Ryder Architecture, Manchester Central Library

Technological design platforms are meant to help architects realise their visions, rather than drive their designs.  There is a growing argument that the increasingly standardised use of Building Information Modeling (BIM) software might alter the way we conceive our buildings, as well as execute them.  What might this BIM School look like and should such a thought scare or excite us? Jakob Andreassen, BIM Manager at BIG, Atkins technical director Anne Kemp, and Peter Barker, managing director of BIM Academy, join the debate.

Five to ten years ago, if you’d mentioned building information modeling (BIM) software to a construction professional, you might have been met with a quizzical look.  Then seen very much as an offshoot of computer aided design (CAD), its adoption was low and its benefits open to question.  In the NBS National BIM survey 2011, by the Royal Institute of British Architects, a full 43% of respondents were unaware of BIM and only 13% were using it.

More recently, the situation has been flipped on its head.  Since April 2016, the use of BIM has been mandated on centrally funded projects throughout the UK, and the latest NBS survey showed that a majority (54%) of those surveyed were now integrating BIM into their own work.  Elsewhere, the trajectory is similar, with government mandates in place across the likes of Singapore, Dubai, Spain and Norway.

It seems that, however much an architect might hanker after the old days of technical drawings and tracing paper, BIM software is here to stay.  As Peter Barker, explains, “The appetite has changed.  It’s almost become non negotiable that in order to build increasingly complex buildings against very demanding budgets and schedules, you need to use digital tools to streamline the process.”

In essence, BIM refers not to a simple design tool but to a shared knowledge resource.  For every building that is created, a digital asset (or twin) is developed and maintained in parallel, containing a wealth of data around its physical and functional characteristics.  This can be shared, and added to, by everyone involved in the project.

“It’s not just for buildings and it’s not just 3D modeling,” points out Anne Kemp, technical director of Atkins and head of the recently launched UK BIM Alliance.  “BIM is the purposeful management of information across the whole life cycle of a built environment project, starting with the end in mind. It allows clients, owners and the supply chain to appreciate that the digital asset is becoming as important as the physical one as our industry undergoes its digital transformation.”

The possibilities are profound, particularly when BIM is combined with other tools like data analytics.  It can greatly help decision making, giving project owners an overview of the best ways to create value and cut waste.  And because information is no longer siloed, teams can far more easily communicate.

That said, a change of this magnitude is unlikely to occur without some pushback.  As well as the residual skepticism surrounding its usefulness, there has been some argument that BIM detracts from the very nature of the architect’s role.  Given its focus on efficiency, might some of the intangibles that constitute good design get lost along the way?

One 2011 paper, published in the Journal of Architecture Engineering Technology, made the case that BIM is changing the nature of architectural design idea generation.

“It is our architectural position that the BIM workflow has the potential to positively impact the creation of meaningful architecture.  The nature of architectural idea generation is a delicate process, which does not always benefit from early and quantitatively rigorous engineering analysis,” wrote the authors, who were based at Penn State in the USA.

It’s easy to see why this worry might arise.  BIM is deeply collaborative by nature, which gives the lie to any romantic idea of the architect as the author of the project.  What’s more, given that BIM requires buildings to be modeled rather than drawn, it cannot help but disrupt the traditional design process.

On the other hand, in such a fast-evolving field, concerns of this nature may eventually come to be seen as little more than teething problems.  So, as architectural professionals become better used to BIM, what are the wider ramifications for design?  And how might it change the way the discipline is conceptualised?

For Barker, BIM is far more cause for excitement than concern.

“A few years ago, people were saying it changes everything, architects are no longer in control – but the responsibility and the potential for leadership is still there,” he says.  “They just need to learn how to use some very powerful digital tools to replace simple 2D CAD or drawing board processing. And they can still start with tracing paper and felt pens, but they very soon move into digital modeling programmes like Revit which empower them to take more ownership.”

He adds that BIM can automate much of the grunt work, freeing up the designer to think about materials and aesthetics.

“For instance, if you’re designing a hospital, you need to work out all the relationships of the spaces, and in the old days this would have to be done on paper, but now you can do it via programming tools,” he says.  “BIM means the number crunching happens much more rapidly, meaning time can be spent on refining other aspects of the design.”

While keen to point out its advantages, he does concede BIM adoption has its pain points, in particular its requirement for greater planning.  Unlike traditional design approaches, BIM forces you to work out what is technically possible before diving into the creative process.

“Arguably how that’s how the industry should be working anyway, but that’s one of the main caveats,” he says.

An architect, then, might sketch their idea on paper, before translating it into a digital format using BIM software.  This would then be accessed by the structural engineer to test its stability, avoiding a situation in which the project flounders further down the line.

According to Jakob Andreassen, BIM manager at BIG, as building design grows more complicated, this kind of forethought is becoming increasingly necessary.

“With better access to early simulations of daylight and energy performance, architects at a very early stage can validate building designs with regard to a variety of parameters other than pure aesthetics otherwise, a great design may later be compromised by modifications demanded to meet building performance requirements.”

The upshot is that designs can be signed off and moved into construction more quickly, with the ultimate look and feel of the building more far more transparent to end users.  And while the process may seem overwhelming, if it’s carefully managed from the outset it’s unlikely to descend into chaos.

The remaining worries surrounding BIM really fall into two brackets: firstly that the technical know how isn’t there, and secondly that the digitisation of design might one day go further than we might like. 

Regarding the first worry, Barker feels that poor technical knowledge could lead to architects feeling restricted.

“Greater familiarity with the software will help them realise, and probably more rapidly visualise, some of the creative ideas that they have.  The tools don’t drive the design – they help to realise the intangible creative thought processes,” he says.

Regarding the second, Andreassen believes we are in the clear for the time being.  While BIM’s potential, over the last decade or so, has matured from theory into realistic opportunity, the actual execution of projects has not yet changed too dramatically.

“Any attempts to simplify the entire design of a building to an automated process will leave plenty of business for architects in any near future.  The great disruption is still ahead of us”.

In the longer term, the fear is one held by most industries – namely how digital tools might bleed into robotics and artificial intelligence and ultimately render many jobs obsolete.  With BIM specifically, there is currently a great deal of discussion around generative design and parametric modeling – how might these tools negate the human element?

Anne Kemp feels that, given the unprecedented rate of change, it is important to start exploring how BIM might be harnessed most optimally.

“This is not an easy topic – but one can anticipate where the aesthetic judgements of architects will be as important, if not more so, in controlling automated designs, releasing them from repetitive and lower skilled tasks,” she says.  “Turning this on its head, if we assume that, say, 40% of an architect’s tasks could be automated, how could that release of time be used to better effect?”

Evidently, then, these are early days for BIM – and with many important questions lying ahead, the software is better engaged with than resisted.

“BIM points to a new central role of the architect seen in a cradle to cradle perspective.  The architect is bound to play the leading role in BIM, since all the potential for economic optimisation originates in the earliest conceptual phases,” says Andreassen.

“The majority of people have realised that if you are prepared to maybe retrain, and change your software and management processes, you can actually get huge benefits from working in a certain type of way,” adds Barker.  “BIM brings you exciting possibilities for the whole of the built environment, not just the initial design.”

 Read the full published article in LEAF Review