Does BIM software restricts or liberates architects?

17 November 2017

Technological design platforms are meant to help architects realise their visions rather than drive their designs. There is a growing argument, however, that the increasingly standardised use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) software might alter the manner in which we conceive our buildings as well as execute them. Jakob Andreassen, BIM manager at BIG, Atkins technical director Anne Kemp, and Peter Barker, managing director of BIM Academy and partner at Ryder Architecture, join the debate.

Five to ten years ago, if you’d mentioned building information modelling (BIM) software to a construction professional, you might have been met with a quizzical look. Then seen as an offshoot of computer-aided design (CAD), its adoption was low and its benefits open to question. In the National Building Specification (NBS) National BIM Survey 2011, undertaken by the Royal Institute of British Architects, 43% of respondents were unaware of BIM and only 13% were using it.

More recently, however, the situation has been flipped on its head. Since April 2016, the use of BIM has been mandated on centrally funded projects throughout the UK, and the latest NBS survey showed that a majority (54%) of those surveyed were now integrating BIM into their own work. Elsewhere, the trajectory is similar, with government mandates in place across Singapore, Dubai, Spain and Norway.

It seems that however much an architect might hanker after the old days of technical drawings and tracing paper, BIM software is here to stay.

As Peter Barker, managing director of BIM Academy, explains, “The appetite has changed. It’s almost become non-negotiable that, in order to build increasingly complex buildings against very demanding budgets and schedules, you need to use digital tools to streamline the process.”

Collaborative design

In essence, BIM refers not to a simple design tool but to a shared knowledge resource. For every building that is created, a digital asset (or ‘twin’) is developed and maintained in parallel, containing a wealth of data around its physical and functional characteristics. This can be shared and added to by everyone involved in the project.

“It’s not just for buildings and it’s not just 3D modelling,” points out Anne Kemp, technical director of Atkins and head of the recently launched UK BIM Alliance. “BIM is the purposeful management of information across the whole life cycle of a built environment project, starting with the end in mind. It allows clients, owners and the supply chain to appreciate that the digital asset is becoming as important as the physical one, as our industry undergoes its digital transformation.”

The possibilities are profound, particularly when BIM is combined with other tools like data analytics. It can greatly help decision-making, giving project owners an overview of the best ways to create value and cut waste. And, because information is no longer siloed, teams can communicate far more easily.

That said, a change of this magnitude is unlikely to occur without some pushback. As well as the residual scepticism surrounding its usefulness, there is the argument that BIM detracts from the very nature of the architect’s role. Given its focus on efficiency, might some of the intangibles that constitute good design get lost along the way?

A 2011 paper, published in the Journal of Architecture Engineering Technology, made the case that BIM is “changing the nature of architectural design idea generation”.

“It is our architectural position that the BIM workflow has the potential to positively impact the creation of meaningful architecture. However, the nature of architectural idea generation is a delicate process, which does not always benefit from early and quantitatively rigorous engineering analysis,” write the authors, based at Pennsylvania State University in the US.

It’s easy to see why this worry might arise. BIM is deeply collaborative by nature, which gives the lie to any romantic idea of the architect as the ‘author’ of Insight > Technology the project. What’s more, given that BIM requires buildings to be modelled rather than drawn, it cannot help but disrupt the traditional design process.

On the other hand, in such a fast-evolving field, concerns of this nature may eventually come to be seen as little more than teething problems. So, as architectural professionals become better used to BIM, what are the wider ramifications for design? And how might it change the way the discipline is conceptualised?

Software revolution

For Barker, BIM is far more cause for excitement than concern.

“A few years ago, people were saying that it changes everything, that architects are no longer in control – but the responsibility and potential for leadership is still there,” he says. “They just need to learn how to use some very powerful digital tools to replace simple 2D CAD or drawing board processing. And they can still start with tracing paper and felt pens, but then they soon move into digital modelling programmes like Revit, which empower them to take more ownership.”

He adds that BIM can automate much of the grunt work, freeing up the designer to think about materials and aesthetics.

“For instance, if you’re designing a hospital, you need to work out all the relationships of the spaces. In the old days, this would have to be done on paper, but now you can do it using programming tools,” he says. “BIM means the number-crunching happens much more rapidly, so time can be spent on refining other aspects of the design.”

While keen to point out its advantages, he does concede that BIM adoption has its pain points; in particular, its requirement for greater planning. Unlike traditional design approaches, BIM forces you to work out what is technically possible before diving into the creative process.

“Arguably, that’s how the industry should be working anyway, but that’s one of the main caveats,” he says.

In this model, an architect might sketch their idea on paper before translating it into a digital format using BIM software. This would then be accessed by the structural engineer to test its stability, avoiding a situation in which the project flounders further down the line. According to Jakob Andreassen, BIM manager at BIG, as building design grows more complicated, this kind of forethought is becoming increasingly necessary.

“With better access to early simulations of daylight and energy performance, architects can validate building designs at an early stage with regard to a variety of parameters other than pure aesthetics,” he says. “Otherwise, a great design may later be compromised by modifications demanded to meet building performance requirements.”

The upshot is that designs can be signed off and moved into construction faster, with the ultimate look and feel of a building far more transparent to end users. While the process may seem overwhelming, if carefully managed from the outset, it’s unlikely to descend into chaos.

Towards the great disruption

The remaining worries surrounding BIM fall into two brackets: first, that the technical know-how isn’t there, and second, that the digitisation of design might one day go further than we would like. Regarding the first worry, Barker feels that poor technical knowledge could lead to architects feeling restricted.

“Greater familiarity with the software will help them realise and probably more rapidly visualise some of the creative ideas that they have. The tools don’t drive the design – they help realise the intangible creative thought processes,” he says.

Regarding the second concern, Andreassen believes we are in the clear for the time being. While BIM’s potential has matured over the past decade or so from theory into realistic opportunity, the actual execution of projects has not changed too dramatically yet.

“Any attempts to simplify the entire design of a building to an automated process will leave plenty of business for architects in any near future. The great disruption is still ahead of us,” he says.

In the longer term, the fear is one held by most industries – namely, how digital tools might bleed into robotics and artificial intelligence, and ultimately render many jobs obsolete. Within BIM specifically, there is currently a great deal of discussion around generative design and parametric modelling. How might these tools negate the human element?

Anne Kemp feels that, given the unprecedented rate of change, it is important to start exploring how BIM might be harnessed most optimally.

“This is not an easy topic but one can anticipate where the aesthetic judgments of architects will be as important, if not more so, in controlling automated designs, releasing them from repetitive and lower-skilled tasks,” she says. “Turning this on its head, if we assume that 40% of an architect’s tasks could be automated, how could that release of time be used to better effect?”

Evidently, then, these are early days for BIM – and, with many important questions lying ahead, the software is better engaged with than resisted.

“BIM points to a new central role of the architect seen in a cradle-to-cradle perspective. The architect is bound to play the leading role in BIM, since all the potential for economic optimisation originates in the earliest conceptual phases,” says Andreassen.

“The majority of people have realised that if you are prepared to retrain and change your software and management processes, you can actually get huge benefits from working in a certain type of way,” adds Barker. “BIM brings exciting possibilities for the whole of the built environment, not just the initial design.”

Plymouth’s History Centre, designed by Atkins, is set to open in 2020.
The Manchester Central Library redevelopment by Ryder Architecture.

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