Morris Architects, Houston
This is the first installment in a biweekly feature on the TSA blog on how technology is changing the process of architecture – and how we can drive that change to everyone’s benefit. We want to begin a discussion, and we want you to join in.
We are at the cusp of an epic change in our business and our profession.
The way we deliver architecture projects today dates back around a century. That was when consulting engineering established itself as a separate profession, when general contractors started bidding on projects, and when sole practitioners evolved into architecture firms. Thus began a structure of practice that we now take for granted.
This structure was based on the specialization of technological skills, on the integrity of the hard bid, on a military command-and-control model, and, above all, on paper.
Consider how a structural steel beam was designed, fabricated, and erected: an architect designed a building and drew architectural drawings to document it. Those drawings went to the structural engineer, who pulled out relevant information and assembled a set of paper calculations to size members. Those member sizes, along with the geometry of the building, were then transcribed onto the structural drawings. These went to a steel detailer, who mentally assembled them into a 3-dimensional framework and produced a detailed set of erecting drawings. These then went to the steel fabricator, who looked up the dimensions and transcribed them once again, in crayon, onto the steel.
The same piece of information – a gridline dimension – was transferred from paper to mind to paper again at least four times (and that doesn’t even count the transfer from conceptual design to construction documents.) Every one of these transfers cost time and money. Every one of these transfers was an opportunity for error.
The advent of CAD didn’t really change the picture. The structural engineer might be able to use that architect’s file as a background. But the process was still dominated by paper, by transcription, and by possible error.
But all that changes fundamentally with Building Information Modeling (BIM). 2-D CAD was just a different tool for the same process. BIM is a whole new process: a three-dimensional, information-rich, digital prototype of a building that’s shared among the entire design and construction team.
We are in the early stages of BIM adoption right now. We have the architect and the engineer working in the same model, sharing the same data, coordinating as they work. And the engineer’s analysis model comes from the same data. This saves multiple transcriptions and avoids multiple opportunities for error.
That’s what some are calling “lonely BIM.” It’s only the first step. The steel detailer is already working with 3-D models; why should we send him paper drawings? And the saws and drills on the floor of the fabrication shop are driven by a computer; why not feed them digital data? Already, on a few projects here and there, architects, engineers, contractors, detailers, and fabricators are working in the same model. Data is entered once and used many times by multiple disciplines, but never transcribed. That’s “social BIM,” and it will be the norm soon.
BIM alone would be a significant change. But BIM doesn’t come alone. Fundamentally, BIM isn’t a production tool; it’s a communications tool. And when we change how we communicate we change how we work.
The relationships we’ve gotten used to – the cyclical coordination between the architect and the consultants, the RFI blame game between the engineer and the contractor, even the hard bid itself – were based on a paper world. The more readily we can share information, the more we can rethink how we work. We can build truly integrated teams, collaborations between owners, end users, architects, engineers, contractors, and fabricators. We can simulate environmental performance, structural behavior, operations, even emergencies. And, as relationships change, so will legal contracts.
Buildings, too, reflect the old process. That ceiling cavity above your head, the empty space between architecture and structure that gets handed over to the MEP engineer, is a physical coping mechanism to deal with a lack of coordination. It’s full of empty voids that exist only because architects and engineers can’t really figure out how their work interacts and because we’re designing much of our buildings in the field as they get built. If you look at products from industries that have been building digital prototypes for a while – a BMW motorcycle, a Boeing jetliner – you will see very little wasted space. This is not a zero-sum game: we can build better buildings for less.
We are all figuring out the shape of this new world. This will be a biweekly look, from the perspective of the staff of one architecture firm, at how BIM, and everything that goes with it, is reshaping how we make buildings. How is it changing your practice? Tell us in the comments, and ask questions, too – we’ll do our best to respond.