BIM: Early adopters


April 16, 2015 |  Ike Ijeh

BIM and parametric design are two terms that come loaded with all manner of theoretical preconceptions. BIM is perennially associated with data, certainty and precision, with locking in an intelligent, finished model and forensically dissecting and revealing every aspect of it in order to enhance co-ordination and eliminate doubt. Significantly, despite the increasing availability of conceptual design modelling software, in the minds of many, BIM is also still invariably associated with the later, technical stages of a project rather than the earlier design period.

Parametric design also attracts a good degree of prejudice and presumption. It immediately brings forth notions of highly complex, geometrically improbable shapes and structures zealously propagated by architects such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. But what if parametric design could be used to model simple forms? And what if the flexibility and algorithmic logic of BIM could be applied to the explorative, conceptual early design stages of a project?

Many architects are still used to creating physical models made out of foam or cardboard to develop early stage designs. But while this conventional approach allows for easy manipulation of the model in order to progress design aesthetically, extracting performance data from sketches, models or maquettes is difficult.

On the other hand, parametric design can offer all manner of qualitative data such as daylight dispersal, site coverage or area of envelope. What it can’t do is provide the same variety of design exploration as physical models or mimic the intuitive design variations or response an individual designer may wish to impose.

Providing a process that combined both these functions is the challenge that engineering consultants Ramboll have sought to address with their latest modelling software. Based on their work on various projects with architects like 3DReid and Copenhagen-based practice AG5, Ramboll Computational Design and Ramboll Facades have developed an early stage modelling tool that harnesses the capabilities of parametric design to subject conceptual massing models to highly intelligent performance analysis in order to broaden choices and aid design development.

Infinite flexibility

As has already mentioned, there is an increasing variety of analytical, early stage conceptual design modelling tools available in the architectural and engineering software market. But as John Harding, Ramboll computational design principal designer explains, Ramboll believes its technique has a key difference: “It enables a design team to collaboratively analyse conceptual modelling proposals. But it also has the ability to make those models infinitely flexible in order to assist design exploration and development while still providing analytical information along the way. In so doing, it’s a tool that combines the quantitative aspects of BIM with the qualitative, or if you like, human aspects of design.”

Intriguingly, Harding also describes the early stage parametric modelling process as almost a “counterpoint” to BIM. “BIM is dominated by quantitative data, it builds the model as the foundation of the project and integrates a huge amount of information onto that single template. But it works in a very linear way, it’s not very good at providing the design flexibility and exploration that characterises early project stages, even though that’s when most of the important design decisions that shape the outcome of the entire project are made.”

The kind of performance data, or “quantitative feedback” that Ramboll’s product is capable of extracting from multiple, simple massing models is huge. It can range from environmental conditions such as solar gain, shade, wind paths and heat dispersal to economic considerations such as optimum GEA (gross external area), accommodation mix, material cost to, even the amount of floorspace orientated to enjoy the best views and therefore capable of attracting higher rents. This analysis can then be used to inform choices that enable the design to develop. Harding is keen to point out that the tool still allows for a huge degree of variation as determined by constraints like site, context, climate and budget. He also stresses that analysis can be done at high speed and in real time, empowering the design team to quickly understand the consequences of massing variations.

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