Tech Gurus Assume New Role in Design Firms

Digital design specialists are becoming central to architectural practice, whether as in-house specialistssoften an architect who doubles as a firmms resident program geekkor an outsourced technology consultant, like New Yorkks Control Group, which advises on issues concerning hardware and software needs, information storage, and network capabilities. With the rise of BIM, these specialists are becoming even more crucial to firms, charged as they are with guiding architects through the slow and uncertain transition into adopting complex new technology and comprehending how it can enhance their design process.

There is a misconception that BIM software employs the use of artificial intelligence to make design decisions, thereby limiting creativity or lowering the threshold on building expertise,, said Paul Seletsky, director of digital design for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in New York. Quite the opposite, BIM provides codified knowledge beyond geometry toward environmental conditions, generating a variety of simulations a knowledgeable architect can interpret for possible solutions. The use of computer scripting is also quite important, engendering a new type of creativity..

The biggest obstacles to BIMMand the digital design specialists who are defining their job as the technology unfoldssare high costs of investing in a new platform and the difficulty of training employees how to use it. When transitioning to BIM, the main expense is in training the staff,, observed Campbell Hyers of Control Group, a firm with over a hundred architecture firm clients in the New York area. It can easily tack $100,000 onto a $1 million project. One way to get started is to select a low-risk project as a pilottsomething relatively small where the client is ambitious and willing to deal with bumps in the road..

As for training, architecture schools have been slow to incorporate BIM into curricula, leaving firms to do the work. According to Hyers, The continued problem is that architects come out of school without the experience of how to build. Now, the architect is being saddled with the task of figuring it all out in the digital environment. BIM software has exposed the lack of knowledge of actual construction techniques at the university level..

Seletsky agreed that BIM should be introduced within schoolss curricula, but understood as a process and not simply as better off-the-shelf CAD. We need to move away from this newer set of toolss ideaaimplying a vocational approachhtoward a process understood as fostering creativity. The architect still provides inherent meaning in design. BIM supplements, but does not generate, creativity.. As things stand now, resident digital gurus like Seletsky, or outsourced experts like Hyers, are picking up the slack left by the academy.

Autodesk has made a trial version of its BIM software Revit available to students; it can be used for the full length of academic study and requires a .eduu email address to download. The University of California at Berkeley offered a BIM-based studio in the summer of 2006, and Yale, where Phillip Bernstein, Autodeskks vice-president of industry strategy and relations, teaches, is also beginning to incorporate it into its curricula. Still, the bulk of BIM training is still happening in firms.

Bernstein predicts that BIM processes will eventually replace CAD drafting, and may become the more dominant program within ten years; he estimates that currently, all major firms, that is, firms with 100 or more employees, use BIM in some capacity. For now, it seems that Autodesk has cornered the market for BIM with Revit, with over 100,000 licenses sold. Other programs like Bentleyys MicroStation and its TriForma extension, Graphisoftts ArchiCad, and Nemetschekks VectorWorks, make up only about 10 percent of sales for BIM software. Hyers confirmed that only a small minority of his clients have deviated from Revit.

Within the next five years, Hyers expects more firms to take advantage of online collaboration technologies. For example, using web services, a glass manufacturer or any other supply vendor will be able to act as the expert and the engineer on the components of a larger design, and will allow a manufacturer to enter exact specifications into an architectts software. BIM will keep an inventory of the size of an order, as well as information about schedule and pricing.

Currently none of the BIM software is organized around live collaborative databases for multiple sites and organizations. The difficulty of making BIM has been surprising,, said Hyers. The framework has to allow a user to check in on one piece of a design and let an architect know a unit has been updated or tested.. Getting this system to work across multiple disciplines is a great leap that has yet to be made.

Sarah Cox is a New Yorkkbased writer who has worked previously for Dwell and Architectural Record.

Sarah Cox