Is BIM that good for architects?

BIM offers an extraordinary way to produce architectural information, such as drawings, schedules, documentation etc. But this way of working comes with limitations. In this post we’ll look into the horizon of possibilities and what to watch for when it comes to BIM. Here is the original video, the blog version is below.

What is BIM?

BIM (Building Information Modelling) is designed to be an intelligent way to develop building design from the start up to technical stages of design process. In very basic terms, BIM allows you to create building in 3d so that (at least in theory) you don’t ever have to draw elevations, plans and sections.

Why to use BIM?

The BIM software, like Revit, ArchiCAD, Vectoworks, Microstation etc. are basically designed to take away all of the labour that goes into producing architectural information. For instance, every single change will update automatically across all drawings without the need to amend any drawings. BIM software usually also have built in scheduling capabilities, useful for the boring mundane tasks like window and door schedules.

BIM is a big step up from CAD, where any change must be updated manually on all the relevant drawings where the change occurs.

Automation offered by BIM is a game changer, particularly on more complex project. In BIM errors, missing elements, alignment issues and other problems are much less likely to happen when compared to CAD. This is because error detection is built into the software. And because all building information is available in 3d, you are likely to notice a problem before it becomes an issue.

Problems with BIM

So with all these capabilities, the question is why is BIM is not universally accepted way of designing things? Why is it that not every single practice out there uses Revit or ArchiCAD? I’ll offer some of the answers below.

Cost

The first obvious answer is the cost. At the time of writing this blog, in the UK the Revit starting price was £2,940 per year, ArchiCAD was £1,899 year, and Vectorowks perpetual license was £2,985 (which actually is a good deal IMHO). And if you add in the different optional features and plugins, these prices can go up much higher.

BIM price difference is quite a stark compared to CAD. One of the cheaper option available on the market is AutoCAD LT starting at just £468 per year. This means that if you work in the architectural industry for a small firm, it is unlikely that they will want to invest into BIM software, neverminded the associated staff training costs.

The Learning Curve

The second BIM friction point is the learning curve. Compared to CAD, BIM software is inherently more complex to learn to the point of being able to perform even the most basic tasks.In contrast, when it comes to CAD most operations are very straight forward because they rely on few drawing commands in order to produce drawings. If you know how to draw a line, trim, change thickness and add hatch, then you are basically set to go. CAD programs imitates the real-life drawing process which means that very quickly it is possible to go from absolutely nothing to a draft plan in a matter of seconds.

BIM on the other hand requires understanding of the software logic: how levels are organised, which elements are hosted on other elements, where all the correct buttons are located, which workflows to use and when, how to organise and share files etc. The list is gets pretty big compared to CAD, where really all you need to understand is the difference between the model space and the paper space and you are pretty much ready to go.

I It is possible to be quick at BIM – but it takes a while to get to that point. And even then, experienced users will always find small project specific things that will require a non-standard approach and digging through online forums. It is easy to make standard square-blocky buildings in BIM software. However, as soon as there is a non-standard situation (and this is very often the case in architecture world) then things start to get really complicated. And when deadlines are looming and the time is of the essence, this can be a really big problem.

Early design stages

The last point is about BIM design limitations, specifically during the start of the project.

In early-stage design process, or creative work of any sort for that matter, you really want to have the least amount of friction between your brain and the final output. Be it drawing, writing, modelling or anything like that. You basically want to get your ideas on to the paper or on to your screen as fast as you can, with as little friction as possible. And you also want the ability to be able to edit and iterate these ideas easily. With hand drawing or drawing in CAD, or making SketchUp models this process is super straight forward and fast.

In BIM every design element must be modelled in and unless you are jedi level, there is likely to be at least some friction in the early-stage process. Because not only will you be trying to figure out the best design solutions for the specific context and brief from the client, but you will also be forced to constantly think how to place different elements in the software such that they look and behave exactly the way you want. And when a problem is inevitably encountered, it will distract from the design process. So instead of putting all the energy and focus into figuring out specific design solution, you are now spending time figuring out how to make the software work. This completely detracts from the big picture design decisions.

Very quickly you might find yourself in a situation, where the software is actually standing in your way between your ideas and saving these ideas onto the computer. The problem might be as simple as not knowing where a certain button is (which takes half an hour of digging through forums to find it) or it can be some sort of complicated and obscure technique that only about three people in the world know solution to. At that point it becomes easy to throw in the towel and give up or just let the software do what you know it can, and patch the drawing later on to compensate for the lack of knowledge.

Now you might say – any other piece of software require some type of figuring out. And yes, that is true to an extent, but I think that the difference is that you only really need to know about 30% of Photoshop, SketchUp, AutoCAD, InDesign etc. to able to produce decent results. Whereas, a more detailed and nuanced understanding of BIM software is required to get similar results.

So now what?

I do think that BIM is the future of design because it offers amazing possibilities that are impossible with the traditional CAD. But I think it is the complexity of the BIM programs is a real problem for architects, BIM software I just way too complicated to get into fast.

Architects deal with physical world problems, with clients, consultants, problems on site, legal matters etc. Architecture profession is very complex as it is. If the main design tool at our disposal constantly “misbehaves” and is hard to get to know it, then this tool becomes an obstacle in the process. It becomes just another layer of complexity; unpredictability and a time drain in already complex process.

Yes, it is definitely possible to master any BIM software to the point where all the aforementioned problems discussed previously become irrelevant. However, this is a long and intensive process, which requires dedication, loads of learning and constant improvement. And with all other complexities of the profession, it is not hard to see why a lot of architects still stick with CAD.

I think ultimately life is too short to be spending two hours searching online how to connect two stubborn walls that just won’t connect! And until the time when BIM software user interface become more intuitive or until everyone is be forced to use BIM, we will keep circling around this debate.

Ultimately, if you are interested or you are serious about learning BIM then I would encourage you to give it a shot – download a trial, watch some tutorial online, there is plenty free resources YouTube and just go for it! If you are new to BIM you will be amazed by the capabilities it has to offer and maybe you’ll realise that it is the best thing that ever happened to you.

Alternatively, if you feel like BIM is not for you, I would still keep an open mind about it. The industry is heading into BIM directions and you don’t want to be left behind.

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