Sunday, June 25, 2006

A Conversation About BIM

Earlier this month the Technology Committee of the New York AIA held the event “Changing Practices - A Panel Discussion on Technology, Practice and Professional Identity”. The discussion focused on Building Information Modeling (BIM). The four professionals from the design and construction communities gave case studies illustrating how their firms used the modeling system to created deliverables that realized savings in time, material, and money. Theatrically, the evening probably was supposed to culminate with the Chairman of the Technology Committee's question "Is the traditional method of practicing architecture dead?" It uncomfortably didn’t. For reasons each participant brushed against with their responses, the answer was an unmistakable "no."

This post focuses on one of the reasons, a current failing for most BIM, and a wonderful capacity of human intelligence that will not be replaced soon: the ability to operate at multiple scales.

Briefly, BIM is a method of describing an architectural design with a large database. Vaguely, buildings are a collection of slabs, walls, and roofs, and each of these elements themselves may have components attached to them, like windows, doors, and openings. In BIM, each component is modeled spatially, (i.e. a door is 1’-0” south on this wall from the intersection with this wall.) but this relational information is in some ways secondary to the way the building’s information is stored: a BIM is just a complicated database of individually customized components and the “models” we see are odd windows into that database.

It may seem like a non- sequitur, but it is helpful to talk first about how others value models before diving into a critique of BIM. In A Brief History of Time, Steven Hawking defends some of his most important work he did (in the 70’s), making cosmological theories by studying the idealized behavior of sub-atomic particles…
“I would like to emphasize that this idea that time and space should be finite without boundary is just a proposal: it cannot be deduced from some other principal. Like any other scientific theory, it may be initially be put forward for aesthetic or metaphysical reasons, but the real test is weather it makes predictions that agree with observation. This, however, is difficult to determine in the case of quantum gravity, for two reasons. First, as will be explained in the next chapter, we are not yet sure exactly which theory successfully combines general relativity and quantum mechanics, though we know quite a bit about the form such a theory must have. Second, any model that described the whole universe in detail would be much too complicated mathematically for us to calculate exact predictions. One therefore has to make simplifying assumptions and approximations – and even then, the problem of extracting predictions remains a formidable one.”

… Here Hawking, one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein, explains the most common problems with modeling in every profession. A model is only valuable because it makes predictions about the relationships one tries to capture. However, the accuracy of those predictions is usually restricted to the amount of detailed information one can encapsulate. Thus, like most other professions, a model is only as valuable as the amount of pertinent information it holds, and how detailed a calculation one is able to perform with that data.

To ground this back with architecture’s struggle with BIM, it appears that our bottleneck, like Hawking’s before us, is at the scale change. While Hawking considered the enormously large and the exceedingly small, many introductory design studios force the analysis of a building operating at three primary scales: the Civic, the Human, and the Material Scales. The Civic Scale (roughly 1/64” = 1’-0”) describes how a building relates to the city. By describing the building as a specialized unit in a much larger whole, the Civic scale makes the viewer consider the building as an element in a larger organism, environmental, social, and in the confluence of flows. At the smaller Human Scale (roughly 1/4” = 1’-0”) the building is seen as an environment for its inhabitants. By describing the way the composition shelters, divides, and controls its inhabitants, the Human Scale forces the viewer to consider how the building mediates flows, social situations, and ecological situations. Finally the smallest Material Scale (roughly 3”=1’-0”) describes how individual components of a building are pieced together to assemble the composition. At this scale the physical properties of the materials used overwhelms other consideration, and reflection is spent on gravity, mass, strength, bonding, overlap, and thickness. Any architectural modeling system billed as “all inclusive” should be judged not only on how well it operates at one of these scales, but at all of these scales, and how well it allows the designer to change between them.

With this knowledge it is time to finally return to the measured responses at this month’s New York AIA Technology Committee event. Each presenter made clear that their model was a deliverable – but that the scope and purpose of that model was made explicit well before the BIM was made. In this way, the model was a design project that echoed the larger job of delivering a high-quality, customized project. Importantly though, the BIM was not responsible for encapsulating all the design decisions, as it is frequently billed. Instead these databases were the site of calculation of only a few design variables, not all the considerations for the project, in the same way that different scale plans are the site of calculation for far different issues.

Thankfully, the design community doesn’t know the scope of all that it will need to design in the future, and these wise panelists avoided making statements that one tool or even one approach to design will be adequate. "Is the traditional method of practicing architecture dead?" was recast by the end of the evening to include all the systems of collage, bricolage, and extra-resourceful guerilla-design that will necessarily keep things new and changing for generations to come.


Blogger christoph said...

Great article! People talk less about the theoretical aspects of BIM (more about its economic factor). In the office we still just draw digital: You have no idea about the waste of human (intellectual) resources.

4:05 AM  
Blogger J said...

I know what you mean, Chrisoph. Our office is only 1/2 invested in BIM, and the straddling means we suffer similar frustrations from redundancies, inconsistencies, and changes in workflow.

Worse still, I hear from peers that their offices are making the transition without training their employees on the software (not even a consultant taking a day to orient people). This news makes one even more worried.

At the root of the shift in the profession are issues surrounding a practitioner's relationship to his tools. Gone are the days when draftsmen carried around his own leads, scales, and apron to each job -- but the sense of loss from that era was that these men were contemplative, deliberate, professionals. Knowing what you want and being able to get it efficiently illustrated is hard enough; also slogging up a new medium's steep learning curve only leads to frustration and ire.

Hopefully the approach to new technologies within our profession will be embraced, however abstractly, as it’s own challenge. Instead of relying on the assumptions that this post illustrated, if professions focus on a complete understand of their tools first, than theories about how the profession will change will get much more specific and well defined.

Good luck to you.

1:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's interesting that I saw the same presentation and didn't get the question from the panel of whether conventional architectural practice was over. I think BIM will become indispensable for some things, but for most of the task of design is a real nuisance, a sort of cyclotron pencil sharpener. The main message I got, though, is that the visionaries want BIM to become an opportunity for architects to reaffirm their central role in the building process.

What I find a nuisance about it is that I used to just draw some squiggly lines and call them something suggestive, and let 'means and methods' mysteriously transform them into beams and plaster and bent metal, etc. Now the tool insists on having everything so completely described a machine could build it. There's a long list of good things about that, but it means inputting a lot more information. The main reason is that a real building is exceedingly more complex than any set of documents ever was before, and the BIM promoters think we're on the way to completely modeling buildings!

Some places I think the extra information is pointless and makes changing things much more complicated than making them in the first place. Making changes easier to propagate was one of the main 'solutions' I've heard that is supposed to make the architectural job easier. I think the opposite is more likely except for some special categories of work. Having to figure out everything in design development makes you figure out a lot more than you ever did before, each time.

Another thing the increased information requirement does is bring vendors and sub-contractors on the job before there are any bid documents. That's been going on for some time, since the products we use have required more learning to know how to use. But I think it's a bad direction for cost and open competition. In order to tell them *exactly* how to build, preparing most of their shop drawings for them, they first have to tell you *exactly* how they'd want to do it, and have to talk to you before they officially get the work. The coordination that used to be such a huge headache for them can be incorporated in the design at the same time the architect is searching to understand the user's real experience of the space. The owners like that too, because they don't get the surprise costs of solving the problems of uncoordinated design documents.

Architects are just such suckers for unfunded mandates though! I count three huge ones in just ten years, ADA, sustainability, and now BIM. Are we getting better fees?

Of course, what the tool does best for architects is as a fabrication tool, for the kinds of sculptural and geometric design that could not be built any other way. That's not a lot of what architects do though. It sure would be nice for architects to give the engineering trades a useful coordination model, though, but the trick is to figure out how to keep from having to pre-build every detail they don't care about to accomplish that.

8:59 PM  
Blogger J said...


Oh you tug at the heart strings for "Architects are just such suckers for unfunded mandates" Too close to home. There's so many discussion points here I have to post about it, please allow a moment to think...


9:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you have to look at what the BIM the acronym stands for;
B=building, not rocket ships, not machnine guns, not components, not how many irishmen it takes to screw a light bulb, planin simple and dumb, building
I=information, nothing more nothing less,
M=model, in todays parlance is everything is near to our hearts
That i all it is, nothing more nothing less.
What BIM has the potential to is make arrchitects deliver accurate information. It requires the architect to function in 3D, a new experience for many. A particuarly new experince for those raised in the deadly world of glass faced 2D. pretty colored meaningless lines. An architect has to think like an architect.
The beauty of accurate information is that it actually lessens the cost of construction, it means that architects can start to clean up their own back yard, stop making up arguments about the contarctor should have known better, the contractor should have known that he actually require 6 lollypops instead of the the 4 in the information provided by the architect.
The classic lazy sign, editing the dimension and not correcting the geometry, maybe, hopefully, will be gone.
It has the potential to make an architect honest.
But even better is that it has the potential to stop architects cutting and pasting details, from other projects or from manufacturers. that almost work, but because the architect is lazy, it is left to the contractor to figure it out.
How much information you provide is a question, a good question. There is NO requirement to specify means and methods, there is NO requirement to count how many screws- absolute bloody piffle, scaremongering and bullshit. The requirement, as it always has been, to provide the information to build the building. The more complex you make it or the more control you wnat to have, maybe you do want to now how many rivets are used, the more you have to provide.
Use your brain. That is what it is for.
As for coordination, ada and sustainabilty- it is and always has been part of the mandate. ADA and sustainability are now legislated because architects were not accounatble. Inaccurate or no coordination costs the client money and lowers the lazy architect's return and cost the lazy architect future commision. But it also costs every other architect, evryone of is made to suffer.

7:41 PM  
Blogger sevensixfive said...

I like this:

"What I find a nuisance about it is that I used to just draw some squiggly lines and call them something suggestive, and let 'means and methods' mysteriously transform them into beams and plaster and bent metal, etc. Now the tool insists on having everything so completely described a machine could build it."

The model is jut that, a model. It only contains as much information as someone's already put into it. It can't interpret gestures, and it can't solve problems that haven't already been solved.

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