Building Information Modeling (BIM) & Its Role in Contemporary Public Architecture

Tremendous technological progress has been made in the realm of architecture over the past decade, much in part due to Building Information Modeling (BIM), and its ability to streamline the architectural design and construction process. Despite this movement toward obtaining efficiency, and ultimately reducing cost, many in the AEC industry and clients alike are just beginning to make the transition. We began to ask ourselves, why would this decade old potential be seen as such a challenge for some?  We sat down with PJHM’s Design Manager, James Bucknam to ask those questions.

 Q: 3D vs 2D; what’s the best approach?

James: At PJHM Architects we utilize the power of both 2D and 3D documentation; ultimately in this day and age, we see both being essential. Although if we analyze it, 2-dimensional design and documentation is an abstraction of reality, and where there is abstraction, there is room for interpretation. Here lies our quandary. The majority of architects and engineers are not interested in interpretive construction. On the contrary, A/E and clients, in this contemporary industry search for a pure translation of design intent. When handing off a design for construction, a 3-dimensional BIM artifact gets everyone much closer to reality, allowing abstraction and loose interpretation to remain part of the conceptual process only. Keep in mind, 2-dimensional drawing process has obviously worked for thousands of years, but purely out of necessity. With only paper in which to illustrate design intent, the flattening of ideas into orthogonal views was the only way. Not so anymore.

Q: Is every size project ideal for BIM or are there ideal scales that make more sense?

James: Many would argue only larger projects benefit from BIM, but I would say those individuals are misinterpreting the inherent principles of BIM. In any scale design endeavor, rigorous legwork early on to test ideas and remove superfluous elements from the design is crucial. Whether it be the prototype’s importance to industrial design, or a mock-up study for an aeronautical engineer or sculptor, architecture is yet another product that involves an initial 3-dimensional spatial understanding. A BIM virtual building provides exactly that.

Q: BIM works best for the bottom line when the contractor is involved early on in the design process, although for public clients, the traditional design-bid-build process does not allow for that early collaboration. How do you use BIM to its full advantage when faced with this situation?

James: The majority of PJHM’s public clients have implemented BIM into their required deliverables, and we are seeing the benefits first hand, yet many of them are still working to grasp onto BIM’s full capabilities. Typically these initiatives are coming from the top down as District requirements. Such a radical shift cannot happen purely in the design process, but must begin to influence and challenge the design-bid-build process. Public projects could be much more efficient if the contractor was allowed to join the team earlier. PJHM recognizes this issue, and has experts from the construction industry on staff to assist the team and review constructability during the design process.

We also understand public procurement codes are beginning to change. For instance, the General Services Administration is now allowing design-build setups that included a qualitative aspect in the selection process as an alternative to low bid.

Q: What are the challenges to BIM?

James: Getting everyone on board early to set goals is essential for a successful BIM project. Coordination between the 3D model and contract 2D documentation leaves room for interpretation as I stated earlier. It would be best to cut out this step entirely for the sake of the client, the sake of the quality of the project, and ultimately the bottom line. Also, you really need your BIM model to be much more than a static 3D representation. It wants to be a shared knowledge base for a facility that provides a reliable resource for construction and life cycle practices.

Q: What is the future of BIM?

James: Here are some thoughts! All consultants, including the client and contractor are working on the design in real-time, in the same virtual or physical ‘room’, eliminating excess time, and raising the accountability of each individual expert, thus raising overall quality. Think Space X mission control center, or a multiplayer video game. Contractors will view drawings completely in 3D; no 2D drawings will be used.  BIM facilitates the power of using pre-fabricated systems to a greater extent. We will be seeing a higher ratio of prefab elements in the coming years. Scripting, or the ability to design complex building shapes and structural systems base on algorithms, supported by the use of prefabrication en masse, will be readily available to clients and architects, thus allowing for greater connectivity to the biology and qualitative environment that architecture embodies. BIM will play a huge role in all of it.

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