There are a couple of things that, if not common parlance, are fairly well known about one of the architecture profession's top firms. First, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) developed its own design software system, called AES, in the 1980s. Although the firm later moved on to Autodesk's AutoCAD, their homegrown, proto-parametric software is part of the firm's mythology.

The second, higher profile piece of information is that SOM used building information modeling (BIM) to create architectural and structural design documents for 1 World Trade Center (or the Freedom Tower), set to be completed in 2013. The building's subterranean complications—structure, subway tunnels, and utilities—prompted the use of Revit to coordinate all systems from basement to the communications spire of the 1,776-foot-high tower. SOM and Autodesk even worked out a deal in which the software company would support SOM's use and development of Revit on the project.

  • Paul Seletsky
    Paul Seletsky

Documents for 1 WTC were completed in 2007, and now BIM is used on 85 percent of all SOM projects. Integrated modeling changed how the firm works, but, according to Paul Seletsky, senior manager of digital design in the New York office, adopting BIM requires adopting "BIM culture"—a new way of thinking about building design based on performance, not just form. It also requires a different kind of practitioner, one who can shape-shift between the design and technical demands of any project. Digital Design Specialists, as they are called in SOM parlance, reside on several project teams at a time. They are architects (not "operators," Seletsky stresses) who know the tools: Revit, Digital Project, Rhino 3D, Ecotech, and a host of simulation software. Most important, they can think critically and holistically about a design.

"I wouldn't call them 'translators' as much as 'transformers'; they are there to transform the culture and to blur distinctions," says Seletsky, when asked to come up with a term to explain the Digital Design Specialists' role. "I equate them with those who fight guerrilla warfare, who blend in with the population—and you can't determine if they are design or technical."

Not surprisingly, it all boils down to communication. When offices in different cities work together on a single project, the 3-D model is constantly exchanged. Files fly over the wires and are updated at each end. Seletsky wants a web-based hosted model service, an idea that is inspired in part by Google Docs. Freeing BIM from individual client PC solutions will tap into its most collaborative applications. Multiple uses can work simultaneously. They can see the broad whole of a project, impart the results of analysis and experimentation, and test for interferences.

Moreover, as economic concerns dovetail with environmental concerns, building performance—embracing enclosures and structural, mechanical, electrical systems, and LEED compliance—becomes crucial. Here, the holistic 3-D model takes center stage. Proving BIM's import, organizations like the BuildingSMART Alliance have cropped up. BuildingSMART, a coalition of companies in building design, construction, and management (SOM is an active member), lobbies for integrated practices and open standards in light of technological change.

"We are seeing firms that are trying to incorporate BIM without fully understanding the cultural implications. They look at BIM not as ... an accelerated production mechanism. If we only use it for production, we are going to be severely limited," Seletsky warns.

Seletsky is no utopian dreamer: SOM is already brainstorming with Google, a company that, Seletsky says, understands the value of being a gatekeeper of information—something architects, as the "gatekeepers" of BIM models, should be able to capitalize on. Given SOM's long history with innovation, it is interesting that Seletsky flags human issues, not software or hardware, as a primary challenge. His prescience hints at barriers not only the profession at large will face as it adapts to change, but individual architects will, too.

Correction: The print version of this article incorrectly stated that SOM uses BIM on 15 percent of all its projects.