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We often hear of the great tectonic shift that digital technologies have brought to almost every aspect of our lives, but in one particular yet understated way, architecture has been revolutionized by computerization. Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a background revolution that has implications on every stage in the building process from development through construction and onto the lifecycle of the building. As defined by the US National Building Information Model Standard Project Committee:
"Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility. A BIM is a shared knowledge resource for information about a facility forming a reliable basis for decisions during its life-cycle; defined as existing from earliest conception to demolition." 
While that gives some indication of BIM’s applications, many people may still be wondering how such a shift came about, what are its present applications and benefits, and how it will shape architecture’s future?
What is BIM and How Did It Arise?
What is BIM? What is it used for? Is it software, 3D models, a process, a data collection? In short, all of the above. Essentially, BIM practices transform construction tasks into a database of knowledge shared by architects, engineers and contractors, unifying constituent components into an alterable and evolving taxonomy of building elements. BIM helps highlight choices, monitor changes, propose design alternatives, weigh environmental factors such as noise, light, and sustainability, calculate construction times and costs, and create strategies for operation and management post-construction. In layman's terms, if architects, engineers and contractors are using the same forms of representation – in shared, regularly updated files – it will show conflicts, streamline alterations, reduce waste, and increase efficiency:
Building Information Modeling ( BIM) has been an invaluable technological advancement for the architecture, engineering, construction and building management industries. But for people who don't use it on a daily basis, BIM can seem overwhelming. This animated video breaks BIM down in layman's terms explaining what it is, how it works and what the benefits of using it are.
Like many technologies, the groundwork for BIM began long before it was widely adopted by the building industry. In the 1960s and ‘70s, early pioneers of computer science and the web predicted how such interconnectivity would transform architecture by shifting away from two-dimensional drawings and making collaboration seamless. Rising steadily for over two decades, by 2012 over two-thirds of architects, engineers, and contractors incorporated BIM practices into their offices and workflows.
A brief history of BIM ("the software that has disrupted traditional methods of representation and collaboration in architecture") comes to us thanks to our friend at the Architecture Research Lab, Michael S Bergin.
Just How Essential is BIM Today?
As evidence of how effective BIM can be and how widespread adoption already has become, the British Government’s BIM Task Group has outlined a set of mandates that will enforce a minimum level of Building Information Modelling requirements for all government projects starting from 2016  - the logic being that BIM strategies have already shown their potential in reducing construction costs, and by implementing this mandate, an investment in standards and protocols, the government will catalyze a more efficient and cost-effective future for the construction industry overall.
Real World Applications
Solving Through Synthesis & Specificity
BIM promotes greater collaboration and integration of the design and construction process which, in ideal circumstances, reduce time and cost for everyone involved. Some of the biggest advantages are the ability to troubleshoot problems in real time, including factors that might otherwise have remained impossible or incrementally slow, such as seasonal changes or viewing a project from any location or chosen vantage.
Integrated project delivery is designed for collaboration from the commencement of a project. The uniting of owner, architect, and contractor on a level playing field is conducive to quality delivery. This triad branches out even further when subcontractors and consultants are brought into the equation.
Sefaira, one of the leading software designers for high-performance building design, have recently announced a new real-time daylight analysis and visualisation tool which runs within Autodesk Revit, one of the most commonly used Building Information Modelling (BIM) enabled (Windows native) design packages.
This two-minute video with NBBJ's Andrew Heumann highlights a valuable capability of parametric design; whereby the architect can optimize the shape and orientation of a building to appropriate a variety of viewing conditions at the client's request.
When working with clients, architects are bound to change, update and reiterate projects. Revisions are deeply ingrained into the design process, and as projects become more complex and updates become more frequent, keeping the most up-to-date versions of your designs can be a challenge.
Ever at the vanguard of technological innovation, Frank Gehry and his associated Gehry Technologies used BIM extensively for their first skyscraper in Manhattan, 8 Spruce Street. In that project, at the forefront of Gehry’s advocacy for a paperless profession, the expediency of BIM allowed for only eight errors, when a project of similar size would normally have hundreds:
There are many ways that the architecture profession has lead the way in environmentally friendly design - but when it comes to the process of creating buildings themselves, the industry works its way through huge amounts of paper. Frank Gehry, through his offshoot technology company Gehry Technologies, is aiming to change that.
One of the first and largest scale projects to utilize BIM was One World Trade Center. Putting aside the political bureaucracies that have allowed budgets to balloon and deadlines to lapse, BIM allowed for advanced knowledge and efficiency in one of the most complex construction projects of all time, as explained by this video produced by B1M:
While renovating the Dutch Royal Picture Gallery at The Hague, Arup used BIM as a window onto system upgrades, of which the chief concerns were fires, burglary, climate moderation and damage control. As Arup’s work was intended to be largely invisible – a hidden but necessary complement to the work of restoration architects – BIM technologies proved invaluable:
The Mauritshuis reopens following a large scale renovation and extension designed by Hans van Heeswijk with servicing and fire engineering undertaken by Arup.
Effective on even larger scales, BIM strategies can be used by cities for infrastructure projects with the same range of benefits afforded to the construction of single buildings. Additionally, BIM softwares can model whole cities (like 3D flyovers in Google Maps) to model changes in zoning. Such a practice allows planners to see how light, shadows and visibility might be affected by new rules implemented in different parts of cities:
As BIM (Building Information Modeling) slowly finds broader acceptance in the architecture and engineering of individual buildings, perhaps it is time to consider the next scale: the city. Just like virtual models help us design and understand buildings and embed information, virtual city simulations could have an application in real city planning, allowing us to go from "flat" GIS to three dimensional information modeling that includes terrain, infrastructure, buildings and public spaces.
At its most fundamental level, “parametric” simply refers to a set of parameters that aid in the process of analysis of a brief and the subsequent design of a building. However, the synthesis of operations enabled by BIM also makes possible the sweeping forms that we have come to know as Parametricism. Parametricism's foremost modern advocate, Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects, has written and spoken on the subject extensively. He argues that instead of seeing Parametricism as a unified set of visual characteristics, we should instead recognize it as the physical and aesthetic manifestations of the research techniques, particularly in organization, that have allowed for increased formal flexibility:
As parametricism becomes a tool more designers are turning toward, is this method beginning to define the style of our time?
What BIM Could Take From Design
Parametricism may fool us into thinking that BIM strategies only produce highly refined and unprecedentedly complex architecture, but this is a gross overestimation. Many argue that BIM's streamlining can easily become the victim of its own success if the modeling process becomes only a means to an end for efficiency and cost-saving, thereby eliminating design and architectural choices from the construction process:
The current state of architectural design incorporates many contemporary ideas of what defines unique geometry. With the advent of strong computer software at the early 21st century, an expected level of experimentation has overtaken our profession and our academic realms to explore purposeful architecture through various techniques, delivering meaningful buildings that each exhibit a message of cultural relevancy.
As Carr states, “... the very speed and exactitude of the machine may cut short the messy and painstaking process of exploration that gives rise to the most inspired and meaningful designs.” Can tweaking parameters in a 3D model provide the same kind of dialog with a design as sketching or building a model?
Why Sketching Will Save Us
Many in the architecture profession would argue that digital solutions such as BIM prove most effective when they are combined with more traditional technologies. Thus, even at Arup, hand-drawing still proves its effectiveness. Either brainstorming or in a pinch, a pen and paper can often be a better place to begin strategizing, especially at an early stage where nuanced technicalities are a setback to spontaneity. And, at least for the moment, BIM graphics are not able to achieve the level of detail found in hand drawings:
Our friends at Arup Connect spoke with Matt Williams, a leader of the façade engineering group in Arup's Americas region and one serious sketcher, about the role of sketching in the digital age. The following interview, originally titled "To Sketch or Not to Sketch," discusses how sketching enables communication and how our over-reliance on technology isn't really as efficient as we may think.
One of the most enduring arguments in architecture - especially in the academic sphere - is the battle between hand drawing and computer aided design. To advance this heated conversation, two weeks ago we reached out to our readers to provide their thoughts on this topic in an attempt to get a broad cross-section of opinions from architects from all walks of life.
Cloud and Coding
Although it may have its detractors, the benefits to BIM outweigh the risks. Thus, the future for architects, engineers and contractors will be one made more collaborative than ever before. An aid to this process will be cloud computing, which will further streamline BIM processes by allowing files to be accessed concurrently and updated in real time:
How BIM can be used to good effect by bringing different professionals together early on in a design project.
As this transition takes a greater hold, architects will benefit from greater software knowledge and, in particular, coding. Knowing how to code will allow one to simplify complex actions and further streamline the BIM process:
Given the digital nature of architecture and design today, learning to code is an essential skill for the architect. Architects are knowledge workers. Virtually all of our work is created on the computer. We typically use off-the-shelf applications to do the majority of our work.
With Robots, BIM Will Transform Construction
As machines continue to automate jobs once filled by human workers, the construction business too will be revolutionized by robotics. Jobs that once took months with skilled laborers could be streamlined by machines, that will use BIM software to determine their movements, as explained by Wolf D Prix in this interview about the process behind their Museum of Contemporary Art & Planning Exhibition, Shenzhen:
With a recently released animation entitled "We Start the Future of Construction," Coop Himmelb(l)au announced their intention to take digital fabrication to a radical new scale, demonstrating how technology is impacting almost every aspect of the architectural profession.
While BIM may be much more than simply a category of software products, the applications that offer designers access to the BIM process are nevertheless one of its key components. So far, the time and cost associated with purchasing the necessary software and training construction industry professionals to use it has been one of the largest barriers to more widespread adoption.
What Are the Available Options for BIM-Enabled Software?
As the potential of BIM has become more widely recognized, software companies have remained at the forefront of innovation by launching new BIM-related programs and incorporating BIM capabilities into their existing offerings, at every level from mobile apps to heavyweight desktop software:
The latest incarnation of the simple tool features a new 3D Warehouse and some interesting integrations into the world of Building Information Modelling (BIM).
GRAPHISOFT’s latest iPhone and iPad App, a companion to ArchiCAD, has just been released. The heart of the technology, designed for easy BIM project viewing, is the “Hyper-model,” which enables the full integration of 2D and 3D plans.
Naturally, with the wide range of available options, many have attempted to simplify the options available to architects:
Which CAD or BIM software should you use? Well, that depends. What functionality to you need? What are your priorities with regard to cost, comparability, interoperability? Are you using a Mac or a PC?
Using over 180 reviews from industry professionals, the Grid℠ plots software satisfaction levels against market presence (determined by vendor size, market share, and social impact), categorizing products as a "Leader," "High Performer," "Contender," or "Niche."
How Can I Learn to Use this Software?
Many architects' understanding of BIM is underscored by the idea that while the natural complexity of architecture projects used to be encountered in the haphazard construction process, these days it is encountered in the software used in the BIM process. As such, many architects remain daunted by the prospect of learning these new tools, and designers who are already skilled in BIM use are in high demand. Fortunately, the internet offers many ways to teach yourself how to use these software packages:
We asked our readers to help us develop a comprehensive list of tutorials.
- National BIM Standard-United States FAQs, accessed 11/23/2015
- BIM Task Group Website, accessed 11/23/2015.
- "BIM Used to Deliver One World Trade Center, New York" on YouTube (reference from video description). Accessed 11/23/2015.