Thursday, November 20, 2014

The BIM Placeholder - Hold that Thought!

Architecture is broad in conception, but also intensely detailed.  Two distinct forms of thinking are needed to get a design off the ground and a building into the ground.  To resolve a design, the architect must branch out and explore, but also refine and nail down. Architects have a long tradition of how this process works: loose sketching of options, expressing  and presenting proposals for debate, for decisions.  Finally, design complete, there is a hand-off, and the process of committing to hard lines and exact descriptions begin.  Narrowing down is relentless, so that the many interconnected details can be addressed. Proceed one step at a time, and, above all NO CHANGES to the design. This split promotes two cultures in any practice: the dreamers and the realists, each working in a separate room.

The computer helped relax the thinking process in many fields. A writer of old would write by hand or peck on a typewriter, then wrinkle the paper into a ball, and start again. Editors with edits and printers with proofs each came in strict succession. A somewhat different workflow than now when using MS Word. We have become accustomed to an interactive process.  

Enter the Building Information Model. Architects compose and link a network of objects to describe the design, giving the building coherent form, proportion,enclosure, structure, functions, and so on. The schematic design serves as the overarching outline of placeholders for a large amount of detailed information that will eventually be resolved.

Schematic Design
Peter Cholakis, in his Building Information Management blog describes it:  "Some information is more appropriately located in the ‘geometrical’ part of the BIM object while other information is more suited to the ‘properties’ part, such as the specification. The specification is part of the project BIM, and objects live in the specification. In traditional documentation we would ‘say it once, and in the right place’, however with BIM, we want to ‘author it once, and in the right place, to be able to report it many times’. ...Take the analogy of a BIM object representing a simple cavity wall. The object will tell us the width of the brickwork and height of the wall. However at a certain point in the project cycle it is the written word that is needed to take us to a deeper level of information. It is within a textual context that we describe the length, height and depth of the brick. It is words that are used to describe the mortar joint and wall ties."

Construction Documents
Elements of the design are necessarily generic and simplified to start, giving power to organize  the project.  Elements are stripped down to their basic form as placeholders for extensive, interconnected detail to come. This is important in many fields.  A satellite engineer from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab I know uses placeholders,  “At the beginning of a project, the exact nature of the content may not matter, or even exist yet. Or maybe having actual content would be too distracting from the problem at hand.”

Graphic and web designers have been know to use lorem ipsum, and even placekittens to hold the place of eventual text and images to help bring focus to the task of structuring the page or site.
Lorem Ipsum placeholder text
In the old school, the “design” has to be finished before before “detailing” begins. (Draw it Once!) Now the evolving design has a living backbone to support  a combined team effort. Concept and detail stay linked.  No risk of ever having to collectively crumple up the paper and start all over again. The building information model outline can adjusts, continuing to hold a hierarchy of details as they develop.

That is my vision for BIM in the workplace.  What is your experience?  Does BIM actually foster flexibility in design, increased collaboration, more integrated detail, or is the verdict still out?  Looking forward to seeing a dialogue in "Comments".

Monday, November 3, 2014

Magic in the Sketched Line

In its latest retro feature, Revit Building Information Modeling software can now show a view of a design as if it was sketched by hand.  I had been long awaiting this.  At least twenty years ago, a software called Squiggle cleverly offered to translate the cold hard lines of a design in AutoCAD to sketch form, warming the audience to a more humane presentation of computer aided drafting. What is it about the appearance of less certain lines and more ambiguous images that invite us in,  where mathematically perfect lines and images often repel?

sketchsettings2.pngA sketch is by its very nature spontaneous and rapid.  The thought is being born, not dryly reported.  The irony of a computer simulated sketch is that its seeming relaxed random line style is strictly proscribed. In Revit’s version the parameters are “jitter”, how the sketcher waves the line from straight, and “extension”, how much the sketcher overshoots lines at intersections.  The exact geometry has to come first, not the other way round as in the old school.

Long before computers, the original intent of a hand sketch was to quickly, flexibly translate thoughts to paper, the detail not yet completely known. A sketch was an informal study that allowed rapid iteration of ideas that were not predetermined: a stream of consciousness.  The sketch invited participation. You could see what you wanted in its more ambiguous play of lines.  Da Vinci’s flying machine is credible without quibbling about details. LeCorbusier's classic building typology is appealing and believable, abstracted to basic concepts.

Revit’s choice of the word “Sketchy” is perhaps unfortunate, since sketchy thinking doesn't share the trust that the sketch itself does. A sketch can hide things: flaws that would doom the feasibility of a design, or perhaps bring unmerited appeal through “eyewash,” like pretty composition or shading; a cloud or tree in the right place.  The architect’s “napkin sketch” is famous: the miraculous birth of the design. More often, though, this clarity comes as the design evolves and is refined.  Often the great napkin sketch, the parti of the building, is hand traced  over the final design drawings, much as Revit abstracts the sketch from a set of hard lines.

I tried my hand at input of concept using Revit’s new “sketchy” interface myself, rapidly outlining a series of walls and roofs to form trial concepts for a new building.  It was freeing, but was I fooling myself?. Even as I was able to stay in scale and form spaces to the needed sizes, as is only possible with some level of automation, I did experience more flexibility, less focus on distracting detail.  Hand sketch advocates on the team brightened up and felt more relaxed in offering ideas. 
The design came together. Magic?