In the past, integrated design culture favored collaboration between team members early and often, so that expertise about energy performance could be shared. That’s still true today, but a range of new BIM plug-ins and other tools allow designers access to a range of scientific data that can enlighten their decisions on materials and form in rapid speed. Instead of stopping for days or weeks to analyze data before returning to the drawing board, architects and designers can now access data on the fly. Collaboration is still key—and instantaneous answers make collaborations even more rewarding.

Brad Clark
Peter Arkle Brad Clark

Brad Clark, BNIM At the Kansas City, Mo.–based firm BNIM, designer Brad Clark likens Autodesk’s Green Building Studio conceptual energy analysis plug-in for Revit Architecture to visually thinking out loud. “It doesn’t do super-detailed analysis,” he explains of the software. “It’s really for designers to quickly start to get some answers about how the building is going to function.”

Working recently on a school building that combined classrooms, labs, and offices, Clark and his colleagues used Green Building Studio to ask basic questions about form: What does a square building deliver in energy performance, for example, versus an elongated building? “It can tell you how big the change is from point A to point B rather than just the value of point A,” he says. “It lets you play out some intuitive assumptions, and see if your intuition was right.”

Clark says that previous platforms he used offered more information but provided it less quickly. “They were specialized to the point where the cost of using them tended to push their usage a little bit deeper into the design process,” Clark says. “You actually had to invest some resources in making a model with a program to get a design-specific answer.”

Trent Cito
Peter Arkle Trent Cito

Trent Cito, RNL

Landscape architect Trent Cito of RNL in Denver also seeks to adjust design parameters and gather information without fully committing to changing the design. He uses Grasshopper, “a parametric software that allows you to change things on a model easily within BIM,” Cito says. “It works for architecture as well as landscape architecture.”

Using the application, which works within and is made for Rhino modeling software, Cito assigns what is called a point-data cloud to an overall design or some specific aspect of it, such as a landscape berm. “You can adjust variables like heights on the fly, then it allows you to what’s called ‘bake’ the design,” he explains. “It makes a static version of it, and captures a placeholder. Then you can adjust it again. You can bake it, refine the design, and bake it again.”

Cito notes that Rhino was not intended to cater to any specific industry, such as nautical design. “But there are some design schools that teach it as such because of the free-form capability versus others that are more orthogonal,” he adds. “It’s important because you’re not limited by squares and rectangles. Your architecture can really start to generate different shapes.”

Shawn Lawler
Peter Arkle Shawn Lawler

Shawn Lawler, Westlake Reed Leskosky Autodesk’s CFDesign software, which the company acquired in December, is popular with mechanical engineer Shawn Lawler of Westlake Reed Leskosky’s Washington, D.C., office. “If you want to look at natural ventilation or exterior wind flows,” he says, “you can directly export that architectural file into the CFD software. Once you made those geometric changes, importing the 3D file is very fluid. And it makes having a lot of different versions easy. You can have one for your presentation to the client and another (or several) for the CFD analysis, for example. Once you’re in the CFD module within those different geometries, you can have different boundary conditions and sub alternate ones.”

“If you make a slight change and you decide you don’t like how the analysis turned out and need to move something around, you just go into Revit, make the change, and relaunch that geometry,” Lawler adds. “Whatever you see is what you’ll export. If there’s anything you don’t want, if you’re doing internal flow analysis and you have some external geometry you don’t want to export, you just hide that.”

Kurt Johnson
Peter Arkle Kurt Johnson

Kurt Johnson, HGA

In addition to real-time computations, design firms are also able to increasingly offer access to in-house digital libraries of information. SmartBIM Library Manager, says Kurt Johnson, engineer and associate vice president for information technology at Minneapolis’s HGA, has made significant strides in providing easy solutions to managing the data.

“We looked at it a few years ago and it did not adapt well to individual needs, and it had a much narrower scope,” Johnson says. “Now it’s much more flexible. You can organize things into categories and actually preview the information. It’s strengthening the ‘I’ in BIM, the information part of it.”

Companies often invest in information and place them in firm-wide networks only to see the data go unutilized, like dusty books on a shelf. “Without that interface, it can be a needle in a haystack in terms of their list of available objects to bring in,” Johnson explains. “Others operate at the purely visual aspect. This integrates the modeling aspect of the objects with the informational aspect.”