Praxis (Building Solutions)

Reverse-Engineering a Vision of the Future

The Potential Role of BIM in Changing an Industry

Originally titled  BIM:  Building Information Model-ing

Originally published in  The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building: Redefining the Practice of Sustainability

By Wiley in April 2009

Strong emergence refers to instances in which attributes and behaviors of a complex system do not logically follow from the sum of the system's parts. This phenomenon is sometimes expressed in the form of a mathematical analogy: 1+1=3. A commonly cited example of strong emergence is human consciousness, which appears to be much more than the sum of sensory organs, grey matter and synapses.  Strong emergence stands in contrast to weak emergence, in which the properties of a system are reducible to its individual constituent components only, and is thus easily understood; 2=1+1. An example of weak emergence would be a brick wall emerging by stacking up several bricks.   

The idea of strong emergence as presented here, applies to ideas emerging from a group of professionals that no individual could have brought forth on their own.   This concept often triggers skepticism and makes some scientists and philosophers uneasy, as it looks a bit like magic. A conservative scientific position might argue that if you are observing what appears to be strong emergence, then you simply haven't identified all of the constituent parts of the system. I might not argue against this, but would argue that the laws of physics, or even chemistry and biology, are not always perfectly analogous to systems of thought and ideas. Collective thought and creative collaboration may simply be processes that are interdependent with higher level systems than we've yet managed to fully understand scientifically. I believe that Organization Development and Industrial/Organizational Psychology, as well as some advanced neuro-science, are at their core  burgeoning fields seeking to unpack some of the attributes of these higher level systems along with the work of philosophers such as Arthur Koestler, Ken Wilbur, Mark A. Bedau. .In short, we likely will not put the strong emergence debate to rest here.

But if the goal, at least metaphorically, is to consistently yield this "magical" strong emergence in the context of building projects, then integrative design is analogous to best-practice spells or potions. . . and the potency of that magic elixir is strengthened when information technology is part of the recipe.

Design and construction professionals experienced an evolutionary, if not revolutionary, industry-wide shift in building documentation practices starting at a meaningful scale in the mid/late 1980's and extending through the 1990's by switching from hand drawings to computer-based documents and digital 3D design. The use of Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) tools is now a nearly universal practice among A/E firms and many Builders. Over the last ten years, though, CAD tools have likely evolved to their full potential.   

As CAD approached this optimization, investment of creative energy in the AEC segment of the software industry shifted to developing the next evolutionary leap. That leap has landed at a set of tools that can be categorized under the term BIM (Building Information Model-ing). The fundamental nature of BIM applications is completely different from CAD, aside from functioning as design and documentation tools. Most CAD applications deal strictly in geometry, color, pattern. So CAD is really just a faster way of drawing.

BIM however, is an entirely different way of thinking about representing a building. In fact, using a BIM tool is really a process of producing a virtual building.. Whereas CAD forces one to squeeze spatial ideas into two-dimensional, representational views of a building, BIM enables designers to create the building as a building.

BIM tools can be considered simply 3D graphic interfaces for BIM files, which are really just databases. These databases relate specific, identified objects (e.g. a wall) to attributes, like material type, connections to other objects, etc. Building Information Models, then, are 3D virtual constructs of buildings, in which data related to each component of that building is imbedded.

When drawing a building in a CAD application, one simply draws the same building from multiple views. Each time a change is made, one must determine which views are impacted, and modify each individually. Coordination across disciplines, of course, is also an important issue.

Conversely in BIM applications, because each view of a building is exactly that, a view of a single database, a change made from any view modifies the virtual building itself. Thus coordination across views is not necessary. A quote used commonly in training for these tools is "a change anywhere is a change everywhere". Additionally, when using interoperable BIM tools across design disciplines (architecture, structural, mechanical, etc.) most BIM tools are capable of some level of clash detection. This means that the BIM application can determine when structure, ductwork, pipes, etc. conflict and alerts the user. This alone can radically reduce time spent on coordination for larger projects.

Like CAD, BIM technologies crossed over from automotive and aircraft design. Also like CAD, BIM faces similar market push-back challenges related to change-management issues among its potential consumers.  Despite these age-old organizational change hurdles, BIM's uptake appears to be much more rapid than CAD's was, and even LEED's, though the destinies of LEED and BIM are becoming more intertwined.

It is perhaps obvious that a software application, like any tool, in and of itself does not fundamentally shift a process or enhance its product. If you hold a hammer by its head and smack the handle against an upside down nail, it doesn't work very well. In fact, it makes building whatever it is you're attempting to build even harder than more primitive techniques. But holding it correctly, and swinging it skillfully at a sharp, upright nail can lead to holding wood together quite effectively. This is just the nature of tools; you have to learn the skill of using them well.

Likewise, even with the most promising BIM technologies, if implementation of that technology is not well planned, its use could actually hurt the quality of output. But, much like the LEED rating system, there still is a hidden benefit, even when forced upon a project team via mandates or company policy decisions. Even in the absence of an integrative process, BIM and LEED can reveal integrating forces, albeit uncomfortable and costly ones - using LEED likely delivers a better building than the same project would have achieved without using LEED, but perhaps not in a sustain-ably repeatable way without improvements in the process. But like LEED, BIM is forcing project team members to have conversations that may not have happened otherwise.

That said, the cost effectiveness and quality of the product (the building) will climb enormously by understanding both LEED and BIM as tools that to be used well, require an integrative process. When woven into an integrative process, both of these tools have the potential (now often realized) of delivering an even better building project along with cost savings, instead of cost premiums.    

The video below resulted from a collaboration between myself, while at USGBC, and a team at Autodesk. The aim was to envision an idealized design tool of the future. Built upon a BIM platform and intertwined with simulation engines and a digital building product marketplace, the tool would be capable of giving users near real-time feedback on the building performance impacts of their design changes.

It sounds and looks a bit far-fetched, and intentionally so. The interface, a 4' x 8' multi-touch screen built by Perceptive Pixel, was selected to reinforce the point that this was a vision of the future; a tool that would not hit the shelves tomorrow. That said, the technologies that this application would intertwine basically exist today. As William Gibson (science-fiction author) aptly put it, "the future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed." In fact, the primary barrier to realizing a design interface like this one comes down to the interoperability of its components, which in turn comes down to business issues and relationships among the owners of those components.

Simply stated, we're moving toward a pre-assembled tool-kit with which project teams, when guided by integrative design principles, can better understand the impacts of their decisions as they make them. In the meantime, we can piece such a tool-kit together.

In fact, BIM applications exist today that can run energy analysis at the touch of button during design and documentation, calculate loads and size structure accordingly, do construction cost modeling in keeping with popular cost estimating compendiums, run artificial lighting and day-light modeling, run computational fluid dynamics simulations (to study airflow), and in some cases nearly all of the above functioning interdependently - all derived from the database(s) running in the background of a BIM application.

By assembling a tool-kit of BIM applications and by appropriately matching their functionality to explore inter-relationships, a project team can align their process, their tools, and the building with the goals of integrative design. BIM tool-sets then, when used across disciplines, can be seen as the design and analysis tool embodiment of systems theory - or at least as another key to illuminating the realities of systems' interdependence.







A technical sustainability consulting company with clients and strategic partners including University of Pennsylvania, the Pentagon, B Lab, the U.S. Green Building Council, Autodesk, Con Edison Company of New York, Wallace Roberts & Todd, Humanscale.