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12.11.2006
A New Era for an Old Partnership

Given all the marketing material surrounding BIM software like Autodeskks Revit, it would seem architects and engineers had never collaborated intimately on projects before. Now, as the ad copy goes, anyone can do anything from anywhereeand let everyone know about it. While itts true that BIM makes the design and construction process more fluid, the work of architects and engineers has always been intertwined: The variable is, to what degree.

The answer dependssas it always hasson the nature of the architect and of the architecture. The way an architect arranges his practice often reflects the way he chooses to work with engineers. Firms that are not based around one head guy tend to be more collaborative,, said structural engineer Guy Nordenson, who is critical of the misperception that technology alone is responsible for the current climate of collaboration. Formerly with Ove Arup, the pioneering consultant engineering firm, he started his own firm, Guy Nordenson and Associates in 1997, and has been a key collaborator on such projects as the Museum of Modern Art with Yoshio Taniguchi, the Toledo Museum of Art Center for Glass by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA, and numerous projects with Steven Holl. With a dozen employees working on as many projects, Nordenson offered with palpable amusement and satisfaction the fact that he continues to work in AutoCad, eschewing Rhino, Revit, and other popular software. Our work can be done with paper and a pencil; itts not about the technology,, he said. Itts really about creativity and a desire to work in a different way. People come to us purposely because they want to embark on the process together..

Nordenson contextualizes this recent wave of architect-engineer partnerships within a historical cycle, as a backlash against a generation of architectssexemplified by the postmodernistssthat refused technological input on their designs. Only this time around, in contrast to the last moment when the United States saw close architect-engineer collaborationssthe mid-20th century, with talents like Gordon Bunshaft and Marcel Breuer, who both turned to engineer Paul Weidlinger, and Eero Saarinen who worked with Fred Severuddmodeling and information management technology has expanded the possibilities of collaboration. Moreover, they have encouraged a wide range of designers to embark on the sort of collaboration with structural engineers that might be more typical for a European firm but has been beyond consideration for many small or medium-sized U.S. practices.

Buro Happold made the leap to BIM in response to the way architects were working. We had to teach our guys how to use Rhino because they had no idea what the hell people were sending us,, said Craig Schwitters, principal of Buro Happoldds New York office. Though Rhino allows architects to create complex 3D models, it did not translate well among the software used by engineers or construction managers. Enter BIM. Programs like Revit and Gehry Technologiess Digital Projects that integrate all the design componentssarchitectural schematics, structural supports, mechanical systemssinto a single model built up of layers can be edited with ease, and information can be transferred effectively between firms.

Schwitterrs Los Angeles counterpart, Greg Otto, spoke proudly of the new Emirates Stadium in London, which Buro Happold designed with HOK Sport for Arsenal F.C. The architects were interested in exploring structure as architecture, in exposing the supports and making them an important part of the design. Though this could have been achieved without BIM, it allowed the project team to streamline workflow, saving time and money because information can travel quickly and fewer redesigns are required, thanks to the constant contact everyone shares, a selling point Otto always emphasizes.

Itts about peoplees willingness to work with new things,, Otto said. The traditional engineer shoehorns his things in at the end. Now itts front-end, itts early, itts a collaboration. It takes a lot of confidence on the part of the architect..

With or without BIM-inclined architect clients, many engineers are adopting BIM for internal use. Erleen Hatfield, a vice-president at Thornton-Tomasetti, recounted her firmms move to BIM five years ago. An architect had approached the firm about collaborating on a project using BIM. They decided to get on board,, investing heavily in the software and training. Though the architect eventually abandoned BIM, Thornton-Tomasetti has increased its use because the technology allows for improved communication within the firm.

Still, BIM will not solve design problems with one fell keystroke. It doesnnt mean engineers will lead the process or that architects wonnt need engineers or that you could go to some eight year old for your design,, Schwitters said. BIM isnnt actually pushing the final button for you. Itts a tool that helps everyone push the button together.. Matt Chaban is an editorial intern at AN.

Matt Chaban is an Editorial Intern at AN.

Matt Chaban