For my readers unfamiliar with the term BIM, it stands for Building Information Model(ing). Simply put, it is a 3D digital model (or method of developing that model) that is pretty smart containing a wealth of information to document a building digitally. No longer do we draw lines on the computer screen, but build a digital model with parametric components loaded with specification data and information. Cool huh? It is hard to tell if BIM or “green” is the most overused word these days found in architectural journals, seminars and daily architect discourse. I liken it to that favorite song of yours that you now hate because it was played every few hours on every radio station until you couldn’t stand it any longer.
I recently shared my current opinions of BIM on an AIA Small Practitioner online forum. After writing what amounts to a small novel or manifesto, I couldn’t help but share the content of it here. As always, I welcome your input, but to the BIM zombies, you will definitely have a rebuttal. To the consummate designers, I hope you’ll follow my logic.
Despite the wide use of Revit, I use Vectorworks 2011 (soon to be 2012) and I am slowly learning its BIM capabilities so that the computer can do some of the work for me. I really love the software and I believe it is a smart direction to move. Wouldn’t we all love to get construction drawings done quicker and avoid conflicts between components? It’s also cool to see our designs in 3D and it makes great client presentations and other forms of analysis.
However, we are architects and we are the humans in charge here. It is our still our job to design, manage and coordinate our projects. Yet using technology to increase productivity and reduce errors is an obvious choice to pursue. I am not opposed to BIM as a concept, but as a sole proprietor, the learning curve is much longer since I am doing so many different things everyday in addition to drawing on the computer. Many days I am barely on my computer because I am on the phone or out at some type of meeting. I feel I am an expert at 2D CAD and only ‘good’ at 3D modeling and rendering. However, at building a true BIM model, I am still a novice. I seem to get in my own way. I want the computer to do it my way, but it won’t obey. I am challenging the logic of its programming.
Therefore, my fundamental criticism of BIM is it forces us to produce our designs counterintuitive to how we’ve been trained and how we think as architects. It wants precision and information too early in the design process. I still draw and sketch with pencils and fat markers on yellow trace. There is fluidity to that process. Drafting by hand is still free because it doesn’t require the exactness that a computer demands. Even 2D CAD requires a specific known dimension to enter information. A decision has to be made for a wall thickness before it is entered. Now BIM exaggerates that and wants not just physical size and location, but other data that I can’t even think about until I have a design concept. Data that is often generated during the construction document phase is suggested or demanded to be entered earlier in the process. This requires a shift of the fee structure as well, but convincing clients to invest more fee earlier to build the model could prove challenging on small projects. This is especially true for projects that may never make it past the Schematic Design phase.
Yes, it’s cool to blow smoke out of the computer with quick 3D images to impress clients, but is it good design? I am in favor of any tool that can allow us to quickly study spatial concepts and test multiple ideas, yet I find it can often “hide” the weaknesses of the design by wooing us with cool rendering techniques. Believe me, I’ve been fooled by them myself. I’ve been guilty of feeling “satisfied” with a design long before it has had time to fully develop. In the past few years I’ve seen buildings in magazines where they’ve celebrated how it was designed using BIM (Revit to be precise). To be honest, looking at some of the buildings, it is obvious that Revit deserves the credit. The designs are average at best with little design creativity. They look like they’re made with “out of the box” parts, the ones that come with the software with no further editing.
My last hurdle is my office does mostly renovations and additions, both commercial and residential. New buildings have been rare these days. I don’t have the patience (or fee) to build a model of an existing building. They are often complex, especially those with much detail. I am a stickler for beautiful, detailed drawings, but I can do that much quicker with traditional CAD tools. As you get deeper into construction drawings, detail is another concern. I have read comments from several architects honest enough to explain the weaknesses of BIM when it comes to details. At a small-scale, the 2D drawings generated from a BIM model may look just fine, but what happens when we need to produce the details? When enlarged to 1-1/2″ = 1′-0″ scale, we find the 1/8″=1′-0″ cartoon just doesn’t cut it. The profile is not quite accurate and the details still need to be added as an overlay using 2D drafting tools. Perhaps I am a bit too pedantic.
My work is generally not repetitive, my details are custom and I find some of the “smart” parametric objects in Vectorworks to be a bit clunky looking. They’re hard if not impossible to edit, and I know from many colleagues, that Revit is equally as guilty.
The contractors that I work with on small projects have little use with digital information. They generate their take-offs and information the way they prefer to do it. What will it accomplish to have a 3D intelligent model of a small project if the contractors are not going to use it to fabricate the elements or to do their take offs with the embedded data? Contractors around here are good, but they still work off of paper drawings.
I admit the way we produce architecture is changing rapidly. However, I hope we train future architects to still think like architects and only use BIM as a tool. I said before, I am in favor of moving towards BIM appropriately, but I am struggling to find a way to use it exclusively. Perhaps I’ll catch on in the months and years to come. Yet I also hope the software companies continue to develop their software to fit the way architects design, rather than force me to change how I think and design as an architect.
Maybe I’m behind the times here. What do you think?
photos are from Stuck in Customs’ photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)