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.







The Vocabulary of Sustainability

Part 1 - What the heck does it really mean?

By Max Zahniser

(also posted at The Sustainability NEXUS)

A wise man (either Aldous Huxley or Ken Wilber, or both) once said that the language we use often has a great deal more wisdom embedded in it than those who use it (paraphrased). Hence, we can gain a great deal of insight simply by looking up a word’s definition and/or etymology. This simple, yet rarely employed approach has served me well in navigating the ongoing discourse in the sustainability movement; a movement which has become bogged down and confused by cultural over use and misuse of many key words, adding to and even skewing meanings. Although the explosion of social and environmental initiatives and organizations is encouraging, many of these organizations and their leaders are exacerbating the confusion rather than moving toward the clarity we’ll need to really scale up the effectiveness of our collective efforts.

Sustainability itself is already an over-used, seldom understood word. Peter Senge (systems thinking and organization dynamics thought leader) pointed out that the blurriness of the term sustainability is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. On one hand we’re finally discussing some things in one conversation that have been segregated for several generations, and we’re recognizing interdependencies that we have all but forgotten as a human race. On the other hand it is hard to take decisive and effective action when you’re overwhelmed and confused by a lack of clarity. But I believe we can achieve clarity and still more consciously discuss whole-systems.

In seeking a definition and better understanding of sustainability you could delve into the work of the Brundtland Commission, or the Ceres Principles, or LEED or any other sustainability framework, or even just the Wikipedia entry for sustainability; and it would probably all be worth your time (albeit a great deal of your time). But it would really take you beyond definitions, into philosophies and structures that surround the word sustainability, but are not the word itself. I’ll take us into the realm of philosophy in this article as well, but there’s real utility in demystifying the word first, by simply looking it up.

But before we can define sustainability, it is important to address a critical word that I’ve already used once in this article without defining it. Despite the title of this article, we need to first set the context for the term sustainability by establishing the concept of systems.


Etymology: Latin and Greek: Systema - "whole compounded of several parts or members, system", literary "composition"


1. A set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole.

2. A set of elements and relationships which are different from relationships of the set or its elements to other elements or sets.

Source: Wikipedia

Following from system is a cross-disciplinary worldview or philosophy (or perhaps a meta-discipline if you will) that many of us find to be very helpful in navigating the complexity of our reality, also mentioned above: Systems Thinking/Theory. The quickest way I’ve found to establish a simple but fairly deep understanding of systems thinking or systems theory, is to go over some more vocabulary words:



At once part of a greater whole, and a whole unto itself; implying also being comprised of other, smaller wholes. Coined by Arthur Koestler

So the follow-up conclusion that one comes to fairly quickly is that everything is a holon! In the system of reality or existence as we know it, anything we have a name for, and everything else, is a holon, and holons are the elements referred to in the definition of system above. And our reality is made up of an incredible tapestry of sibling systems or holons, as well as nested-systems or nested-holons. E.G. Something makes up quarks, which make up protons and neutrons, and with electrons these make up atoms, which make up molecules, which make up bacteria and viruses and organelles, which make up cells, which make up organs, which make up organisms, which make up species or cultures, which make up ecosystems, which bump into each other in ecotones, which make up bio-regions, which make up the biosphere. If you stay in the realm of physics with this thought experiment, you reach the universe as a whole, and perhaps some of the proposals for the nested system beyond our universe (all of which you may also believe is a living system onto itself). 


Strong Emergence OR Synergy

A phenomenon within complex systems in which the behavior of a system cannot be explained simply by the sum of that system’s constituent parts. 

I.E. – you can’t tell why or how a holon is behaving as it is. This is the magic we’re learning how to deliberately foster in teams of humans; generating amazing ideas and solutions that we never could as individuals or even as un-integrated groups. Some would argue that strong emergence doesn’t actually exist, that we often simply can’t perceive all the constituent elements of a system/holon. And right or wrong, it doesn’t matter, as long as we can consistently make the magic happen.



Detectable effects or behaviors of a system in response to an action.

For an interesting dynamic regarding feedback, look up the meaning of the Pygmalion Effect.



Separation in time and often location between an action and the related systemic feedback (again, the effects or behaviors of a system in response to an action).

These present one of the biggest challenges, even to the most conscious species (as far as we know it) on Earth. Despite our cognitive ability we are failing to recognize the effects of our behavior due to delays, and this simple concept explains most of the crises we’re currently facing. Achieving great solutions to big challenges means reaching across many of these divides.


Now we have a sort of cosmology or worldview, into which we can insert, finally, our definition of sustainability.

First let’s break sustainability down to its root:


To keep in existence; to nurture; to maintain

Source: Wiktionary

Sustainability or Sustainable then, is

A condition or a behavior of a system which can be maintained indefinitely.

If you can sustain a behavior it means that that behavior is indefinitely repeatable; that the behavior does not damage or deplete, directly or even indirectly, the systems/holons that make that behavior possible to begin with. Likewise, sustaining a system or holon means that the behaviors and dynamics of the system do not deplete or damage the meta-system and sub-systems (holons of which that holon is a part, and holons within, respectively) that support the subject holon’s dynamics.

A couple of quick, simplified examples, in case this is already getting too wordy:

1. If you’re planning to build 400 brick exterior homes for a particular population, and you only have 200 homes worth of brick, then either the size or the material, or both, represent an unsustainable design. With regard to resources, and at a level of a larger, more complex holon, this is exactly what we’re doing.  

2. A bitter, angry person that tends to lash out at other people, and burn proverbial bridges, fairly rapidly deteriorates the conditions that allow that person to behave that way within a particular relationship or group of relationships. Even someone that behaves this way only once in awhile may be seen as doing that consistently by some of the circles they are in. So in that sense, their behavior is not sustainable, at least within a particular social system. However, being rejected from circles again and again could reinforce their bitterness, and unless the pattern is interrupted somehow, the reinforced bitterness sustains the behavior. So depending on how you draw your boundaries around the subject, the application of the term sustainability can be applied in more than one way. Many would argue however, that eventually that destructive personality will create or encounter a situation that ends the behavioral pattern if it is not truly sustainable (incarceration, fatal violence, or an epiphany that leads to real personal growth).

So, as you can see, the meaning of sustainable, or sustainability depends a great deal on what subject you are referring to.

What are we talking about sustaining, or failing to sustain?

Our behaviors?

Our designs?  

Our economy?

Our way of life?


Only endangered species?

Riparian ecosystems? ...


In the broadest and simplest sense I think it is this last one, but with the understanding that sustainable behaviors or practices, in serving their primary intent also serve to sustain the systems within which they are nested. And all of the preceding and possible answers to the question above are interdependent, and are nested-holons embedded as a part of the biosphere. So you could say human life, or human civilization, but underlying even that enlightened self-interest, is simply put, Life itself. 


To Be Continued….

The Psychology of Consumption

Graduate Thesis Design Research by Kate Greim

Advisor's Introduction:

Kate's research paper arrives (perhaps as a cleverly feigned accident) at what might be the most fundamental underlying human condition that is standing between current reality and a sustainable form of future human civilization. Although Kate titled her research specific to collecting, the findings and conclusions are applicable to all forms of consumption that go beyond necessity, in American and increasingly even global society, from the extremes of hoarding, to high end art collections, to shopping as therapy, or just associating one's identity with objects at all. The compulsion takes many forms, but is so widespread we were constantly aware that it not only reflects upon both of us, but we were also constantly aware as she was writing the paper that she had to be cautious about offending 99% of her readers with every conclusion.

Kate's exploration drew her into some of the deepest psychological conditions that seem to be integral to our society today, and found them to be self-reinforcing as our economy depends on the behavior continuing and as needs never quite get met. 

As Kate was wrapping up her process with this research we felt like we were just beginning to see into some of the deepest insights on the modern human condition, and that she could have kept digging and discovering more truly fundamental hidden mechanisms that bridge individual pscyhology and global living-system dynamics. She was putting her finger on what may be the most fundamental and yet oft overlooked and unmet needs that we as humans have, and that perhaps nearly all dysfunction and conflict in our society could be traced back to.

So, psychology and sustainability  geeks alike, Enjoy!

 The Research Paper:

Advisor's Following Notes:

One of the last dynamics Kate and I explored as she was researching was the temporary nature of consciousness and mindset. There are many versions of the landscape of human consciousness / mindset / orientation, many spectrums, from Maslow's hierarchy of needs, to Spiral Dynamics, to the more recent X and Y types of human motivation. In any case, most of us, probably all of us, travel up and down or back and forth across these spectrums, probably hourly and daily.

Yet our conditioned impulse compells us to find the label for what we "ARE": a Myers Briggs: INTJ, or a Spiral Dynamics Yellow, or a Maslow self-actualizer. But does anyone really remain at any of those points? Even when you're hungry or tired or both, or when someone just bumped into you in the subway station, or cut you off on a highway? These labels may be the tendency we revert to when we're well fed and calm; our highest current potential that has been unlocked and become accessible in our best moments; but we're oscilating across these spectrums, and more fluidly than we might want to admit.

My colleagues and I are finding that having some idea of a person's orientation across these spectrums can really matter as to how to best engage them in integrative, relational, and/or democratic processes. And when a facilitator can cultivate an environment in which a person or a community is able to very consciously step into their full potential mindset, or even actually carve out further potential (i.e. climb higher up on the SD spiral, or Maslow's pyramid than ever before), then getting at the fundamental void Kate identified is actually easy. Believe it or not, when I leave a great integrative sustainability charrette, or take even a short trip into the wilderness, the collector or impulse shopper in me are nowhere to be found, because the deeper needs that often drive the compulsion, have been met.

EDEN: Ecological Development. Emergent Neighborhood

Design by Noelle Via

Advisor: Max Zahniser
Master of Science in Interior Architecture and Design Thesis
Drexel University
Best Thesis Award 2010

Advisor's Note: Following her research project, In Search of An Ecological Architecture, which arrived at a visionary conclusion, Noelle bravely and ably tackled the almost ridiculously ambitious goals (listed below) that grew out of that research. She reached for a utopic model of human built+living system development. Dense urban location, mixed-use, transit oriented, passively resilient, neighborhood scale water collection, treatment and distribution, energy optimization and production, food production, and other green infrastructure and ecosystem services were ALL concluded to be requisites of a TRULY sustainable (indefinitely repeatable) future model. Emerging design and fabrication technologies were embraced as also inevitable, and a complimentary match with age-old, climate and context responsive passive strategies. All this yielded a compelling vision for a generative development approach in which built systems truly function as a sensitively, but deeply integrated prosthesis for living systems. A true Thesis (capital T) if I've ever seen one.   

Philosophical Motivation:

The environmental reawakening of humanity demands a new architecture. This architecture will be boldly different from its collaborators to its process, from its form to its performance, from its construction to its disassembly. The process of this ecological architecture will push all those involved to question every method they considered fixed and every course they deemed constant. This new architecture will spawn from a process that mimics nature to create structures that mimic nature. Linear notions of communication, form, technology, society, and economics will be discarded in favor of nonlinear understandings of the systems that make up the planet. This change will not be about form or about function. This change will be a reflection of organization, the process itself. The product of that process, diversity, will be the catalyst that reminds humanity of its connection to the whole.

Project Goals:

Challenge conventional design practice and notions of living to create a high-density mixed-use micro city that looks to nature for solutions.  The design layers urban with pastoral environments and aims to bring human life back in line with natural systems. A cohousing model for residential development renews community connections as integrated gardens renew humanity’s connection to nature.


Former Philadelphia Post Office, 30th and Market Streets, Philadelphia, PA

Site Overview: A building birthed in the 1920s during a period when machine was king and the fuel-dependent habits of today were burgeoning. The former post office is one of the largest masses in the city limits with a million square feet that barely see the sun. 

Daylighting Analysis:

Through daylight modeling, readings from each equinox and solstice, three times per day, were taken. Images demonstrate the transformative effects between existing and post-design daylighting conditions.

[Advisor's Note: This daylighting-diagnosis led to an intervention involving coring out a large courtyard, which would provide air and light to all parts of the development, make agriculture viable, and allow for a tiered hierarchy of public, retail, community and private spaces; all while fully preserving the magnificence of the building's facade and potentially even its beautiful lobby on the eastern edge of the first floor, thus honoring the historic significance of this mammoth landmark.] 

 Sustainable Strategies:

Sustainable practices were applied according to the necessities for life: energy, air, water, nutrients, and quality of life.

Design Generator:

Bone and spinal structures and their interpretation in architecture through tensegrity structure.





In Search of an Ecological Architecture

A Retrospective on Green Building Philosophy

Drexel University - Interiors Graduate Thesis Research Paper

by Noelle Via

Advisor: Max Zahniser

Advisor's Note:

Sustainability, the green movement, environmentalism; whatever you call it there's clearly something more significant than a fad happening. The arc of even the most recent chapter of this movement can be tracked across several decades. Behind the recent explosion of unsubstantiated and irrelevant claims of environmental performance (aka greenwash) there's a real demand for a shift in the way humans meet their own needs, and real progress is actually happening. Architecture history textbooks and courses usually lay out a series of cascading movements in thought and practice over millenia. How might our current movement be reflected upon in such media decades from now? In her graduate thesis research paper Noelle Via gives us a possible answer to this, and she finds an interesting evolving pattern of thought and approaches; trends whose trajectory into the future might point the way toward much more than just an eco-aesthetic, and perhaps toward a human society that meets its needs without obliterating its own life-support systems in the process. Her subsequent DESIGN thesis, The EDEN Project, explores an example of what built environment development or redevelopment might look like in this future paradigm which she has found just beginning to emerge.

Click the cover image below to access her research paper. 

bubbles honeycomb living patterns noelle via cover

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.