A Click Away

A Click Away

Architects know that Building Information Modeling is changing the way that buildings are designed, constructed, and managed post-occupancy—but are they really taking advantage of how much it can do? Aaron Seward considers three projects at the forefront of what’s possible.

A designer stares at a 3-D model on a computer screen that depicts what looks like a negative of an exposed root system. In reality, it’s the interior of a new museum, and it needs a structure to support its organic form, which will be rendered entirely in cast stone. With a single mouse click, the designer sets the software to work, rationalizing and analyzing a steel framework.


Elsewhere, an architect is biding his time in an airport lounge and is curious about the status of a batch of cladding panels for a project currently under construction half a world away. Taking out his smart phone, he punches up an app that streams real-time updates and even provides a 3-D representation of the project showing all of the panels that have been installed to date.

These are not science fiction scenarios but real life tales of how the architectural profession is changing as Building Information Modeling, better known by its acronym, BIM, grows ever more sophisticated across an expanding array of applications. The first thing that anyone familiar with the subject will tell you about BIM is that it’s not a software, or a technology, but a process—a way of conceiving and executing architecture at the heart of which is a three dimensional, information-rich digital model. That much is well known, but over the past decade, this process has accelerated exponentially as everyone from design professionals, to contractors, to facilities managers are exploring even newer ways to put the tools of BIM to work, forcing software companies to come out with ever more specialized products to further enable their user’s needs.

“If you look at the historical arch of how this thing has unfolded, it’s pretty legible,” said Phil Bernstein, vice president of industry strategy and relations at Autodesk. “Nicholas Negroponte once said that the adoption of technology follows distinct phases. The first use of a new technology is to repeat a process you were doing before. In this case, BIM was originally in service of productivity and more accurate drawings. In the last stage, technology transforms the underlying processes into something new. Now we’re in that last, transformative stage.”

Today a project can be designed, engineered, coordinated, sequenced, detailed, constructed, and managed post-occupancy through one integrated approach. Information from BIM models can be entered directly into sophisticated CNC milling machines for flawless fabrication. They can control earthmoving machines to landscape a site from uploaded GPS information. BIM has generated greater efficiency in project delivery by preventing clashes that previously had to be worked out on site, often stressfully with lots of room for human error. It has also put more control in the hands of architects by giving them an easy-to-understand model that increases the ease and level of communication with clients and subcontractors wary about difficult conditions.


This latter was certainly the case with Trahan Architect’s Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Regional History Museum in Natchitoches. The 28,000-square-foot project’s interior responds to the swampy geography surrounding the Red River Valley with a fluidly flowing form rendered in cast stone panels. “We felt like if we were going to do something that unique and different that we had better fully understand the integration of systems and components,” said Brad McWhirter of Trahan. “A BIM model was an absolute necessity from the owner’s perspective to eliminate the concerns someone might have if they are used to looking at 2-D sets of drawings. It also helped during bidding, so subs couldn’t say that what we wanted to do was impossible.”

Trahan and its design team worked with two outside BIM consulting firms, Case Building + Technology, which handled overall project coordination as well as the fabrication of the stone panels, and Method Design, which worked with the structural engineer to detail the highly complex system that supports the panels.

Both consultants explained that without BIM, the project would not have been possible, at least not within its current time frame (the design schedule was 20 months) and budget of $12.6 million. “In this project, the sheer complexity of geometry requires 3-D,” said Case partner, Federico Negro. “There are more than 1,000 panels, all of them different, and there are four to 15 connections per panel, shooting out in all different angles. If you don’t have a good way to find objects, get to them quickly, and understand how relationships work, then you don’t have a way to manage the design. You can’t draw an elevation of this skin. It’s never orthogonal.”

The geometrical form-finding capabilities of certain BIM software make it easy to develop and rationalize complex shapes. It also makes it easier to guide those forms through fabrication and construction. Case took Trahan’s Maya and Rhino design files and used Digital Project to panelize the geometry. Once the panelization was complete, the structural engineers got their turn at the model, using Rhino and Grasshopper to do structural form finding and analysis, and to design the connections. The software’s parametric modeling capabilities allowed Method Design to find 80 percent of the project’s load paths and connection points with the click of a button, leaving the remainder to be puzzled out manually. Doing that work by hand in 2-D drawings would have taken enough man-hours to make the project unfeasible. “The technology allows you to minimize the thinking you have to do,” said Reese Campbell of Method. “All of the steel goes through a series of algorithms that read the connections, rationalize intersections, and conduct structural analysis.” After the structural work was done, the model went back to Case, which took the panels—now outfitted with fully detailed connections—and sent them out for automated fabrication. The BIM model also helped during installation. Method printed out a 72-page connection catalogue that construction workers used on site to understand how each panel connects to the steel structure.

In addition to providing tools for designers who want to create projects of great geometrical complexity, BIM is helping the profession keep track of a project’s budget. SHoP Architects, who has been working with BIM since its very first project, an environment for P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, used the process to address both form and finance at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. “When we were developing the facade design for the arena, we used BIM processes to understand the geometry and the material, how each material fed into the cost matrix, and to share information with the client and the facade manufacturers,” said Jonathan Mallie of SHoP. “During the design phase the real key for us was to manage the form and link it to a definable budget.”

SHoP worked with Rhino and CATIA during initial form finding, then with CATIA to link the design of the facade’s panels to seamlessly flow into fabrication. Once the form was found, the model was brought back into Revit for the coordination of the base building structure, the HVAC, and MEP.


SHoP chose weathered steel panels for the exterior, and developed an iPhone application that allowed the architects and the client to track the weathering process of the panels, as well as their installation. “Having the technology enables us to push design further,” said Mallie. “It takes a lot of ambiguity and gets it out of the way, and because it’s a model, it’s something people can see, and we can get everyone on the same page.”

It would be a mistake, however, to think of BIM as merely enabling unconventional form-making. While advanced geometric modeling tools like Rhino and CATIA get a lot of attention for the designs that they are used to produce, 3-D modeling software within the BIM process is more often used and valued for the sheer level of information (and thus the high degree of detail) that can be programmed into models. At the University of Southern California’s new School of Cinematic Arts Complex, the potentialities of these models have not only been used for the design and construction of the three-phase project, but also are being used for post-completion management of the building.

The university’s approach is unusual for academia according to Ray Kahl of Urban Design Group (UDG), the architect on the project: “Their facilities and capital development people work together. You rarely see that. When that happens you get a situation where you can justify what may not be the lowest upfront cost for a project but will be lower over the lifecycle of the building.”

For the School of Cinematic Arts, UDG worked closely with Matt Construction, a California construction management firm that has fully embraced BIM for coordinating construction trades, who here helped all the collaborators on the project get to the next level at post-construction. UDG delivered a model for the arts school embedded with all of the data points necessary for the university’s facilities group to maintain the structure, including data relating to materials, machine names, and model numbers. While the model is replete with information for building management, it allows the facilities team to develop personas that filter the data to only show information that applies to certain functions, such as cleaning, or repairs. The architects also worked with Honeywell to integrate the BIM model with a building monitor system that gives facilities mangers a visual representation of the building showing every room, whether the lights are on or not, and what the temperature is at different times of day. The feature has led to 20 percent greater efficiency in the building’s energy usage than originally expected.

While BIM has yet to become the industry standard for project delivery—in part because it’s still too expensive for smaller firms to use—its influence is growing with each success story. The process is still evolving as players compete with Darwinian energy to see what works best and fastest. Software companies in particular are trying to figure out what complementary systems will prove most advantageous. “People are saying, I can use BIM to look at different business models of how I deliver my project, I can use it to drive digital fabrication, I can use it to help me take on a much stronger sustainability agenda,” said Bernstein. “It’s in the process of changing roles and relationships.” Architects are still discovering the implications of these different uses and the transformative effect it may have on the profession. Bernstein continued, "I believe in ten years people will be working in fundamentally different ways than they are now.” And clearly those who best anticipate the range of transformations possible will be in the best position to control the new shape of building.