In my last post I had a look at the bigger picture of challenges and opportunities for young architects in a tough economy. ‘Technology’ is the first of two more in-depth looks at the possibilities. Here, the focus is on 3D, and specifically ‘intelligent’ 3D. Intelligence is what separates the old from the new as far as possibilities go – not just representation of a building but simulation of it. For inspiration we do not have to look far because the principles are well established in the field of industrial design. It is no coincidence that as architecture has become more organic (‘blobified’) we have looked to ID for the tools to realise our ideas.
How can 3D be made intelligent?
Literally using parameters to define design forms and/or the development of a design form. Paramertrics are involved in form generators such as Grasshopper for Rhino (3-dimensional forms generated by algorithms) and the construction history of SolidThinking (the ability to modify a design form say 10 steps in by changing the first step and effecting a ‘ripple effect’). A simple architectural example is a door ‘system’ which is chosen once but then adjusts to different sized openings around the same building.
(Building) Information Modeling: … 3D parts that know what they are. It is a step up to translate a 2D line representation of a door to a 3D form but BIM goes further – identifying that 3D form as a door in a database while giving the form measurable physical properties. So once you have dropped the door in you can use it to produce presentation and construction drawings, your door schedule and include it in a thermal assessment of the enclosure, for example. Pioneers ArchiCAD more intuitively called this idea the ‘virtual building’ long before the acronym ‘BIM’ became popular. BIM software is typically parametric by nature.
Industrial design has PLM (with ‘P’ for product) but the principle is the same, and it starts at the design stage. Airbus can get contractors all over the world to bid on production of various parts by distributing digital information which forms the basis of design, manufacturing and servicing systems for the aircraft. Digitally the aircraft is a complex 3-dimensional whole with metalwork, electrics, hydraulics and a multitude of other parts and services represented and coordinated within shared digital files. It doesn’t take a great leap to translate the principles to the design, construction and management of a building. Software such as Solibri and Navisworks which aggregate information from various others are pointing the way. They go beyond 3-dimensional simulation of the building to layer on sequencing/scheduling (’4D’) and costing/resourcing (’5D’).
In the examples below both the aircraft and the building are modelled in CATIA software (the building in the CATIA derivative, Digital Project).
Little by little building simulation is becoming not just an option but a requirement – whether for local authority submissions or design competition entries. It is a disruptive force to the ‘old’ ways of CAD. How it is implemented and the possibilities for its potential to be properly exploited depend on the scale of operation into which it is introduced.
Sorry guys but the project manager has moved from prince to king in this space. I recently read a blog post about a construction job with 200+ BIM files aggregated. Just imagine the scenario – the architect here is a very specialised ‘BIM file provider’, submitting alongside the MEP and structural. No big surprise really but a little depressing. Nevertheless the process of successful co-ordination on a complex project can be breathtaking to witness. Employing BIM is a natural progression from a project management point of view and I expect to see most innovation driven by the requirements of operating at this scale.
The middle is often a tough place to thrive and particularly so in a difficult economic climate. I am surprised that my first thought is that there is least incentive to migrate to a BIM system for this group. Without the benefit of economy of scale of the larger players or the versatility of the smaller it is a harder business case to prove. The investment in time and cost for software and training for an office of say twenty can make it quite unattractive. I worked for many years in an office of a similar size and I can imagine the disruption going all the way through. A larger operation could isolate it to one project or team at a time. Larger offices are less likely to depend on multi-taskers in any case. Having said that, mid-size firms like everyone else need to make the transition now or they will simply cease to be competitive.
This is where I see the most exciting possibilities for young architects. The decision to make the transition need not be for 20 or 100 but could be for as few as one – no meetings, no delay, just a thought and an action (and an invoice!). Self-training resources are plentiful. My personal motto for when I begin to feel unfocussed during the day is “never do nothing”. The tutorials typically have modules for you to pace yourself, jump into a lesson when you have a moment and come back to another later. The ‘virtual building’ is exactly what a small firm needs – layers of information created on the fly and coordinated in 3D space amongst co-workers with the option to take the rich details to third party consultants.
For all architects with 2D CAD skills now is the time to make the move, not just to 3D but to intelligent 3D. Do not hesitate because the industry is not turning back. Parametrics, information modelling and lifecycle management are the key markers along the way.
[[ Originally published August 2009 ]]