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12.11.2006
Modern-Day Master Builders

If construction is a buildinggs fundamental quality, as historian Kenneth Frampton argues in Studies in Tectonic Culture (MIT Press, 1995), information technologies may be the unlikely medium to bring current architectural practice closer to such origins. Architects using a form of BIM as a process to coordinate information and develop construction documents can digitally configure a building in its entirety before it ever breaks ground. The high level of specificity in terms of structures, materials, and costs required to do so come early enough to influence design. Furthermore, the integration of all of this building information in one place allows architects to have a view of every aspect of a designns realization, allowing them to evolve their concepts in tandem with their allied disciplines, obscuring the separation between them.

We are trying to blur the distinction between design architects and technical architects,, said Rolando Mendoza, an architect-trained 3D coordinator with Gehry Technologies (GT), an offshoot of Gehry Partners founded four years ago to specialize in digital building design and construction. GT has pioneered the development of business and construction management software for architects with the release of Digital Project in 2004, a streamlined version of CATIA, the aeronautic 3D modeling software adopted by Gehryys practice, tailored to architectural needs. If you go to work for a big firm, the typical career paths in architecture are constrained. There is a design track, where you develop good skills in form- making, but donnt know how to put things together. And there is the technical track, where architects develop few form-making skills,, said Mendoza. What you begin to see [working in BIM] is the architect fusing those two roles into one, where they are designing and problem-solving simultaneously.. Information that is traditionally spread over a series of pages in two-dimensional plans is integrated into one model in a BIM-driven process, while specializations within an architecture practice begin to merge. Likewise, the distance between disciplines like structural and mechanical engineering, and even the clichhd divide between thinking architects and pragmatic construction managers, begin to break down.

For William Sharples of SHoP Architects in New York, working in a BIM-driven process brings design and construction decisions closer together, in a manner he likens to the tradition of medieval master-builders. Two dimensions give a somewhat false sense of securityyyou cannot accurately describe the way a building goes together. Three dimensions go to the purest sense of the idea; all of the material and engineering information has to be known before you introduce any new design elements,, he said. Everyone on the design team, not just project managers, knows everything about the building,, said Steve Sanderson, SHoPPs director of design technology, who has been instrumental in streamlining the information exchange methods within the office.

Gehry Partners and SHoP, along with firms like KieranTimberlake in Philadelphia, whose principals Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake elucidate the idea of the modern-day master builders in Refabricating Architecture: How Manufacturing Methodologies Are Poised To Transform Building Construction (McGraw Hill, 2003), are experimenting with the usefulness of working digitally to close the gap between the architect and the contractor. SHoPPs Camera Obscura, a public project completed in Greenport, Long Island, in 2005, was the firmms first fully-integrated digital building, and exemplifies the direction toward which they are steering their practice. Rendered in 3D, the design files were given to a fabricator, who cut customized components. This process enabled them to accomplish an unusual level of complexity while staying within the budget limitations of working in the public sector. Prior to the Camera Obscura, SHoP used a BIM process for specific aspects of other projects, such as the Porter House condominium in the Meatpacking District, where only the complex facade necessitated a more sophisticated BIM approach.

As Asymptotees Hani Rashid put it, The advent of computing fulfilled a need to envision new possibilities in architecture, and the next tier of the technology is in manufacturing and manifestation. Costing out materials and efficiencies is where these capabilities are becoming increasingly useful, and are having the greatest impact on buildings. Design can be an interesting function of how [architects] are making increasingly informed decisions along the way..

At this stage of BIMMs development, the technology still seems to make more sense for large firms working on large projects. The costly and cumbersome technology still evades many smaller firms, but for Sharples, a BIM approach is scale-able. As a medium-size firm, itts easier for us to adapt as ideas change than a larger operation,, he said. But to start, choose the part of the project that requires BIM. On some level, itts about the complexity of the project; [BIM] may not make sense for every one..

Samantha Topol