it is, that much easier. As I mentioned before, architects will never be able to grow their credibility with the public, with clients or with other design professionals if they continue to tout themselves as orchestra conductors but can’t read music and can’t play any of the instruments before them.

  • December 14, 2015
  • March 17, 2016

Post a Comment