Digging into BIM Data
Illustration: Viktor Koen

Once cutting-edge technology, building information modeling (BIM) software like Autodesk’s Revit, Bentley’s GenerativeComponents, and Nemetschek’s Vectorworks is now standard fare in architecture firms. How standard? According to AIA’s biannual report “The Business of Architecture 2016,” 96 percent of large firms, 72 percent of midsized firms, and 28 percent of small firms utilize one or more BIM software programs. (The 2018 edition of this report will be released this month.)

Just as BIM has gained purchase in the past decade, it has also grown in its value to firms—particularly in the data it offers.

“When I started down this path 10 years ago, BIM was mostly 3D and graphical,” says Natasha Luthra, virtual design and construction director of emerging technologies at Jacobs and 2018 chair of AIA’s Technology in Architectural Practice (TAP) Advisory Group. “Now it’s about the intelligent data associated with the design. If there was a product that wasn’t 3D but was highly intelligent and data-focused, we’d lean toward that.”

Luthra became invested in the technology side of architecture when a small firm in Chicago made learning Revit a prerequisite to getting hired. She’s risen among the ranks in that specialty ever since, putting aside her training as an architect to bridge the gap between designers and technologists.

“It has been my belief that you need someone who understands architecture to help other architects through the tech side of things,” she says. “Otherwise it’s impossible to get the maximum amount of use out of the tools at our disposal.”

Those tools have certainly grown in recent years, with virtual and augmented reality being hailed as the next big thing, and artificial intelligence on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But beyond all the fancy buzzwords, there has been BIM. With software from Autodesk and Bentley becoming ubiquitous in firms, there are now reams of data on every project developed and delivered. Traditionally, those data have benefited contractors, saving them time in the field. But now firms are scraping data from their models and combing through them to figure out how it can enrich their practices.

“Saying you should use BIM is not a thing anymore,” says Ryan Johnson, AIA, an associate at Clark Nexsen and a member of the TAP Advisory Group. “We’re well over that hump. We shouldn’t be talking about why we should use BIM; we should be discussing how we can benefit more from it.”

Those discussions aren’t just internal. Though more data can help streamline processes and give firms insight into energy efficiency and other calculable metrics, it can also be used to strengthen bonds with long-term clients. These days, if a client has a problem or a concern, the solution can often be found within the numbers.

“I don’t think ‘better design’ is what you use BIM for,” Luthra says. “You need to talk to your clients and find out what they’re looking for, then go back to the data and find out what’s there. The advantage of doing that, especially with small firms, is having a relationship with the client that lasts longer than the time it takes to design the building. You want to be a partner for the entire life cycle of the building. That’s the real value of BIM.”

Asking and Answering

Ken Sanders, FAIA, agrees. As managing principal at Gensler, he’s involved in numerous aspects of the business, including the firm’s incubator labs for new ideas and co-leading the team responsible for design resilience. But technology has always been a passion of his, and he grasps how data can help answer questions that more firms—and some clients— are starting to ask.

“What’s of increased interest to us is, ‘Are people using, say, workplace designs as we thought they would?’ ” he says. “And as sensors become less expensive, how can we configure them to watch and learn how spaces are actually being used by their occupants? This can apply to a retail or hospitality project as well; we want to find out how customers and guests engaged with the environment around them, beyond anecdotal storytelling about what somebody saw or what a perceived problem might be.”

Gensler worked on roughly 10,000 projects in 2017, which means no one person can know all the details of each design. Even more so, Sanders recognizes that, though training and instincts can take an architect quite far, data can reveal hidden truths that would otherwise go unnoticed.

“Sometimes the data confirm what you already believe,” he says, “and sometimes you discover something unexpected. Either way, we want to use that information to help our clients and us make better design decisions. When you work on a project, you’re not done after it gets built and everyone moves in. Especially at Gensler—where so much of our work is repeat business for large-scale clients—we can start to leverage what we’re learning every time we deliver a project and make use of that knowledge on the next one.”

Prepare for the Inevitable

“The machines are coming,” Luthra says. “We’ve seen this in so many other industries. Cars and airplanes are being built without a lot of hand-holding or design input. We need to get to a point where people are more important than an algorithm.”

A huge step toward that point is mining, organizing, and making use of data provided by BIM software. Not all clients recognize its worth, especially non-developers—“No one ever asks us to send over an Excel file with the data we’re using,” Johnson notes—but it’s also not the client’s job to be that savvy. It’s the job of the architect.

“The client contracts us to come up with the best design we can,” Luthra says. “And, as architects, what do we want to be? Do we want to make the pretty pictures and leave? Or do we want to be the master builders, the master executors? That’s where BIM can take us.”