Is there a BIM architecture?

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November 24, 2014 by Ike Ijeh

Despite being ostensibly termed a “design tool”, BIM is never normally associated with what a building looks like. BIM’s capabilities are usually aligned to more procedural matters such as team co-ordination, facilities management, 3D visualisation and data control, with architectural characteristics rarely considered to be directly determined by BIM. However, as BIM’s impact across architecture and construction grows, might this increasingly be the case?

Phil Bernstein, architect and vice-president at software giant Autodesk and the man widely credited with first coining the term “BIM”, has said in the past that there was a strong correlation between some of the architectural forms of the Eighties and the launch of early AutoCAD software.

“If you go back to the early Eighties there is absolutely no doubt that you could identify which buildings were designed using AutoCAD. The proliferation of various geometric shapes and curves showed that the tools became the form.”

Is the same thing happening now? Is the growing use of BIM software leading to an emerging style of architecture with a consistent set of aesthetic characteristics? Some think this might be, as Russell Curtis, director of architectural practice RCKa, explains. “BIM is not a design tool but increasingly it can contribute to what a building looks like. The use of parametric algorithms in design is certainly something that can, at least in part, be attributed to BIM software and there are certain aspects visible in elements like procedural cladding systems that can also be said to have originated from BIM.”

In the Eighties, the influence of AutoCAD software was principally architecturally conveyed in the agglomeration of simple geometric shapes, such as spheres, rotundas and triangles, combined to generate architectural form. This can be partially attributed to the popularity of post-modern architecture at the time which revelled in the almost child-like simplicity of bright colours and distinct shapes. But for many like Bernstein, these aesthetics were also linked to the constraints and capabilities of the fledgling CAD software of the time.

What might be the equivalent architectural characteristics of BIM-inspired buildings? Ironically, it would probably be the opposite of the simplicity espoused by AutoCAD. Complex facades, the juxtaposition of several materials, greater facade articulation in the form of multiple recesses and projections and the use of divergent geometric shapes of varying complexity to construct the building’s form.

According to Curtis, “this kind of thing is particularly evident in the commercial sector”, but there are perhaps traces of it within the residential architecture sector too, particularly in larger inner-city developments. Curtis also points out that the deployment of an unnecessarily large palette of materials might also be the result of planning intervention with the customary emphasis on “contextual integration”.

However, for Curtis, the influence of BIM on a building’s appearance goes beyond architectural style characteristics alone. “It’s very important that the design vision is what’s in the architect’s mind and not the computer’s. BIM has the potential to be hugely empowering for architects and it can give us the opportunity to regain some of the ground that has been lost to other areas of the industry.

“But the danger with BIM is that clients might be so impressed with what they think we as architects can do technologically that they forget what’s really important: the design. For us, architecture is about responding to context and not about getting caught up with the technology.”

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