Friday, August 28, 2009

Guest Blog: Extreme Collaboration

The First Line
Douglas Oliver
Director of Design
Morris Architects, Houston

I spoke to the TSA conference two years ago about BIM and its impact on the design process. I saw the incredible potential of BIM as a documentation tool, but I had my doubts it was flexible enough for the conceptual and schematic design phases to effectively address the back and forth of client reviews and approvals.

But the software has come a long way in two years. So, earlier this year, we consciously set up an experiment: we took a new project – a transportation center for a community college -- and decided to use only BIM software – no AutoCAD, no Rhino, just Revit. This was a beta test: the first project we started from ground zero in BIM in order to better understand the software’s effect on our typical process of design in the early phases.

We started with program cubes – colored masses that represented the classrooms, workshop bays, offices, and support spaces we needed. We rearranged them to find a unified plan, site, and landscape configuration. To my surprise, the software was enormously helpful: we were able to find a way to cut almost 4,000 square feet of circulation space out of a 75,000 square foot program in a plan that the client was very pleased with. The software allowed us to study the program at a very detailed level that bred efficiencies without damaging the integrity of the design’s intent.

The program and structure were highly modular so we were able to address the building’s masonry exterior very early on and those modular dimensions drove the detailed development of the entire envelope. Sometimes, I’ve seen those dimensions get lost in the transition from schematic design. By drawing our first line in the same software we’d produce CDs in, we could keep the dimensional logic in place.

Design is a process of zooming in and out, from macro relationships of plan to the details of the exterior and back again. We established out material palette early on, and we built that into the model. We modeled one bay in detail to produce a client rendering; meanwhile we massed out low and high spaces to understand the roof and the overall fenestration patterns.

The key was the amount of detail added at the appropriate time: we didn’t want to model too much, too quickly. I was concerned that BIM software wasn’t flexible enough to do that and we would have to make detailed decisions out of sequence. But because we had a deep understanding of how the software worked, we were able to not create redundant or unnecessary detail.

The design phase is now complete and we’ve moved into construction documents. We were surprised at how effective BIM was in schematic design. Our senior design staff in this office was suspicious in the beginning, but we were greatly encouraged by this case study. Clearly, the software has evolved: I don’t think we could have done this two years ago. The question now is whether the larger, more complex projects we do will benefit in the same way.

I’m speaking to the TSA convention on BIM again this October. Two years ago, my prejudice was that the software wasn’t nimble enough and would be too prescriptive. To our surprise the Revit software augmented nicely our typical process and as the software continues to evolve, it will become more and more intuitive as a tool of design.

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